Great Reads

Valente, Catherynne. The Habitation of the Blessed

In 1165, a letter purportedly written by the Christian priest-king Prester John caught the imagination of medieval Europe. Prester John’s distant kingdom, placed by some in India or “the Orient,” was described in the letter as a place of great wonder, populated by myriad strange and beautiful creatures and cultures. Though Prester John himself was Christian and had converted his subjects, he was ringed on all sides by Muslims and pagans. In Valente’s novel, she takes this medieval wonder-tale as truth, but truth told slant. In 1699, a group of monks lead by Brother Hiob search out the land of Prester John. All they discover is a small group of strange, taciturn people who guard a tree. From this tree, books sprout like fruit and Hiob is allowed to pluck three volumes which, like fruit, decay almost faster than he can read them. One volume is the journal of Prester John himself; the second is the journal of his wife, the beautiful blemmye Hagia—a woman with her face in her torso instead of a head; and the third is the memoir of the elephant-eared panoti once named Imtithal. The stories interweave, revealing that nothing about the truth of Prester John’s fabled kingdom was quite as fabulous as anyone in Europe had imagined.

Compelling, layered, dark, and intense, Valente’s fable captures some of the richness of myth and retains the power of allegory.

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Willis, Meredith Sue. Out of the Mountains

All of the stories in this slender collection are set in the same part of West Virginia, high in the Appalachian mountains.  Willis, herself a native of the region, brings a decidedly modern, contemporary voice to the genre of small-town Appalachian life. Her stories lack any hint of the saccharine over-sentimentality so common to stories set in this region, being instead focused on the very real problems faced by convincingly textured and flawed characters.  Many of the stories feature the same characters at different points in their lives, showing how things have changed—or not—and interweaving the lives of these diverse, three-dimensional people in intricate ways that reward careful reading. Stand-outs include the first story, “Triangulation” and the interlinked duology of tales “Pie Knob” and “On the Road with C.T. Savage.”  Highly recommended.

Switek, Brian. Written in Stone: evolution, the fossil record, and our place in nature

Early proponents of evolution by natural selection were hampered by their inability to provide “transitional” fossils demonstrating the stages of change from one species to another. Darwin theorized that human ancestors would be found in Africa—rightly, as it turned out—but none had yet been discovered. In many other species lineages, similar gaps in the fossil record led to misunderstandings of those species’ histories and the connections between species.  Switek ably and clearly traces what I might call “the evolution of evolution” in this popular-science work. Each chapter focuses on a particular type of animal…horses, whales, reptiles, etc…tracing a path from scientists’ early understanding of that species and its place in nature through to our current views, explaining the importance of the transitional fossils that have been discovered while never losing sight of areas in which science’s understanding is still limited.


Written for the layperson, the book nevertheless does not “dumb down” the science, instead laying out the facts clearly and allowing the careful reader to see the connections for him or herself.  Fascinating portraits of some of the early naturalists and evolutionary theorists, including Darwin; Cuvier; Lamarck; and Lyell fill out this able survey of the history of evolution and natural science.

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Scalzi, John. Old Man's War

On John Perry’s 75th birthday, he did two things: he visited his wife’s grave, and he joined the army.  The Colonial Defense Force, to be precise.  When humanity reached the stars decades previously, they found that the universe is a very crowded place.  Countless other intelligent species fight to colonize the same planets humans want, and some of those species have developed a taste for human flesh along the way. Thus, the Colonial Defense Forces were formed to protect those colonies humans have already secured and to toss the aliens off planets humans want to colonize.  The CDF only takes fully mature adults, however, age 75 and up. Everyone assumes they have some secret rejuvenation technology to make the old young again, but no one knows what it is…no one but the CDF soldiers themselves, that is.

John quickly makes friends with a group of the other 75-year-old new recruits and they manage to stay in touch through training and beyond, from battle to battle with strange and diverse alien species.  But when John encounters a Special Forces supersoldier who looks exactly like his long-dead wife but has none of her memories, he realizes that there is more to this endless war and to the CDF than he or anyone on Earth ever suspected.

Riffing on such sci-fi classics as Starship Troopers and Time Enough for Love, Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is nevertheless a fully-realized and unique view of humanity’s future among the stars, and was voted one of the Top Ten most influential science fiction books of the last decade by poll respondants on popular speculative fiction blog

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Just a Thought...Lad Lit

Sure, we’ve all heard of chick lit (sometimes called “the pink books.)  Generally dealing with the lives of urban women in their 20s and 30s, with a heavy emphasis on fashion, friendships, and relationships, the genre is booming.  But have you heard of its male-oriented counterpart, lad lit? Probably not!  Books with this label generally focus on the same age group, but with male characters, fewer descriptions of the characters’ shoes, and just as many coming-of-age relationship troubles.  So if you can’t stand one more “pink book,” why not take a look at how the other half lives and pick up some lad lit instead?


Chabon, Michael.  Wonder Boys

Gayle, Mike.  Mr. Commitment

Hornby, Nick.  High Fidelity

Lethem, Jonathan   You Don’t Love Me Yet

Meno, Joe.  Hairstyles of the Damned

Perrotta, Tom.  Joe College

Pickett, Rex.  Sideways

Tropper, Jonathan.  How To Talk to a Widower

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