A Shining Debut

M.L. Stedman's debut novel, The Light Between Oceans, is at once touching, tragic, and full of hope. After returning from four traumatic years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne takes up the post as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote island off the coast of Australia. On his way to the island he stays in a small coastal town and meets and marries Isabel – vivacious, beautiful and impulsive. Years later, after suffering two miscarriages and a stillbirth, Isabel is lost in grief.

One morning, Isabel hears a baby's cry and she and Tom find a small boat carrying a dead man and a baby girl. Tom wishes to report the boat, but Isabel is reluctant. She convinces Tom to "adopt" the baby as their own daughter. Two years later, the Sherbourne family – Tom, Isabel and little Lucy – return to the mainland to find that Lucy’s birth mother has been searching for her missing husband and daughter since their disappearance.

The Light Between Oceans is a haunting and heartbreaking novel of a couple's struggle for the healing power of family, and a mother's unwavering devotion in a world where one person's fortuitous "find" can mean another person's catastrophic loss.

Middle-School Novel Celebrates Human Kindness

One of the best books I have read recently is Wonder by R.J. Palacio. A recommendation by youth librarians, the book champions kindness in a way that somehow manages not to be preachy. It also reflects the value of loving one's family and not judging people by appearance.

The star of the novel is August ("Auggie") Pullman, age 10, who was born with extreme facial abnormalities. His mother homeschooled him until fifth grade; as the novel opens he is about to enter a private middle school in Manhattan. The novel covers Auggie's turbulent first year, as he struggles to be seen as just another kid. He is gentle and bright, but faces heartbreaking challenges to fit in.

Written for readers in about fourth through seventh grades, the book is entirely believable in its presentation of various personalities and challenges faced by middle-school kids. As the story moves along, the characters develop and grow. Multiple narrators -- Auggie, two new friends at school, Auggie's sister (struggling as she starts high school), and his sister's one-time best friend -- add richness and balance to the story. Auggie's parents are unforgettable, as are his friends, which he does make, one by one.

Moonrise Kingdom, on DVD

Moonrise Kingdom, written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, is director Wes Anderson’s seventh film. Set on an island off the coast of New England in 1965, the film centers around twelve-year-old Sam Shakusky, an orphan who is attending scout camp for the summer. The previous year Sam met fellow twelve-year-old Suzy Bishop and she is heavily in his thoughts this summer. Both outsiders, they exchange letters as they begin to fall in love and eventually make a pact to meet. With Sam armed with camping gear and Suzy armed with a suitcase of stolen library books, the two meet and set off to run away together. Meanwhile, Suzy’s family and Sam’s scout troop are on the hunt to track them down. After many comedic adventures among all involved, a mammoth storm, and many twists and turns, the youths are found, and whimsical drama ensues.

For those familiar with Anderson’s film style, Moonrise Kingdom fits the bill for image, mood, and soundtrack. Other typical Anderson-isms include quirky characters, witty dialog, and a wonderfully charming story. This one piqued my interest because the main protagonists are children, while Anderson’s films usually feature dysfunctional adults. It is a rare treat to see him create the world of these sophisticated children. The film gets bonus points for starring Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, and Frances McDormand.

Life Boats and Tigers and Boys - Oh My!

Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel that follows a young man through a perilous journey – both physically and psychologically – and shows that life, no matter how tragic and hopeless it can seem, is always worth fighting for.

Pi Patel, the title character in Yann Martel's 2001 novel, is not an ordinary teenager. He is a practicing Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, and grew up with his parents and brother in a zoo in Pondicherry, India. When Pi is sixteen years old, his family decides to sell the zoo and move to Canada due to political unrest in India. A few days into the journey the family's ship sinks, and Pi finds himself the sole human survivor on a life boat with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Soon, Pi is left alone in the life boat with the tiger. The two set out across the Pacific on a journey that explores faith, strength, and the line between the truth and the stories we tell ourselves in order to cope with the tragedies and triumphs of life.

The much-anticipated film version of "Life of Pi" is scheduled for release in late November. Take a look at the film's website.

Author of 'Ungifted' To Visit AADL

In the delightful teen novel Ungifted, by Gordon Korman, Donovan Curtis's devilish prank lands him in boiling water at Hardcastle Middle School. He escapes punishment when administrators accidentally transfer him to the school for gifted students. Braniacs and teachers there sense something is off -- but Donovan also brings a certain unique, welcome spark to the school. Gradually he makes a place for himself on the robotics team, and later offers up his pregnant sister for observation in a human development course. Each chapter of this witty, imaginative story starts with the narrator's name and IQ.

Engaging and entertaining, the novel is a fun read and hard to put down. It was the first book by Korman that I have read, and I was happy to learn he has written more than fifty middle-grade and teen novels, including the bestselling titles The 39 Clues: One False Note and Schooled. When Korman was in seventh grade, his English teacher told the class they could have 45 minutes a day for four months to work on a story of their choice, according to Bowker Author Biography. Korman began This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, which became his first published book. Gordon Korman will visit the AADL Pittsfield Branch on November 6 at 3 pm in an event for Grades 4-12.

Illusions, Wonders and Nights at the Circus

Lose yourself inside the black-and-white world of Le Cirque des Rêves, the enchanting fantasy world in Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, The Night Circus. Morgenstern weaves a tale of illusion, passion, romance and rivalry between two illusionists set in a 19th century circus. This novel is a feast for the senses, a magical ride for a reader who loves a slowly-unfolding story full of descriptive and elegant prose and detailed imagery.

Le Cirque des Rêves, or The Circus of Dreams, is not an ordinary circus. It arrives in towns without warning, mysteriously, as if appearing out of thin air. It opens at dusk and closes at dawn, and houses within its wrought-iron gates black-and-white tents full of grand illusions and hidden magic.

The circus itself is a remarkable world, but ultimately serves as a performance space for the two key characters, Celia Bowen (the daughter of a famed illusionist, Prospero the Enchanter) and Marco Alisdair (student of the Mysterious Mr. A.H.). The two illusionists are unwillingly – and for a time, unknowingly – pitted against each other in a game of magical talent and ingenuity. The game is simple: the best illusionist wins, the loser pays a terrible price. But when love gets in the way… the price may be higher than Celia or Marco could have anticipated.

Tiny Furniture on DVD

Lena Dunham is the director, writer and star of Tiny Furniture, an independent dramatic feature film released by The Criterion Collection. The film centers around Aura, who has recently graduated from college and returns home to New York to her mother’s house and now has the task of figuring out her life. She struggles with employment, and with her relationships with love interests, as well as her friends and family.

As is the trend of recent low-budget indie films, it is dialog heavy and features a young protagonist finding her way. Aura is deep in the dilemma of being young and aimless, but is also at the point where she knows responsibility should be taken; she just doesn’t know which direction to turn. The film also subtly focuses around her relationship with her mother, who is a grounded and successful artist. Interestingly, Aura’s mother and sister in the film are portrayed by Dunham’s real-life mother and sister, so there’s extra chemistry among the actors.

In addition to sharp dialog, Dunham also blesses viewers with great composition and visually appealing images on the screen. It’s a charming little film, and even though the subject matter is slow and heavy, it’s filled with witty dialog that keeps you amused, and it has a touching ending. As a bonus, The Criterion Collection DVD release also features Dunham’s first feature film, "Creative Nonfiction," and four of her short films.

Grown in Detroit

Detroit is a city that has been reviving itself for decades, as new generations bring new life to the city. With the city’s growth has also come growth in urban agriculture, as people are turning vacant lots into fertile land. Some call it the greening of a gray city.

The documentary film Grown in Detroit focuses on a group of students at Detroit’s Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a high school for pregnant teens, as they work in the school's urban garden and learn how to grow nutritious food for their children. One of only three schools in the country for this population, the curriculum focuses on helping these teens care for themselves and their children, and uses urban farming as a means to teach them.

The students featured in Grown in Detroit are at first underwhelmed by the amount of physical labor required for farming. The teen moms eventually realize that they can profit from the food they are growing, as well as provide nutritious food for their children and themselves, all stemming from the fruits of their labor. It’s a beautiful film that places an eye on this unique opportunity happening for these girls -- right here in Detroit.

In addition to being available on DVD at AADL, the film is also available for instant online streaming to logged-in AADL cardholders here! You can also watch it on the Grown in Detroit website, where you pay whatever denomination you want in order to view it.

Powerful Teen Novel: Personal Effects

Personal Effects is a well-written, highly engaging, debut novel by E.M. Kokie, an attorney in Madison, Wisconsin, who has long been drawn to teen literature. Readers will find humor, compassion, excitement, and a memorable coming-of-age story in these pages.

The story opens as 17-year-old Matt Foster is trying to recover from the death of his older brother, T.J., in Iraq. Matt is failing classes at school, fighting with classmates, and trying to tune out his father's command that he follow T.J.'s steps to the military after high school. When T.J.'s stuff -- some of the “personal effects” in the title -- are shipped home, Matt thinks sneaking to go through them will help put closure on his grief. Instead, he unearths letters and secrets about his brother's identity, strength, honor, and bravery that show him that he did not know T.J. as well as he thought he did.

As Matt comes to terms with his brother’s life and death, he begins to better stand his ground with his dad and to become the hero of his own unfolding young-adult life. Matt’s high-school girlfriend, Shauna, is an intriguing and charming character who contributes much to the page-turning magnetism of the narrative. I hope Ms. Kokie is writing more books!

Grief Breeds Drama in The Invisible Ones

Stef Penney, bestselling author of her debut novel The Tenderness of Wolves, continues her repertoire with her second novel, The Invisible Ones. Both novels contain suspense-filled stories weaved with strands of mystery and shrouded in intrigue. Penney’s first novel was set among trappers in 19th century Canada. The Invisible Ones delves into the more recent past, focusing on the Gypsy/Romany community of 1980s England.

Private investigator Ray Lovell is not surprised when Leon Wood will only accept his help in discovering what happened to his daughter, Rose Janko, after her disappearance six years ago. Mr. Wood, a member of the Romany community in England, refuses to go to the police, but he is willing to trust Ray because of his Romany heritage. The mystery begins in the present with Ray in the hospital hovering between states of delirium as paralysis grips his body. The story continues to alternate between present and past, including insights into the investigation and viewpoints from Rose's nephew, JJ. Not surprisingly, the Janko family is hard to crack. Not only can the story be difficult to put down from the nagging questions that need to be answered, but Penney's book takes a close look at the culture of Romany families today, including their customs and traditions.

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