NPR's Best Books of 2015

NPR recently released its Best Books of 2015 list, an in depth yearly endeavor where critics and NPR staff choose their favorite books of the year and compile them into a genre-spanning list of several hundred titles. I love that, along with the expected books on the list that are getting accolades from numerous publications and organizations, NPR’s list always contains more obscure titles that many readers likely missed over the course of the year.

You can view all of the titles from the list that we have available in our catalog here.

So what’s on this list of nearly 300 books? Here’s a preview:

In Speak, by Louisa Hall, a young Puritan woman travels to America with her unwanted husband, while in other time and place Alan Turing writes letters to his best friend’s mother and a Jewish refugee tries to reconnect with his distant wife. Elsewhere in time and space, a lonely young girl speaks with an intelligent software program and a formerly celebrated Silicon Valley entrepreneur is imprisoned for making illegal lifelike dolls. How does Hall tie all these characters together? As they all try somehow to communicate across gaps, Hall connects their stories, creating an amazing book that is a blend of historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy.

V is for Vegetables offers more than 140 simple recipes for cooking vegetables in unique and unexpected ways at home. Author and chef Michael Anthony has cleverly divided the chapters of the book by vegetable, so if you ever find yourself staring at kohlrabi or tomatillos in the grocery store, curious about how one cooks such things, this is the book for you! And even expert cooks will be refreshed by Anthony’s new ideas for ways to use common vegetables like broccoli, tomatoes, carrots and squash.

The Battle of Versailles tells of a little-known event that took place at the Palace of Versailles: as a fundraiser for the restoration of the palace, the world’s elite gathered in the grand theater there for a “fashion competition” of sorts: five American designers (including Oscar de la Renta and Anne Klein) faced off against five French designers considered to be the best designers in the world—Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy and others. The American clothes were expected to be a laughingstock but instead, the garments and the energy of the models who wore them wowed the crowd. By the end of the evening, American fashion in the world had transformed from a footnote to an enormous influence, not only on style itself but also on the way race, gender, sexuality and economics were treated in fashion in the years to come.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #569

The Drifter * by Nicholas Petrie (a Hopwood Awards winner while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan) introduces to Jack Reacher fans a new cult hero.

Lt. Peter Ash, a highly decorated former Marine (Iraq and Afghanistan), suffers debilitating claustrophobia, a form of PTSD that drives him outdoors, living rough for over a year. Only the death of his former sergeant/best friend Jimmy Johnson could force him to return to the dilapidated Milwaukee neighborhood.

While making repairs on the crumbling porch on the Johnson's house, Peter finds more than he bargained for: the largest, ugliest, meanest dog and a Samsonite suitcase stuffed with cash and explosives. As Peter begins to track down the owner of the suitcase, he finds himself at the center of a conspiracy plot that is far larger, more sinister and deadlier than he could have imagined.

"A powerful, empathetic, and entertaining tale about the plight many combat veterans face when they come home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Top-notch storytelling."

“A tangled tale of intrigue, action, and adventure with a battle-scarred hero who definitely rises to the challenge. The clever plot is firmly conceived and crisp writing makes this a terrific story." ~ Steve Berry.

* = starred review

Beyond the Birds and Bees

Do you know kids who are ready to learn about the facts of life, from preschoolers who want to know where their new baby sibling came from, to adolescents dealing with puberty and sex? We have two perfect books for you, both written by sex educator Cory Silverberg and beautifully illustrated by Fiona Smyth! With bright, cheerful illustrations, straightforward text, and true diversity, these books blow other sex and puberty books away.

What Makes a Baby is for younger children who are just learning about where babies come from. The book explains that sperm and an egg are needed to make a baby. What Makes a Baby uses precise language but leaves it up to the reader to explain where their little one came from. This leaves the book open for use by any kind of family- a refreshing change for families that are usually relegated to a footnote. The illustrations boast a wealth of different kinds of families and the book emphasizes the joy that a new baby brings.

When your kids start to wonder about puberty and sex, check out Sex is a Funny Word, which is as bright and cheerful as What Makes a Baby, but longer and more advanced. This book describes sex in completely inclusive language that relates to all orientations, genders, and gender identities. It also pulls in concepts like respect, trust, joy, and justice to explain how sex fits into a bigger picture of the world. Sex is a Funny Word explores puberty, body parts, safe and unsafe touch, crushes, and so much more! The text is completely nonjudgmental and incredibly diverse.

Simply put, these books are spectacular! Go check them out!

President Obama and the First Lady share their favorite books of 2015

In a recent interview with People magazine, President Obama and First Lady Michelle shared their favorite books of 2015. The President chose Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, as his favorite book of the year. Spanning twenty-four years, the acclaimed novel is a fascinating portrait of a marriage, told first from the husband’s perspective and, in the second half, from the wife’s perspective. With elements of Greek Tragedy, Fates and Furies throws fitting themes at the reader; betrayal, passion, forgiveness, and vengeance all interweave themselves throughout the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s relationship, from their courtship, into the glamorous early years of their marriage, through their journey into middle age. Groff’s brilliant idea to paint one picture for readers in the first half of the novel, and then upend it in the second half by switching narrators is a deafening reminder that there are two sides to every story. The book is a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award.

First Lady Michelle Obama also chose a portrait of a marriage for her favorite book of the year: Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir The Light of the World, which details the sudden death of her husband and her ensuing feelings, reactions and experiences. Some of her emotions surprise her: she feels an intense gratitude for the years that she and her husband were able to share together and a renewed devotion to her two young sons. She details her quest for meaning, understanding and acceptance of the tragedy that has befallen her in beautiful prose, seamlessly switching from her typical medium of poetry. “This beautifully written book is for anyone who has loved and lost,” reads the jacket. “It’s about being strong when you want to collapse, about being grateful when someone has been stolen from you—it’s discovering the truth in your life’s journey: the good, the bad and the ugly.”

The Obamas also shared their favorite TV shows and songs from 2015. The First Lady’s favorite song of the year was “Uptown Funk.”

New wisdom from Stillwater the panda bear: Zen Socks

When the picture book Zen Shorts was published in 2005, my family and I immediately fell in love with the beautiful illustrations and the simple, yet infinitely wise lessons taught gently to three young siblings by Stillwater, the giant panda bear. When the three children are confronted with the daily tribulations that life so often presents to us, Stillwater turns these situations into learning opportunities about the importance of generosity, when to express frustration, and the boundaries of good and bad. Author John J. Muth continued enlightening us with Stillwater's wisdom in Zen Ties in 2008 and Zen Ghosts in 2010, and now I am thrilled that Stillwater is back in Zen Socks, published this year. In Zen Socks, siblings Leo and Molly are excited about their move to a new neighborhood, and are particularly excited about their new giant panda neighbor (Stillwater, of course)! As the three become friends, the kids learn about patience, sharing and compassion, prodded serenely along by Stillwater.

The tenderness with which the lessons are taught in these books, the hints of Japanese philosophy and the gorgeous illustrations make them wonderful for all ages. My mom has bought Zen Shorts for a holiday gift for kids AND adults for years now. Muth has really given us all a treat to add to our book collections with this series.

Lila: Raw and Beautiful

After repeated suggestions to read Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer prize winning novel, I gave in and picked up the book's prequel, Lila, a 2014 National Book Award Finalist itself, as a starting point. I picked it up and, in a sense, I don’t think I will ever put it down. It did what an excellent book should do: it twisted my heart and in so doing challenged my way of thinking, and my compassion.

"Lila" follows the inward and outward journey of a wandering street girl to whom hardship is just a way of life. She has endured childhood abuse, the shame of a whore house, and the hunger pains and hardness of a life on the run. This background has become more than an experience but an identity. Though Lila's particular tragedies are hers alone, her questions and struggles strike a universal cord and make her achingly relatable. Which of us has not felt alone in a room of friends, or tried to earn the gifts of love and acceptance even when freely given? Which of us do not doubt our place in the world, or try to self-purge shame and fear? When Lila unexpectedly finds herself in the kind, small town of Gilead with the new comforts of a house, family, and community, she now wrestles with receiving this grace of the present. It seems unfitting to the tainted Lila she sees herself to be.

Lila slowly transforms as she works through an unlikely romance with an aging pastor who does not view her colored by her past, and offers her Hosea-like love. Far from stereotypical, rather than sermonizing the reader and wrapping up answers to age-old questions with a bow, this pastor is raw and human with his own pains and his own searchings. Together with us this pair considers troublesome questions that remain unsatisfied with trite answers. Questions such as what do we make of a world of suffering? What would it look like to be made new? How do we love flawed people who can display towards us both good and evil? And how do we live in light of loss? Together they learn to receive grace for themselves, and allow grace to transform their scars into compassion for others.

Marilynne Robinson has given us a book that is raw, humble, honest, and beautiful. Through her I am learning compassion for those I relate to least. Her wisdom challenges me to resist simplifying knotted questions, and in the not knowings to live in light of the gifts of grace.

If you have already enjoyed "Lila" as I have, you may also enjoy these finds:

Someone (2013) by Alice McDermott

The Thing About December by Donal Ryan

Benediction by Kent Haruf

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

Crossover Graphic Novels- December edition special TV/Movie tie-in edition!

This month we're going to take a look at some of the great comics that have TV or movie tie-ins. Sometimes watching a show or a movie just isn't enough and you want more. Thankfully we live in a wonderful time where comic book companies have realizes this and provide us with sometimes hundreds of issues of our favorite movies and shows in comic form. So without further ado here are some great graphic novels that are wonderful for kids and adults alike!

With Star Wars Episode VII:The Force Awakens just a mere 10 days from release now is a great time to catch up on the Star Wars universes wonderful comics. From comics that are humourous (such as the Star Wars Jedi Academy series), to the continuation of the Star Wars Clone Wars Adventures, and even Manga style Empire Strikes Back. So while you count down the days until The Force Awakens why not read some excellent graphic novels.

The longest running animation in US history is The Simpsons and it's no surprise that they have been making Simpsons comics for quite a while now (Bart even has his own series of comics if you can't get enough of his antics!). What is surprising is that the comics feel like the show and if you're familiar with the characters than it is entirely possible that you will read the comics in their voices! The comics keep the feel of the show without duplicating the actual episodes, so if you have seen all the episodes and still want more (or even if you haven't seen them all) then The Simpsons Comic is for you!!!

Teen Titans is a great show for fans of the DC comic world and their latest series "Teen Titans Go" is wonderful as well, but now in a move that turns your favorite comic book turned TV stars back into a comic you can read the first volume of the newly release Teen Titans Go comic. The artwork is identical to the cartoon and so if you need more Teen Titans in your life then Teen Titans Go Voume 1: Party Part! is just the comic for you!

Gruesome folk(ish) tales in comic form.

The Saint's Eyes and other stories by C.Frakes is a collection of stories that all share one thing in common, they are all weird in the original sense of the word. They have something out of the ordinary, something slightly mystical and sometimes gruesome to them. My favorite of the stories is a woman talking about her life and the curse that she's been placed under. At first you don't notice anything strange but as the panels progress you get a better understanding of just who the woman was.

The artwork is simple, but it works with the style of stories that are being told. The simple lines and lack of shading in the comics give it a whimsical feel that plays well with the stories and creates something that is great.

If you enjoy short stories told in comic form and folk tales then The Saint's Eyes and other stories is definitely for you!

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #568

The Improbability of Love * * * is film director and documentarian Hannah Rothschild's debut novel, spinning "a dazzling tale--both irreverent and entertaining--of a many-layered, devious world where, in the end, love triumphs."

The novel opens on a blistering July day when all of London (and the world) turn out at the auction of THE painting - "the first time that a painting has been marketed with a world tour, a biography, an app, its own website, a motion picture and a documentary film", a painting rescued from a junk shop only 6 months before, after languishing behind a rubber plant for 50 years. 300-years ago, an unheralded Antoine Watteau created an homage to his unrequited love, entitled The Improbability of Love. Along the way, it passed through the hands of emperors, popes, and kings before finding its way to Nazi Germany.

Annie McDee, recovering from a long-term relationship, relocates to London and works as a chef for owners of Winkleman Fine Art. On impulse she buys a lovely little painting as a gift for a new and unsuitable boyfriend, and innocently sets off an art-world and geopolitical cataclysm.

"An opulently detailed, suspensefully plotted, shrewdly witty novel of decadence, crimes ordinary and genocidal... the book is at its best when delving into the lives of the many people affected by the Watteau."

"Rothschild packs the narrative with vivid details, especially about art and food (she is a Trustee of the Tate, and in 2015 became the first woman to chair the National Gallery, London). For readers who particularly enjoy the blend of art, mystery and intrigue, as in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch; Nicole Kruass' The History of Love ; and B.A. Shapiro's The Art Forger.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

You Want Cute? I'll Give You Cute!

And I mean it. If you're looking for an adorable manga to read, Wish is the series for you. This short 4-volume series is written and illustrated by CLAMP, a publication company known for their all-female staff and famous for series such as xxxholic, Tsubasa Chronicle, and Chobits.

In Wish we meet Kohaku, an angel who has come to Earth to find one of the missing Angel Masters. Kohaku isn't necessarily the best angel for the job though. She's clumsy and a little dense, but she has a pure soul and is considered one of God's favorite angels! Luckily for her, she meets Shuichiro at the beginning of her journey when he saves her from a raven. In order to repay his kindness, Kohaku promises to grant Shuichiro one wish, but when Shuichiro says there's nothing he'd wish for, Kohaku stays at his place until he can come up with one. During her stay, Kohaku and Shuichiro have to deal with the demon Koryu, who loves picking on Kohaku. And lets not forget Kohaku's mission! God has only allowed Kohaku to come to Earth for a short period of time, so can she find the missing Angel Master? And put up with Koryu's teasing? AND deal with Kokuyo, the son of Satan? AND what about these odd feelings she has when she's with Shuichiro?! Poor Kohaku... Anyway, check it out if you're wanting a cute series with angels, demons, and of course, love.

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