NaNoWriMo Check-in #2 (2014)

We have reached the end of Week 2 of NaNoWriMo, and you should have 23,338 words at the end of today. There is one more full week before Thanksgiving prep, celebrations, and cleanup. How will you find the time to write? Here is an excerpt from a blog post about NaNoWriMo that I find exceptionally helpful:

“4. November really is a terrible month for this.

Oh, November, you so crazy. Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving. In-laws showing up and lingering around like a herpes flare-up. November is a month full of distractions, obligations, and easy excuses for giving up on Nanowrimo. But here’s the thing: so are the other twelve months of the year. After all, after Thanksgiving comes Christmas, and then New Year’s, and then you’ve got spring cleaning, and who wants to sit cooped up all summer hunched over a laptop, and suddenly, oops, it’s November again.

Writers love to wait for that moment when they’ve just slept for ten hours, the kids are at the neighbor’s house, the boss just gave them the week off, the world’s most delicious cup of coffee magically brewed itself, the Internet stopped working, and the Muse has descended from on high to whale them in the back of the skull with the wiffle-ball-bat of inspiration. If you’re lucky, a day like that comes about once a year. You can’t count on it. Writing through inconvenience is something you have to learn to do, and November’s as good a time as any.”

-SurlyMuse‘s 13 Ugly Truths about NaNoWriMo

With that said, don’t forget to check the NaNoWriMo Forums if you get stuck. Discuss your plot with friends or writing buddies. But most of all, keep writing.

The Portsmouth library is holding a 5K Write-In where we encourage you to write 5 thousand words in 4 hours. We will provide snacks and caffeine! The event is from 1-5 this Sunday, the 16th, in the Hilton Garden Room.

Until then:

A Comic with a NaNo-worthy book title in the second strip!

by Kate Beaton

by Kate Beaton

NaNo Advice w/ Cat Pics

My Tried-and-True word-sprint helper.

Good luck!


NaNoWriMo Check-in #1 (2014)

Hello again, Wrimos. We are officially 1 week into NaNoWriMo!procrastination

By the end of today, your word count — if you have been steadily writing 1,667 words a day — should be 11,669. You should have your 5K and 10K badges, and it has only been a week! Next stop, 25K!

Don’t worry if you aren’t there yet, though.

A helpful hint I received from a local author at last year’s NaNoWriMo kick-off event was to plan for 5 days of no writing and write 2,000 words a day when you do write. That would take you 25 days to finish your novel. Not so bad, huh? Even if you haven’t started yet, you could write 2,000 words a day for 21 days and spend 2 other days writing 4,000 words. Or you could come to the NaNoWriMo 5K write-in and write 5,000 words one day, and 3,000 another.

I haven’t been writing all 2,000 words in one sitting. I write a few hundred in the morning, a few hundred at lunch, and then finish up after dinner. When I work late, I take my mornings to write the most and finish up a few hundred words at night. How do you reach word count daily?

Some of you are not participating in NaNoWriMo, but here’s a different kind of challenge: El Santo (Larry Cruz) of The Webcomic Overlook had this to say about November: “Heck, maybe we should just rename the month “National Challenge Yourself Month” (NaChaYouMo), no?” I think he’s on to something there. Whatever you do, or want to do, what better time to do it than right now? Last year, I didn’t finish NaNoWriMo, but I fleshed out a graphic novel project that I am still working on. Even if you don’t have anything in mind, use this month to just BE BETTER. Stick to your grocery lists, sing karaoke in front of a crowd, submit a photograph to a contest, propose a new idea at work, or wake up earlier. It’s up to you.


Writing in the library? It can be done! We have some tips for you. It… it gets a little weird.


NaNoWriMo SubReddit

More Motivation to Complete your Novel: NaNoWriMo Wrap Party at Book and Bar! Finish your novel, get a free drink!!


Gemma Correll draws all day! If you aren’t writing, try this!


Good luck this month!

-Stacia, Library Assistant, Tech Services

Letters from the War – Mothers, Brothers & Lovers

Cathy’s Hidden Gems features favorites & lesser known selections from the fiction shelves of the Portsmouth Public Library. By Cathy Okhuysen.

Book Covers - Letters from the War

Geraldine Brooks gives a voice to the beloved absent father from Little Women (Louisa May Alcott, 1868),  Mr. March, in her 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name:  March. She does this in part through letters he writes home.

 November 1, 1861

My Dear, Your very admirable letter and the welcome contents of your parcel came straight to hand. Many thanks to you for the warm wishes of the former and the warm wool of the latter. I rejoice to hear that you and my girls continue well as the cold season creeps onward; tell my dear Jo that she must not despise her knitting, but see her needles as jousting lances, for her fine blue socks are marching now into the fray.

Outside Harper’s ferry, January 15, 1862
March by Geraldine Brooks
…The ridges, though picturesque, made for hard marching, and we had every kind of precipitations to contend with. The new recruits joined us before marched, fresh-face New England boys, and not a few of them fell out with exhaustion attempting to carry packs and equipment weighing more than fifty pounds. Despite the hardships, the newcomers are in good spirits and spoiling for a fight (Simply because they have not yet had one) and that in itself cheers the veterans.

The Secret of Raven Point

There is something about reading a letter that connects us to the character in a more intimate way. From The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes:

Somewhere in Italy, 1944…..Dear Papa and Pearl……The doctors have been performing about eighty operations a day and everyone shuffles around like sleepwalkers.  Was it like this when you were in Belgium, Papa?  Is this why you never spoke about it?  I’m living in a pup tent with two other nurses…..Love, Juliet

As one thing leads to another…

A review of letters from, and during, wartime brings up several hidden gems, appropriate as we consider the sacrifice of our military veterans and families this Veterans Day.

Long, Long, Way, by Sebastian Barry, is our November book discussion title, and an achingly beautiful novel from an Irish writer who doesn’t shield reader from the horrors of war.   Our good wishes for Willie hold us through the poignant end of the book.

A-Long-Long-Way-by-Sebastian-Barry-Book-CoverThis letter from Willie sets up a terrible disagreement with his father – a unique view of an Irish soldier from Dublin who sees conflict both abroad and at home.

Royal Dublin Fusilers, Belgium 3 May 1916

Dear Papa, Thank you for writing back, Papa.  I am glad everyone is safe, very much so….Maybe at home some of the lads might be getting into trouble with you and your men!  Here I have to say they make fine soldiers….

In Elizabeth Berg‘s 2007 novel Dream When You’re Feeling Blue , in addition to the many letters that the Heaney sisters write to the fellas they meet at the USO dances, both Kitty and Louise have boyfriends overseas:

England January 1944

Last night I dreamed by mom was alive again, and she’d come over here with all her pots and pans in a big trunk.  She showed them to me and said she was going to cook me a big steak dinner, but that I shouldn’t tell the other boys, because she didn’t have enough for all of them……Well, I couldn’t do that, of course, so I told her, Oh, Just make hamburgers for all of us.

You Know When The Men Are Gone

Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011) is a collection of connected stories about modern military wives. In one story, Alpha Company from Fort Hood suffers casualties and Kilani’s emails to her husband in Bravo go unanswered:

ARE YOU OK?  Javier took two steps today!  E-MAIL ME ASAP!


Romance has always been challenging during wartime, whether by email or letter, such as this one in the well-reviewed novel Emily Hudson (2010), by Melissa Jones….

April 16th, 1861

My Dear Young Lady, It seems melodramatic to be bidding you farewell on the eve of battle, so I will simply inform you that we are on the move at last….I recall clearly your blue dress against the dark of the carriage, and the gaiety of our last meeting.  I hope neither of us will be so very much older when next I grasp your hand.  Yours truly, Captain James C.H. Lindsay

Some novels are almost entirely told by letters, like the beloved Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, set during the Nazi Occupation of Guernsey during WWII.  If you loved that, you must read Letters from Skye (2013), which bridges both WWI and WWII:

Isle of Skye 15 October 1915

You stupid, stupid boy! Did you expect me to be happy about this plan of yours?  With a husband at the front and a brother crippled from this blasted war, what on earth did you think I’d really say?

Edinburgh  Wednesday, 14 August 1940

Dear Paul,

It was working.U ncle Finlay was telling me about my mother in dribs and drabs.  There was something that he said “broke our family in pieces.” An then I mentioned the letter and the American and he’s stopped writing…….Margaret

Isle of Skye 23 February 1916

My darling boy, I am sorry for doubting you and the reasons you  joined the Field Service….There is a big difference between rushing out with a bayonet….and channeling all of that reckless energy into saving lives….E

Watch this sweet book trailer for Letters from Skye if you remain unconvinced!

We Are Called To RiseAnother epistolary fiction , Travis Nichols’s 2010 novel Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder,  engages the reader in a present day correspondence. “Pensive in the wake of 9/11, a young man—our ‘correspondent between the past and the present’—launches a mission to reunite his beloved grandfather, an American bombardier, with Luddie, the woman who saved him during WWII. Armed only with the address on the back of an old photograph and his grandfather’s memories, the young man begins writing letters to Luddie.”

A letter also plays a critical part in Laura McBride’s 2014 novel We Are Called to Rise… but perhaps that’s for another post!

Like this review? You can find more Staff Picks on our new Goodreads page!

The Greenglass House

The Greenglass House by Kate Milford (Clarion Books, 2014)
Reviewed by Mollie Mulligan, Library Assistant Youth Services

ggh.phpWhen you work as a youth services librarian you often feel like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. Almost every day a cart (librarian lingo: “truck”) of new books arrives and you are required to look through each book before it can go out into circulation for the general public.  Kate Milford’s The Greenglass House called to me like the siren’s song to a weary pirate when it arrived.  Wow!  IT DID NOT DISAPPOINT!  This is exactly the kind of book I would have loved as a child and loved almost more as an adult because it took me right back to the pure joy of a great story, rich characters and a take-me-there-now setting.

Milo’s parents are the owners of Greenglass House, a cliff top inn for smugglers. Just as they are snuggling in for a quiet Christmas break alone they are stunned to hear the bell ring.  Suddenly a stream of guests, each one more peculiar than the next, brings a string of mysteries.  Milo and the cook’s daughter, Meddy, fill their days trying to piece together clues and answer these perplexing questions: Where are the stolen items? What are the unusual symbols they keep stumbling upon?  Why did all of these people show up in the middle of a blizzard?  Why is it that they all seem connected somehow? And when are they leaving?!?

From start to finish this is a well detailed book. The setting is intriguing and so well flushed out that there is even a Board of Tourism website  for the fictional city.  The characters are lusciously developed – some more sympathetic than others, of course – and kids will readily identify with Milo.  From his disappointment over losing a quiet Christmas, to some mild insecurity about his abilities, kids will definitely relate.  I particularly love how the author, Kate Milford, delicately interweaves Milo’s feelings about being adopted.  She allows Milo to be a typical twelve-year-old who also happens to be curious about his birth parents and frustrated by everyone commenting on his family’s racial mix.  As with any good adventure story, there are not one, but TWO big twists at the end that will keep kids of all ages up at night reading by flashlight after the lights go out!

Part Agatha Christie-style country house mystery and part ghost story, this is a tale of intrigue and adventure that will delight all readers. I enthusiastically recommend The Greenglass House to middle grade (4th -7th grade) readers who have enjoyed Mysterious Benedict Society, Rooftoppers, and Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. Kids and adults should put a hold on this book ASAP! I’m off to read Kate Milford’s first book, Boneshaker.

Kate Milford is the author of The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands, as well as the companion novellas, The Kairos Mechanism and Bluecrown. She has also written several plays, screenplays, and an assortment of scholarly articles on subjects as diverse as self-aware ironmongery and how to make saltwater taffy in a haunted kitchen. She lives in Brooklyn. Read her awesome blog, The Clockwork Foundry.

Like this review? You can find more Staff Picks on our new Goodreads page!

Preparing for the Month Ahead and a Kick-Off Party!

hemingpizzaIt’s that time of year again, and you know what that means don’t you? It means that the library is having another NaNoWriMo Kick-Off Event! NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and the goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. We hope you will use the library to write your greatest novel yet!

Our kick-off party is tomorrow, October 28th at 6:30 PM in the Levenson Room. Local author Jeff Deck will be here to give an intro to NaNoWriMo and will be leading a writing boot camp. Bring your laptop, because one of the exercises is to write 500 words in 20 minutes. Think you can do it?

We will also have free pizza, courtesy of Flatbread Company!

You can sign up for NaNoWriMo HERE. We will also be showing people how to sign up at the event.

A link to all of the library’s NaNoWriMo events HERE.

And here are a few helpful links to get you psyched (or to frighten you, or to help you prepare) for the month ahead:

Writing tips from George R. R. Martin and Robin Hobb (buzzfeed)

NaNo Prep (

The 46-Question Character Questionnaire (

And, finally, if you can’t think of anything else to write you can always write these books (buzzfeed)

Enjoy your last 4 days of October! I am participating again this year, so if you have any questions regarding the library’s NaNoWriMo programs or if you need help signing up for NaNoWriMo, you can call me at 603-766-5124.

-Stacia, Library Assistant

There’s Nothing Wrong with Being a Tomboy.

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince (Zest, 2014)tomboy

Review by Stacia Oparowski




Despite what others may believe, Liz is not a boy or a lesbian. She is a girl who would rather wear pants; she’s a girl who feels completely uncomfortable in a dress. She wants to hang out with boys, but also wants to date them. It’s a hard road for Liz, and a confusing one for other people watching her. A road she leads us down in her graphic memoir: Tomboy.


Tomboy wasn’t a word child-Liz had heard until she started school. Then, because she didn’t conform to her gender-role, “tomboy” she was. She wouldn’t dress like a girl, she didn’t identify with other girls, and wanted to play sports. All her role models were men, because the women idols she was supposed to worship (like Disney princesses) were too reliant on men:

“The slew of fairy tales and Disney movies I consumed presented women in need of a savior. Sleeping Beauty is cursed with eternal sleep; only a kiss from Prince Charming can save her. Snow White is the ultimate home-maker, but suffers the same tragic fate as Sleeping Beauty. Rapunzel is waiting in a tower her whole life for a guy to save her. Even when women were the main characters, a man always came to steal the show. Given the choice, I’d much rather wield a sword than wear a tiara. So, it’s not surprising that I would envy those born into boyhood.”

Luckily she had a mother who was comfortable letting her bend the rules of gender, because not all parents would have been so inclined. As Liz grew up, she found other tomboys and made friends. The only time she really began to wonder about herself was when she noticed boys crushing on girly-girls. She wondered, did her boyfriend hide from her that he was really attracted to girls that wore makeup and skirts?



As a tomboy, I completely relate to Liz’s story. I shared many of the same experiences with her in my life, even girl-scout camp. Read this article if you want to know why we couldn’t be in boy-scouts. It was just too much of a hassle, even if we were, begrudgingly, allowed to participate.

Today, in our adulthood, the lines between manliness and womanliness have kind of blurred (for the better). It’s more acceptable to not be cemented into a gender role, and in fact, it seems to be encouraged. There are always going to be people who don’t accept the way you are, but you don’t need them in your life. I think it’s generally harder for children and teens who don’t identify with a specific gender-based role, but Liz’s story can provide encouragement and support and hope for kids who are a little different.

clueless(Also, I really agree with Liz that stuff like this needs to stop happening: “In the unlikely event there is a tomboy character in a film, she’s usually made over to be a desirable female by the end of the movie.”)

Funny, heartbreaking, and heartwarming all at the same time, Liz Prince’s memoir is great even if you aren’t a tomboy. Her artwork is charming and accurate. This book forces you to think about and question gender roles, if you hadn’t before, and I think that’s something everyone should do.


Liz is based outside of Boston, MA. She draws comics full time, and is a self-professed tomboy. This is her first graphic novel. She is amazing.

Here is Tomboy on Goodreads.


10/23/14 s.o.


Brilliance & Brutality: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

Empires die, like all of us dancers in the strobe-lit dark. See how the light needs shadows.

Just before The Bone Clocks was published, David Mitchell wrote a Twitter story called “The Right Sort,” which has been collected in full on The Millions.

The Bone ClocksMitchell calls Neil Gaiman one of his greatest fantasy influences, and here you can see why – the horror and absurdity in “The Right Sort” is very like Gaiman’s latest, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But David Mitchell far surpasses Gaiman in his literary ability, scope and ambition. The Twitter story is a deliciously spooky read, and the most successful one of its kind, in my opinion. But it’s only a taste of what you’ll find in The Bone Clocks. It is not a preview, or prequel, exactly, but it “occupies the same universe.” One where, to summarize, the mind is both a weapon and a battleground, our little life is rounded with a sleep to which some beings are immune, and the mundane is pierced suddenly and briefly with wondrous sights we will never understand.

Cloud AtlasThe Bone Clocks, like Mitchell’s award-winning Cloud Atlas, is told with linked narratives. This novel, however, is not so tightly constructed. The symmetry is not explicit, the connection between characters is more grounded in the mess of reality, and the aforementioned universe is expanded until it becomes clear that nearly all of Mitchell’s work will be set within it. Mitchell’s fans will recognize recurring characters and entities, part of what he has dubbed his “uber-novel.”

The novel begins in the voice of Holly Sykes, a runaway of fifteen years, scathing and sassy and delightfully (Britishly) teenaged. She’s left behind a loving, if complicated, family life to embark on a short, ill-conceived, monumental journey. Her mind and heart just beginning to mature, she’s full of wisdom like:

‘What if … what if Heaven is real, but only in moments? Like a glass of water on a hot day when you’re dying of thirst, or when someone’s nice to you for no reason, or …’ Mam’s pancakes with Toblerone sauce; Dad dashing up from the bar just to tell me, ‘Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite’; or Jacko and Sharon singing ‘For She’s A Squishy Marshmallow’ instead of ‘For She’s A Jolly Good Fellow’ every single birthday and wetting themselves even though it’s not at all funny; and Brendan giving his old record player to me instead of one of his mates. ‘S’pose Heaven’s not like a painting that’s just hanging there forever, but more like … like the best song anyone ever wrote, but a song you only catch in snatches, while you’re alive, from passing cars, or … upstairs windows when you’re lost …

After Holly we meet Hugo Lamb, a collegiate sociopath, Ed Brubeck, an embittered war correspondent, writer Crispin Hershey, and… well, beyond that are spoilers. It has to be said that the first narrative switch is startling, and feels like a loss. You will miss Holly deeply. But she reappears – in fact, more than a tale of an age-old war between immortals, this is Holly’s life story.

If this sounds like it all might be a bit much, well, David Mitchell’s ahead of you. In the center of The Bone Clocks’ structure is the story of Crispin Hershey, an author in the throes of serious depression. Growing in his irrelevance, becoming acutely aware of his age, contempt thickening like fat in his veins, this narrator’s is a voice filled with bile. In a review of Crispin’s latest book, a colleague says:

…One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?

Each a point that could be made about The Bone Clocks itself. In an interview, Crispin is asked to what degree his protagonist, Trevor Upward, “whose morality is decidedly elastic, modeled upon his maker?” He responds:

‘Trevor Upward is a misogynist prick who gets exactly what he deserves on the final page. How, dear Maeve, could a royal arse like Trevor Upward’ – I flash a smile of mock innocence – ‘possibly be modeled on a man like Crispin Hershey?’

You see, any criticism we might have of Mitchell has been preempted by Crispin’s own self-loathing and -mockery. And though his voice is negative where Holly and Hugo are light, jaded where Ed Brubeck, for all his sadness and confusion, is fiercely passionate, Crispin makes you laugh out loud. And instead of coming to dislike him as much as he can’t stand himself, I found I grew fonder of him along the way.

And Holly? Well, she feels a more authentic character than I’ve read in a while – particularly a female character written by a man. Though more beset by tragedy than your average British Gen-Xer, not to mention one who experiences ghostly voices and premonitions, Holly is varied, flawed, aching, and her complex entanglements, romantic and otherwise, reminded me of those of people I know. This is no grand love story – it is a series of broken ones. And setting aside this story’s fantastic elements, that is the real world at its most raw and heartbreaking. Perhaps her story is so affecting as it’s told not just from her own point of view, but from those of the people who love her. The Holly they each know, the Holly at each age, begin to build a picture of a whole person.

Anyway, I haven’t even gotten to that war of the immortals I mentioned. I’ve yet to bring up political commentary on the war in Iraq, or a dystopian future where the internet has died. It’s all in there. And I didn’t find that it “violently clashed.” Much the opposite! Reincarnation, labyrinths in the twilight beyond this life, psychic traveling souls trapped in a memory, the pain of divorce, the sharp and sudden shock of loss, an interminable wedding ceremony, a long walk, a love affair, an argument – Mitchell has written all these and more in the same tone, with the same wit and detail, and by the end you believe in his universe. None of it seems impossible. He knows well the incredible brilliance and brutality of life, and he leaves you open to it all.

David Mitchell
Recommended Reading on The Bone Clocks:

Like this review? You can find more Staff Picks on our new Goodreads page!

The Home Place – Fiction from the Farmlands

barr farmBarr Family Farm – Rodelia, KY
Continuously Farmed Since 1835

Learn more at

One Thing Leads to Another – Hidden Gems on the Fiction Shelves of the Portsmouth Public Library
by Cathy Okhuysen

13590712Wendell Berry, poet, environmentalist, essayist and novelist, has published over 40 books. The most recent, Distant Neighbors, encompassing his correspondence with Gary Snyder, was published in June 2014. One can not talk about fiction from the farmlands, especially from Kentucky, without including the lives and loves of Port William, Kentucky. The tenth in the series, A Place in Time, was published in 2012 and includes a poignant story,  SOLD, of the auction of Beulah Gibb’s home place – she hopes to the tenant farmer Coulter Branch.  This book also has a delightful map that includes both the Catlett home place and the Coulter home place. In her blog post on “agrarian dreaming in the fiction department,” Sharyn Astyk favors Jayber Crow in the Port Williams membership but I think you will be delighted with young Andy Catlett and his grandparents.

As one things leads to another, an exploration of rural fiction brings up the classic stories of Willa Cather, as well as the 12-book gentle, historical fiction Love Comes Softly series by Christy-award-winning author Janette Oke.  The challenges of living off the land in both the original  prairies and the current farmland make for heartwarming reading.


On a grittier side, a hidden gem with another Kentucky farm setting is the 2009 novel All the Living by first time novelist C. E. Morgan:
All the Living

Rarely in this reviewer’s memory has a debut novel emerged with such a profound sense of place…. Descriptions are so vivid, yet so integrated and organic, that the reader can almost feel the lassitude of stifling humid air; smell the rich, warm earth; and see the furrowed fields, the dark mountains in the distance…. A slow, seductive dive into another time and place, a deep, quiet place.
- Karen Campbell, The Boston Globe

You know from the first pages that challenges are ahead for the young couple.

The bottomland yawned into view and she saw the fields where the young tabacco faltered on the drybeat earth…

…she found a paper heart taped to the wood… ‘Aloma, If you come when I’m gone, the tractor busted and I went to Hansonville for parts. Go on in…Orren’

Aloma was orphaned and raised by her aunt and uncle. She stayed on at her mountain mission school as the pianist until she met Orren, an aggie from the nearby college.  Then he unexpectedly inherits the family farm and their journey from passionate young lovers to overwhelmed couple is complicated by Orren’s grief and Aloma’s conflict between independence and love.  Theirs is not a gentle love, but they are honest in all their passions, including the search for beauty and the call of the land.

From the Texas panhandle of Woody Guthrie’s House of Earth, a Dust bowl era novel, finished in 1947 but only published in 2013, to the Iowa farmland of the 70s and 80s in The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson (2011), the home place has many faces.

Like this review? You can find more Staff Picks on our new Goodreads page!

Friendship in the Forest: Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins

Please welcome our newest reviewer, Lisa, who’ll be recommending her favorite children’s books!

Nuts to You is the newly released book by Lynne Rae Perkins, the 2006 winner of the Newbery Medal for her book Criss Cross.

Occasionally, I read a book that begs to be read aloud. This week when I picked up “Nuts to You”, I knew from the very first page of the author’s note that this book was going to be added to my list of recommendations for good read alouds! “Nuts” is a short chapter book aimed at grades 3 – 7 but children as young as 4 -5 years old would enjoy hearing it read aloud.

Our story opens as an elderly gray squirrel shares, with a very surprised human, recollections from an adventure of his youth. One squirrel from his group of friends is scooped up by a hawk. Luckily he is dropped and not made into lunch. Unluckily he is dropped far from home. His friends come to his rescue – not, however, without challenges. Squirrels are not known for their long attention spans and finding their friend proves difficult, but they persevere because they care deeply for their friend. Once reunited, they experience cultural differences common to those who travel, like meeting a group of red squirrels who speak with an Australian accent and eat pine cone seeds, rather than acorns.

The story offers the opportunity for discussion in areas of friendship and loyalty, cultural differences, environmental issues, problem solving and teamwork. It has a many of the elements that I look for in a great read aloud: an engaging plot; characters we care about; delightful illustrations; opportunities for the reader to adopt an accent; and humor that children and adults will enjoy.

Lynne Rae Perkins is a gifted writer and illustrator. Her novel Criss Cross is a book of vignettes, illustrations, photographs, and poems about a group of four small-town teenagers. Perkins’ picture book Home Lovely was a runner-up for the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. Her novel All Alone in the Universe was named an ALA Notable Book, a Booklist Editor’s Choice, a Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book, and a Smithsonian Magazine Notable Book for Children. Perkins was born, raised and educated in Pennsylvania, and now lives in Michigan. You can learn more about her on her website!

Written by Lisa Q. Harling

Like this review? You can find more Staff Picks on our new Goodreads page!

Martin Dyar, History, and the Names of Things

Maiden Names (2013) by Martin Dyar
review by Marina Buckler, Reference Librarian

So, you know how some poets write nature poems, and some poets write political poems, and some poets write almost uncomfortably personal poems (I’m looking at you, Duhamel)? Well, Martin Dyar writes–and I am not sure how else to say this–town poems, poems about people going about their lives, doubting, gossiping, grieving, half-remembering. They are universal in that way–the cattiness and the loneliness and the suspicion bleed through and make the people in them feel like people we might encounter going about their business, grocery shopping. In other ways, they embody very particular, honed depictions of specific lives. Almost all of the poems in Maiden Names are first person, but make no mistake–these aren’t confessional poems. In fact, they’re more like portraits, and compiled, they read almost as the beginning of an epic novel–the sort of poems you can imagine George Eliot writing to suss out ideas for Middlemarch, or David Foster Wallace scribbling in the margins in drafts of Infinite Jest.

Before I get into the meat of this review, I want to talk a little bit about names and the named. Philosophically, the debate about names is as old, presumably, as language, and that is obvious in many of our most well-known stories, including that one you probably know about Adam in the garden. In Plato’s Cratylus, Socrates debates the whether names have intrinsic meaning, or are a system of learned and arbitrary symbols. Naming things is also crucial to Confucius, who believed that improperly naming things (leading to the inablity to address and communicate about those things) was at the core of social disorder. In Judeo-Christian religions, the third commandment instructs followers to pronounce the lord’s name only in praise, and never in vain. In folklore, the true names of things can be invoked to defeat magical beings–remember Rumpelstiltskin? And now, think of the way you stopped in your tracks when, as a child, a parent said your full name. Names have undeniable power, and they help us to define the world around us. Presumably, then, maiden names have the power of (at least personal) history, an idea which Dyar plays with throughout this volume, as he weaves characters through their own and a wider history, referring to recognizable characters and events in the titles of his poems.

One thing that stands out about the poems in Dyar’s inaugural collection, Maiden Names, is that many of the characters contained within the volume are impassioned–creatures for whom it might be said that they have found their calling. These people (and animals) veer toward purposeful and contented lives, and the poet watches them with a wonder and near-suspicion. The cast of characters you will encounter includes: a veterinarian elbow-deep in mare, a cow grazing on a hill, a rooster watching over his brood, an elderly cardshark, a bevy of witches, and for a literary twist, modern incarnations of Casablanca and Cyrano de Bergerac. In “Independence,” one of the darker moments in the book, the reader witnesses the will of a lifelong bachelor wavering at the edges when Dyar writes,

Lately though, at night, his blood gathers itself
against that will. It ladles across his mind
an early vanity: memories of being wanted,
memories, some fictive, of being silver-tongued.
While his heart, a kind of fox, climbs down to the lake
and begs the dark to strike or bless the cottage.

But even here, one doesn’t get the sense that the bachelor had ever wanted anything else: he had lived exactly how he had intended. That the time came that his choices led him to this edge, where his memory–alive with the choices he did not make–rewrites things so that they might provide more comfort, can be true without being inevitable. There’s doubt in the narrator’s voice, and the knowledge that it is too late to undo what is done, but also the knowledge that the life he has lived was lived on purpose: he had his suitors, and made his choices. To yearn does not discount the choices made, Dyar seems to say, though perhaps none of us are immune to the ache of the life unlived.

The second thing that stands out about the collection is that the deeper you read, the more sinking the suspicion that you are not quite getting the whole story. Martin Dyar clearly respects his reader; he drops them into the middle of a conversation, immerses them in cultural references that are at once urgent and vague, presses on with images unsettled, leaving the reader jarred and Googling furiously.

Don’t believe me? Take, for instance, the last third of “The Timoney Bell,”

I’m half
committee member, and half starry conduit of ocean

voices. Slowly, but without inhibition, I work the bell,
convinced the sound is a mounting of better nature
fit to meet what is not life in life, as the April darkness
upholds the thought that the lost are listening now.

Here you see Dyar hinting at cultural context (a quick search reveals that the ringing of the Timoney Bell, the poem’s namesake, is a yearly commemoration of the 14 Addergoole residents on board the Titanic when it sank: 11 lost and 3 rescued) but never condescending to explain it. Dyar’s focus is, as always, on the experience of the speaker–in this case recalling a recurring dream and thus illuminating the particular work of memorializing.

Maiden Names is thoroughly peppered with these sorts of poems–”Turlough O’Carolan at Brabazon House” is one of the only poems in the volume written in third person, and describes a sort of enchantment. Turlough O’Carolan, a blind Irish harpist from the 17th-18th centuries, is wooed by the gentle voice of his host’s daughter, and Dyar, imagining O’Carolan’s death, has her

approaching him across the field, like the field’s
picking the tether of his mind from the earth,
standing over him;
rousing with her laughter the voles in their nettle
and prompting the near-dead harper to answer
the darkness.

Though presented with obvious themes, the poems in Maiden Names range in style and form, and a reader with patience will surely find something here worth their time. It should be said that some understanding of niche Irish history will serve the reader well, but failing that, an internet-ready device nearby will aid in deeper appreciation.

Overall, Maiden Names feels like a vision realized. Even the poems that I didn’t expecially enjoy had a such a purposeful air that I’d struggle to find a moment that felt like a misstep. Does this sound like it’d be up your alley? Check it out!

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