Shelf Life Blog

07/31/2012 - 3:31am
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

On the surface Gone Girl reads like a whodunit thriller, and it makes a great summer read--but it’s also a literary novel in disguise with its imagery of a landscape of an economic wasteland, the characters’ moral bankruptcy, and its themes of identity and marriage. It’s been the book of the summer for me.

On their fifth anniversary, Nick Dunne comes home, and his wife Amy is gone. The initial crime scene: an open door, the ottoman turned over, broken glass, and the iron left on.  Instead of beginning with “boy meets girl,” the plot starts with “boy loses girl.” Detectives arrive and the media circus begins.

Told in alternating he said/she said chapters, we learn the back story of Nick and Amy.  Gilliam Flynn throws her readers red herrings with sneaky abandon. I found myself shifting loyalties back and forth from Team Amy to Team Nick and then being horrified and guiltily fascinated with both of them.

07/30/2012 - 3:31am
Slide book cover image

Vee Bell has narcolepsy in Slide by Jill Hathaway. Or at least that’s what her family and friends think. Once, Vee tried to tell her father the truth, but he sent her to a shrink who didn’t believe her either. Now she doesn’t even dare tell even her best friend.

Sliding. That’s what Vee thinks of it as. When she gets too tired to fight it, she falls asleep, but doesn’t dream. Instead, she enters other people’s minds. She can hear, smell, taste, and feel everything that they’re experiencing. Sliding only lasts for moments, but it is long enough to exhaust and sometimes scare her. She’s slid into backstabbing friends and teachers behaving badly. As a result, Vee takes constant caffeine pills to stay awake and is always just barely functioning.

07/22/2015 - 4:18pm
Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Adam Rex

Chloe and the Lion is not about a young girl facing off with a ferocious feline, no matter what the title says. Sure, Chloe's present, saving up her nickels and dimes to ride the merry-go-round. She does, in fact, spin around that ride so many times that she gets dizzy and lost in the nearby woods. It is at that very point that Chloe should meet a lion. Instead, a large, ferocious, winged, burgundy dragon steps out.

Writing a picture book is hard work. You must have a solid story, likable characters, and the right choice of words. What's more, this delicate balance can be completely thrown out of whack by a maverick illustrator who thinks that "a dragon would be cooler."

09/29/2016 - 3:52pm
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

In Train Dreams, Denis Johnson constructs a melancholy portrait of the U.S. frontier. Instead of focusing on the raw potential and opportunity most associate with the Western expansion, Johnson elucidates the isolation and stasis involved in “taming” a wild place. Johnson artfully constructs a non-linear account of Robert Grainier’s life on the frontier. Through Grainier’s perspective, we witness the rapid transformation of America – from railroad construction to the proliferation of sleek highways; from influenza epidemics to a random encounter with Elvis Presley. Despite the changes going on around him, Grainier remains a lonely outsider, observing the world’s expedited evolution from a distance.

07/24/2012 - 7:34am
The Forgotten History of America by Cormac O'Brien

History, particularly popular history, need not be dull, something that Cormac O’Brien demonstrates readily in his book, The Forgotten History of America. Written in a conversational tone and broken into vignettes, old history is made new when written this way. Even so, it’s not the standard stuff taught in schools. It’s about wars and both sides in those wars, reaching back to the country’s colonial beginnings in the 16th century. With personalities writ large on both sides and a good understanding of the differences in modern and historical society, O’Brien leads his readers on journeys back in time:

It begins with the first permanent European settlement in North America:


Pedro Menedez de Aviles anxiously paced the deck of his flagship, San Pelayo. Two days earlier, off the coast of Florida, he had gone ashore and met with Indians who offered valuable information about the prey he was desperately seeking.  Now, confident of success, he led his five vessels northward along the coastline, scanning the beaches for any sign of European settlement.  The day was September 4, 1565, and Menendez was hunting heretics.

07/23/2012 - 8:51am

Bitterblue takes place eight years after the end of Kristin Cashore’s earlier novel, Graceling. At the end of that book, ten-year-old Princess Bitterblue became Queen of Monsea upon the death of her father, the vicious psychopath, King Leck. Bitterblue is still trying to help her country recover from the trauma of her father’s 35-year reign of terror. Leck held the kingdom in thrall by controlling people’s thoughts, changing their memories so they always believed he was a kind and caring ruler while he really terrorized the citizens. Because of her youth, Bitterblue has relied heavily on her advisors who promote what they call a forward-thinking agenda. They urge her to pardon everyone for any crimes committed during Leck’s reign and encourage everyone to simply forget that anything bad happened.

07/19/2012 - 3:31am
Over in the Ocean: In a Coral Reef by Marianne Berkes, illustrated by Jeanette C

Over in the ocean

Far away from the sun

Lived a mother octopus

And her octopus one

In Over in the Ocean: In a Coral Reef, Marianne Berkes adapts the classic song, “Over in the Meadow,” to life in a coral reef. This counting rhyme explores ocean life from stingrays to puffer fish to seahorses. This engaging picture book invites interaction on many levels. The fun counting song includes many factual details about the coral reef habitat and the animals that live there with their babies. Whether they are squirting, puffing, jumping or skittering, the actions of each creature accurately reflects their real-life behavior.

07/18/2012 - 10:24am
The Heaven Answer Book by Billy Graham

Where is Heaven? How do we know there is life after death? What do you say to someone who doesn't believe in Heaven? All good questions, which the inexhaustible evangelist Billy Graham has answered over the course of his long life. In this brand-new, beautifully-packaged little book are gathered--and edited--the answers to these and many other questions on the topic of death and Heaven.

07/17/2012 - 3:31am
A Year in Japan by Kate T. Williamson

Part graphic memoir, part travelogue, A Year in Japan offers a unique perspective on everyday life in Japan. In this charming, whimsical book, Kate T. Williamson adopts a counterintuitive approach to travel writing. Rather than striving to represent the grand, monumental aspects of Japanese culture and history, Williamson focuses on capturing the minutiae--fragmented memories, experiences, and revelations that emerged during the year she spent living in Kyoto. As a Westerner, Williamson has an outsider’s perspective on Japan. But because she had the opportunity to live there and become enmeshed in another way of life, Williamson was able to glean insights and perspectives that would be invisible to your run-of-the-mill tourist. Williamson’s artistic talent also helps concretize her observations, creating an enchanting combination of vivid, unexpected descriptions and beautifully rendered watercolor illustrations.

07/22/2015 - 4:17pm
Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel

Frank Gallows has some explaining to do. The burned-out ghost wrangler has just sent an innocent child into the world of the dead. The kid's name is Garth Hale. In the regular world, he's just your average boy...who also happens to have a terminal illness. But Garth discovers that he has some quite extraordinary powers in Ghostopolis.

No living souls have ever made it back to the regular world, so Mr. Gallows is losing his job for this big-time screw up. The fact that Garth didn't have much time to live in the first place makes the situation even worse. Gallows has to hang up hunting those ghosts who wish to remain in the land of the living. He'll never have the pleasure of capturing repeater offender Benedict Arnold. No, Gallows has to right this wrong. Luckily, his ex-fiancée Claire Voyant has a machine that can take you back and forth between the worlds. Frank is going to have to play nice.


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