“For heaven’s sake, what kind of superhero types?”  
submitted by Natalie

Newberry Award winner Kate DiCamillo’s latest story, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, is one of a girl and her superhero squirrel. She creates a cast of quirky characters that slowly rolls out through mishaps, disappointments, as well as small victories.

Flora Belle Buckman is a bit of an outsider and self-proclaimed cynic living with her mother. She spends much of her time reading. Flora often references her favorite superhero comic and a work of nonfiction titled "Terrible Things Can Happen To You!"

One afternoon, Flora’s reading is disturbed by the sound of neighbors vacuuming their yard. This strikes Flora as very odd so she decides to investigate the occurrence. As she looks out her window, Flora witnesses a squirrel being vacuumed up.

After the incident, we gain the unusual vantage of the squirrel’s perspective.
“His brain felt larger, roomier. It was as if several doors in the dark room of his self (doors he hadn’t known existed) had suddenly been flung wide.”

Not only has the squirrel has gained in consciousness but also in super rodent powers. He is surprisingly now strong enough to pick up the out of control vacuum and lift it over his tiny head. Other abilities come into play with flying being the least remarkable. Flora finds herself drawn to care for the injured squirrel and decides to name him Ulysses, likening his transformation to that of the hero in her beloved comic.

We are introduced to a whole host of characters that occupy Flora’s life:
  • Phyllis Buckman, her mother, an often preoccupied recently divorced romance novelist. She takes up a campaign to snuff out the squirrel and hands her ex-husband the shovel to do it with thus cementing her status as the villain of the book.
  • George Buckman, her socially anxious father, who bonds with his daughter by using comic book catchphrases such as “Holy unanticipated occurrences” and “This malfeasance must be stopped.”
  • Tootie Tickham, the neighbor who is constantly vacuuming.
  • William Spiver, the great-nephew of Tootie, who is temporarily (though questionably) blind.
  • Mary Ann, an ornamental shepherdess lamp. She is quite possibly treasured more than Flora by Phyllis.
There is a lot of loneliness in this menagerie. And a lot of snacks. With sprinkles even.

I was endeared to the pencil drawings of K.G. Campbell that "illuminate" Flora and Ulysses. They have a soft and kind quality that mirror the way the characters in the story slowly begin to interact with one another. Sometimes scenes are enacted in comic panels and other times small or full page illustrations accent DiCamillo’s writing.

It wasn't until the very last page that I felt the overall effect. It wasn’t nearly the tearjerker that was The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane or as great an adventure as The Tale of Despereaux but it left me with a happy feeling and a definite tendency to look a little closer at the squirrels.

Make sure to check out the book’s website, The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses.

If you are interested in Kate DiCamillo and her other works, visit her website.

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Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry 
submitted by Rob

"The chance you had is the life you've got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people's lives...but you mustn't wish for another life. You mustn't want to be somebody else.”

Let me begin by saying Hannah Coulter is, in my view, a philosophical work of fiction, and let me also say that Hannah Coulter is perhaps the most accessible work of philosophy that I have ever read. It is by far the most relatable, as it is about life as it is – labor and repose, highs and lows, love and loss, and how the individual can simply live and find beauty in the seemingly mundane and ordinary.

Hannah Coulter was published in 2004 and is one in a series of books penned by famed Kentuckian Wendell Berry, which are all set in and around the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky during the twentieth century. This particular installment in the Port William series focuses on the life of Hannah Coulter, who narrates and provides the reader with the details of her life and thoughts, and it is through this narration that one is given a sense of what it is like to live in a community where “membership” draws people close together and creates a sense of belonging that can be difficult to find in the world today.

For the reader who is currently seeking a book with a fast-paced plot, I would not recommend Hannah Coulter, and even though there is not constant action, the story is engaging in a different way. The rhythm of life in Port William captivates with the interwoven lives of those who tend to its land and quietly face the challenges of life with strength, endurance, and dignity. In modern life filled with glitzy advertising and reality television, expectations of what life should be can be quite different from what life actually is, and Hannah Coulter can serve as a powerful reminder that the most amazing aspects of life are found in everyday living.
"Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn't shirk it. Love, after all, 'hopeth all things.' But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation."

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Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien 
submitted by Lynette

Though Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien was written in 1974, you’d never know it without looking at the original publication date. O’Brien really didn’t do anything that dates the book as one from the 1970's. That’s a hard thing to do but easier when your story is set in a country valley – one so big you can’t even see your neighbor’s house when you stand outside.

This is the kind of place where Ann lives. She used to live there with her family. Now it’s just her and no family. So what happened to Ann’s family?

When we meet Ann she’s living alone on the farm, too scared to leave the valley where her home is for fear of what she imagines to be radiation poisoning. She remembers hearing how the families who ran the local stores were getting so sick. Then there was the pond on her property with all those dead fish floating in it.

Her family suspected nuclear war but had no choice but to go into town when their supplies got low on the farm. They asked Ann to stay behind in case anyone came to their house looking for them. Ann waited and waited, but no one ever came home – not one single family member.

A year later is where we first meet her. At this point she’s given up hope they will return. She believes they are dead or had to leave the valley – with no time to return for her. Then, one day, she sees a thin coil of smoke in the distance horizon. Each day she can see it get closer and can tell that whoever is out there is headed her way.

Ann knows she might not be alone for much longer. Is this the best thing she can hope for or the worst? If there might not be any other survivors left, what terrible things might this person have done to stay alive?

Z for Zachariah kept me on my toes. There were several parts that literally made me say something out loud to the book (as if Anne could possibly hear me!). The book opens up a lot of questions which would make it fantastic to read for a book group. This is a definite recommendation for those who read, and loved, Lois Lowry’s The Giver. It is appropriate for middle school age through adult – hey, I’m an adult and I ate it up!

Editor’s note: Please use the comment button below to leave any response you may have about the book or the review.

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Asylum by Madeleine Roux  
submitted by Katy

Research, insanity, or possession...can we ever be certain?

Dan Crawford is a foster kid who finally got lucky and found adoptive parents who have helped him settle into a life of relative normalcy. His zeal for academic studies has landed him a coveted spot in a college prep program in New Hampshire over the summer. As the taxi pulls up to NHCP campus, Dan gets his first look at the old sanatorium, where he and the other students will be housed because of a current renovation. Brookline - though no longer an asylum - still holds chills and hides secrets that will plague its temporary residents.

Curious about a photo he discovers in his desk, Dan and his new friends Abby and Jordan find their way into a locked, deserted area of the old sanatorium. What they unearth there are hidden passages, dusty records of experiments, torture, death and madness, and not just the inmates, horrors that took place at Brookline more than forty years ago. In their search the teens have stirred up more than dust and old secrets, they have awakened the long dead. Disturbing notes, phone texts and photos that mysteriously appear, disappear and later turn up. Then the murderous attacks begin.

Asylum by Madeleine Roux has the same chilling feel as a stroll through Waverly Hills on a dark stormy night. Suspense, horror, madness, death and ghostly presence are laced throughout the story with photos of actual rooms from long forgotten discarded asylums. In a short time we meet and get to know some of the residents, both past and present, learn about the horrors of the past that still affect the present and discover that, “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene I)

All is wrapped up with an ending that would do justice to Hitchcock himself.

Editor’s note: Please use the comment button below to leave any response you may have about the book or the review.

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I Think I Might Be A Gorilla  
submitted by Tommy

Ivan, The One and Only Ivan, is a gorilla. He was alone inside a cage for three decades with no other of his kind around. He looks out and sees the human race for what it really is, and most of what he observes of them I see as well.

This is supposed to be a book for kids, but it is as much as an adult book to me. It has many observations and lessons that most of the human race needs to learn. But this is not a highbrow book, it is a fun book. The characters are fun too and likable. But at times it made me cry. The language is simple so that a young child could read this. Although there are sad parts, there is a very happy ending for Ivan.

This book makes you think about all the conventions of modern human existence and whether we really need them. It also makes you wonder about human behavior and what the animals are really saying about us! I’ve read a few negative reviews of this book where the reader has a problem with the book misleading children by giving human attributes to animals. How else could readers understand what Ivan is saying except by our language? If the book was written in grunts, roars, barks, etc. who could read it? Are we sure that animals aren’t artist like Ivan? I think animals have many of the same needs, desires, and feelings as humans.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is a work of fiction but it is based upon a true story. There is a real Ivan who lived at Zoo Atlanta. Before living in the Zoo he had spent over half his life alone in a mall, in a cage. He passed away last August. He was 50. And for the record he was an artist!

Upon Ivan's death, NPR posted this obiturary.

To reserve a copy of The One and Only Ivan, click here.

For an adult book about a gorilla who can talk, I highly suggest Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. This is one of my favorite books. It’s a fun, yet philosophical book. Like Ivan, it has depth within its simplicity.

To reserve a copy of Ishmael, click here.

And if you still have a VCR hanging around, The Urban Gorilla is a good documentary that includes the one and only Ivan and other gorillas that suffered similar fates.

Editor’s note: Please use the comment button below to leave any response you may have about the book or the review.

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