Category Archives: Fiction

The Giver

the giverOne of my New Year’s resolutions this year is to read more books that are considered to be classics.  I decided to kick off this resolution by reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a book that is a staple on many young adult reading lists, and that I feel I should have read long ago.

Jonas is an eleven-year-old boy who grew up in the Community, a place where everyone has a role to play and where people thrive on sameness.  Jonas anxiously awaits the Ceremony of Twelves, where he and his classmates will receive their assignments for their role in the community and take their first steps into adulthood.  But Jonas isn’t assigned–he is selected, selected for a very prestigious and rare role, known as the Receiver.  As the Receiver, Jonas works with the Giver to receive memories of things and feelings from “back and back and back” and Jonas begins to wonder whether the Community’s commitment to efficiency and sameness is wrong, or possibly even sinister.

The Giver is a story that celebrates difference by imagining a world in which everyone is the same.  Even if the story is rather predictable at times, it’s not any less powerful or gripping.  This book is a quick read, and I’m very glad I finally picked it up!

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. New York: Random House, 1993.

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Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery

angel de la lunaAngel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, by M. Evelina Galang, is a beautifully unique young adult novel, set in the Philippines.  After her father dies and her mother moves to the U.S. to pursue the American dream, Angel has to come to grips with her new role as head of the family.  As she settles into this new role, she comes to learn more about herself, her country, and what she believes in.  She finds a place and a purpose, but before long her life is uprooted again when her mother sends for her to come and live in Chicago.  Angel struggles in Chicago, with a new family, a new school, new friends, and even a new language.  She acts out and expresses herself the only way she knows how–by playing the drums like her father taught her.  She has to find who she is in America, and more importantly, she has to learn how to forgive.

Galang is a strong storyteller.  She has created a heroine who is truly original and has given her the sort of life most people can hardly imagine.  Angel is recognizable as an ordinary teen girl who makes mistakes, but is also a great role model; she is smart, responsible, and even involved in politics.  The story is split into two sections (the first set in the Philippines and the second set in Chicago), and this abrupt setting change helps the reader and Angel herself discover her identity and what really matters in life.

Galang is a well known and highly respected Filipina-American, and she has written a contemporary young adult classic.  While I felt that the story started off a little slow, it truly blossomed into the sort of story that makes you think and that sticks with you even after you’ve turned the last page!

Galang, M. Evelina. Angel De La Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2013.

Cover and book design by Linda S. Koutsky.  Cover copyright Niki Escobar.  Image from

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The Color Master

the color masterI don’t tend to read short story collections very often, generally gravitating towards novels, but an intriguing recommendation from a friend led me to pick up Aimee Bender’s The Color Master.  And I am glad I listened to her, because her recommendation led me to one of my new favorite books!

I think what drew me into this collection more than others was the sense of fairy tale that ran throughout the stories.  Aimee Bender writes in a clear, engaging way and has a brilliant imagination that enchants the reader.  While at first glance each story is about ordinary people living ordinary lives, there is a spark of magic in every story that makes them something special.  In one story, a talented seamstress is hired to mend tigers; in another a girl meets a stranger who happens to have a ring exactly like the one she threw in the river years ago; and in the title piece, the workers at a tailor shop strive to create the perfect blend of colors to make dresses the color of the moon, sun, and sky.

I look forward to checking out Aimee Bender’s other work, and while I was not a fan of short story collections before, after reading The Color Master I’ve been converted, and I certainly am now!

Bender, Aimee. The Color Master. New York: Doubleday, 2013.

Book design by Maria Carella.  Jacket design by Emily Mahon.  Tactile typographic art copyright Dominique Falla.  Image from

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And The Mountains Echoed

and the mountains echoedAnd The Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, is one of those books that has a difficult plot to describe.  If asked what this book was about, I guess I’d just have to say that it was about people.  It was about people and their respective lives and cultures, problems and triumphs, loves and losses.  It’s a story about connection and the collective human experience.

Khaled Hosseini is a splendid writer, but I knew that already from reading The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.  However, I would say that And The Mountains Echoed stands apart from the first two.  It follows a larger cast of characters than The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, takes place in a variety of countries around the world, and as my aunt put it, “It’s less depressing than his other two!”

Although I can’t entirely tell you what this book is about, I can tell you that it is a beautiful story with a satisfying ending that ties everything together and that it will leave you with that contented feeling that only a good book can provide!

Hosseini, Khaled. And The Mountains Echoed. New York: Riverhead, 2013.

Book design by Amanda Dewey and Claire Vaccaro.  Image from

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The Casual Vacancy

the casual vacancy

The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling, did not get very good reviews from the critics or from readers.  Most of the people who saw me reading it had comments like, “I was glad I got that one from the library so I could give it back.”  I’ll admit, I picked up this book simply because J.K. Rowling is the author, but I really was quite happy with it.   I think the disappointment many people had in this book came from unrealistic expectations, so I’ve made two shorts lists outlining whether or not The Casual Vacancy is for you.

DO NOT read The Casual Vacancy if you’re expecting:

1. Harry Potter.  Don’t expect a story of gigantic proportions like HP just because J.K. Rowling is the author.

2. A children’s book.  Dear lord, this is NOT a children’s book!  If you’re going to be offended by foul language and rather unpleasant topics and characters, this is not the book for you.

3. Action and adventure and excitement.  This is a story about a small country town and the little things that occupy the lives of its inhabitants.  And while little things can sure turn into a big deal, there are no great magical battles (sorry to disappoint you).

DO read The Casual Vacancy if you’re expecting:

1. Great characters.  The Casual Vacancy hosts a fairly large cast of characters, and each one has great depth and feeling.  Rowling includes the perfect about of background and detail to make each character a unique individual.  Even the character that dies in the first chapter, and thus sets in motion the events of the book, has depth and is an important character throughout the story.

2. A story about real life issues that matter.  This story examines the relationships between spouses, parents and children, friends, and neighbors; it examines bullying and abuse; it deals with poverty and teenage pregnancy; it delves into cutting and mental illness; and it deals with death and grieving.

3. A well-written book.  Hey, this is J.K. Rowling after all!

Rowling, J. K. The Casual Vacancy. London: Little, Brown and, 2012.

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On Sal Mal Lane

on sal mal laneOn Sal Mal Lane, by Ru Freeman, is a beautiful story of a neighborhood and of neighbors in the years leading up to war in Sri Lanka.  The book begins with the Herath family moving into their new house on Sal Mal Lane, in the capitol city of Colombo.  Before long, the Heraths settle in as residents of Sal Mal Lane, and the four children, Suren, Rashmi, Nihil, and Devi build a childhood full of friends, cricket, school, music, and play.  But all is not well in the country, with unrest surfacing first far away and then too close to home, forcing the residents of Sal Mal Lane to decide where their loyalties lie.

Freeman’s writing style is simply elegant, with an air of pure storytelling.  For lack of a better word, I would describe this book as a “slow” read, but slow like a perfect day when one has the feeling of having all the time in the world, not slow like lagging behind.  While this is a story about happy days full of childhood things, there is a thread of uneasiness under it all that Freeman creates with a few carefully chosen updates about the world outside of Sal Mal Lane which she then leaves here and there for readers to find.  And when this uneasiness culminates at the end, the reader is hit like a ton of bricks by the surprisingly powerful message On Sal Mal Lane has to offer.

On Sal Mal Lane is not a quick read, nor a fast-paced one, but when I finally closed the book on the last page I felt glad for knowing the story, for taking the time to savor each chapter and to let the story build in its own way.  This is a book that is worth reading!

Freeman, Ru. On Sal Mal Lane. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2013.

Cover design by Kimberly Glyder Design.  Cover art by Pallab Seth/Getty Images.  Image from

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roomA few months ago, a friend told me about a book called Room that she was currently reading and really enjoying.  So when I saw it on the list of books included in Barnes & Noble’s buy one Nook book, get one free weekend deal last weekend, I decided to give it a shot.

Room, by Emma Donoghue, is told entirely by five-year-old Jack about his life in Room, where he lives with his Ma.  And sometimes at night there’s Old Nick, but Jack isn’t allowed to come out of Wardrobe when Old Nick is there.  But now that Jack is five, Ma shares a secret with him–many years ago, Old Nick kidnapped Ma and there is actually a whole world outside of Room.  Jack’s not sure if he believes Ma, but before he knows it he is forced to question everything he knows.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading Room.  The first half of the book introduces the reader to Jack and Ma’s life in Room, and to the way Jack thinks/narrates.  But before I knew it, I was completely sucked in and couldn’t put the book down!  It became the kind of book that I couldn’t stop reading, even though it was 1:00 in the morning and I knew I’d regret staying up so late the next day.  Emma Donoghue made a great choice in Jack as the narrator, because Jack’s perspective really helps the reader to understand what it might be like to realize that your whole world is a lie and to suddenly discover a new one. The story is also eerily relevant, after what happened in Cleveland recently.  I highly recommend Room for anyone looking for a new and worthwhile read!

Donoghue, Emma. Room. New York: Little, Brown and, 2010.

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The Time Keeper

the timekeeper

Mitch Albom’s The Time Keeper is a modern folktale, a new story about an old character–Father Time.  Dor is an ordinary man, with an unusual obsession.  He measures and counts everything.  Soon he begins to devise ways to measure the day, to measure time, and he is the first human to do so.  But God did not want people to be restrained by time, so he punishes Dor by leaving him in a cave with no escape and nothing but the voices of every person asking for more time or for time to speed up or slow down.  But Dor’s penace is nearly finished, and he will return to the world to see the schedule he created and to make amends.

Albom has a knack for writing about topics that we perhaps don’t consciously think about but that can profoundly affect our lives.  Tuesdays With Morrie is concerned with grieving; The Five People You Meet In Heaven points out the importance of the people we meet and the relationships we are a part of; and now The Time Keeper explores the human phenomenon of counting the minutes rather than appreciating the big picture.

It didn’t take too long to apply Albom’s message to my own life.  I recently started a new job, and every day I bring a book to read during my break.  Last week, on a particularly slow day, I found myself doing exactly what the story cautions against: watching the clock and willing the minutes to move faster.  I was currently reading a book about how humans live by the clock and are constantly thinking about time, and there I was, doing exactly that!  Sometimes it’s important to forget about the time and just enjoy the moment for what it is, and regardless of how cliché that sentiment is, I would do better to remember that.  (But I still wished the minutes would hurry up so my shift would be over and I could go home!)

Albom, Mitch. The Time Keeper. New York: Hyperion, 2012.

Book design by Betty Lew.  Image from

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Woke Up Lonely

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In a world as interconnected as ours, people are lonelier than ever.  Enter the Helix, and its leader Thurlow Dan.  Lonely people all over the world join the Helix to get back to the basics and make connections with real people who feel the same way.  But is the Helix a support group for lonely people or is that a front for a secessionist cult with ties to North Korea?  And is Thurlow Dan, separated from his wife and daughter, actually the loneliest of them all?

Fiona Maazel is the brains behind Woke Up Lonely, a quick, quirky, contemporary novel.  Her writing style and grasp of storytelling make this a book that’s hard to put down.  The story’s themes of loneliness and family and connection in a world that is (supposedly) more interconnected than it’s ever been are incredibly relevant and Maazel’s story provides an interesting context in which to examine these themes.

I really enjoyed this book.  It came highly recommended, and it didn’t disappoint!  While reading, I alternated between having absolutely no idea what was going to happen next and thinking I could see where it was going–only to be proven wrong, time after time, right up to the end!  The unique cast of characters provides a number of perspectives, which lets readers of all sorts connect with the story in their own ways.

I was also fortunate enough to meet Fiona Maazel while visiting Graywolf Press with one of my classes.  She talked to us about being a writer and the publishing/editing process from the author’s point of view.  She was very upbeat and seemed so comfortable in her own skin and passionate about her work.  I was honored to meet her and to be able to tell her how much I liked Woke Up Lonely, regardless of the fact that I was not even halfway through the book at the time!  I look forward to what she will come up with in the future!

Maazel, Fiona. Woke Up Lonely. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2013.

Cover design by Alvaro Villanueva.  Cover photo from  Image from

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The Storyteller

Screen shot 2013-04-07 at 4.37.57 PMIt has been so long since I have read a book that I chose, that I wanted to read, and that I read for no other reason than that.  I guess that’s what happens when you are an English major and taking two classes that have “read” in their titles.  I am glad that I broke my reading for pleasure fast on Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller.

In The Storyteller, Picoult asks a lot of tough questions–tough questions that don’t have clear answers.  She asks, “Can people ever really change their ways?”  She asks, “Who can give forgiveness?”  She asks, “What does it mean to be a bad person?”

The story is about Sage, a young baker who has not yet found her way.  The story is also about Josef Weber, a well-loved man in his nineties with a secret past.  When Sage and Josef become friends, Josef asks for a favor–he asks Sage to help him kill himself.  But as Sage simultaneously learns more about Josef’s past and her grandmother’s past, she becomes less certain about what is the right thing to do.

Picoult has done the title justice.  She combines authentic characters with a perfectly pieced together plot and just the right amount of questions for the reader to think about.  I particularly liked the way she pulls the baking/bread motif through all aspects of the story and the way she examines the importance and power a story can hold for us.  She illustrates perfectly how humans are creatures of narrative, and how a story can save you, in more ways than one.

Picoult, Jodi. The Storyteller. New York: Atria/Emily Bestler, 2013.

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