The life of a bookseller is not typically glamorous, but a couple of months ago I got to attend what for me was the equivalent of a star-studded, blockbuster Hollywood premiere. It was an invitation-only preview for a forthcoming novel, attended by more than a dozen colleagues from all over Puget Sound, all gathered to meet the author and share a drink (or two or three) with him.... It was quite a night. The idea behind the whole thing, of course, was to get us booksellers excited about the new book so we'd share it with our customers when it came out, which is exactly what I'm doing. Don't tell the publishers, but they didn't need to wine and dine me to get me to do it. I loved the book anyway.

Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda is set in the 17th century in what is now Canada, and its plot is set in motion when Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary there, is captured by a Huron warrior named Bird. The priest is carried back to the Huron village along with a young Iroquois girl named Snow Falls, and each of the three takes it in turn to narrate the story from a very different point of view. Christophe is desperate to stay alive, but even more desperate to save savage souls; Bird wants to sustain and protect his people, whether by negotiation or by force; and Snow Falls must find a way to maintain her personal and cultural identity in an enemy land.

These characters bond and break and reconnect with each other in a series of shifting alliances driven by external events. There’s ongoing political machination by the French colonial government, drought that threatens food supplies, and inter-tribal hostility, but there’s also friendship, familial affection, and the shared pleasures of village life during an idyllic season. It’s a complete, thoroughly researched look at a fascinating time and place that’s just past the edge of familiarity....Read More

Joshua Ferris made a splash back in 2007 with Then We Came to the End, his wry-yet-profound satire on office life. Somehow he managed to put his finger on the one thing all workplaces have in commondistractions. The bagels, gossip, and desk chairs of his fictional advertising firm became universal symbols of how difficult it is to be in the present when you’re muddling through a workday.

In 2010 Ferris brought us The Unnamed, an overly self-conscious story about a man who literally could not stop walking. The Wall Street lawyer who suddenly finds himself walking out of meetings and away from his family is just the kind of man who longs to be in that office from Then We Came to the End. He wants distractions, but his body won’t let him have them. The walking disease ruins his life, and while the metaphors and meditations on modern life offer up plenty to think about, the protagonist never found a direction and neither does the reader. By veering off into too many subplots and existential tangents, Ferris lost us. The Unnamed was a textbook case of sophomore slump.

As a reader who had adamantly believed in Ferris’s talents after his debut, I was sorely disappointed by The Unnamed. Enough so that I almost didn’t pick up his next effort. But I did, and it’s with great pleasure that I assure you his new novel coming this month, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, returns to his first brilliantly funny, original, and complex chord and follows through on the promise of greatness we first saw in Then We Came to the End. Readers: I, for one, am so glad that Ferris is back....Read More

With our youngest, Lewis, leaving home in the fall to attend college in the Midwest, this Mother’s Day takes on a special meaning and gives me pause to reflect. The school-age years have been full, as I watched our children forge their own friendships and become the young adults that they are, but it was the early years when we hunkered down on the couch and read piles of books for hours at a time, completely absorbed in stories, that hold the fondest memories.

I liked to read aloud and my kids loved to listen—-a match made in heaven. In those early years of babies and preschoolers, the one constant I remember is reading books, stacks of picture books. I know there were swing sets and sandboxes, mud pie concoctions and villages made of refrigerator boxes. There were tears and tantrums and endless meals, but what I remember most of all are the books being read and the stories imagined. It may be how I kept my sanity, often thinking that I was actually able to sleep and read to them at the same time.

It all began with my desperation to get a two-week old Emma to sleep, if only for an hour. I grabbed the nearest thing at hand, a copy of Mad About Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, and began to read. “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, there were twelve little girls in two straight lines…” and on it went, and as long as I read she lay quietly listening to the end of the complete collection. I had cast my first spell on this little child. The likes of Goodnight Gorilla with the many colored keys and Sandra Boynton’s Barnyard Dance took us through, until we had the endurance to tackle books with more text, like Babar or anything by Elsa Beskow or William Steig. Babar and the Old Lady who offered him her wallet to buy a suit and old Cornelius the quavering elephant have remained dear friends to us all.

When they could listen to chapter books things got really exciting. These long, rich, layered stories were where the passion took purchase. The Wizard of Oz books captured their imaginations like nothing before. They would leap up and spend hours being the characters. At one point, two-year-old Lewis looked longingly at his sister dressed in a new silver lamé tin man costume (sewn in the wee hours by her mother) and exclaimed wistfully, “Now I can be Dorothy.” And he was, day after day for weeks, dressed in blue gingham and ruby slippers. I was compelled to tuck his dress up into his parka to save him or me the embarrassment of the preschool mothers at the grocery store. Then Pippi Longstocking and her faithful side kick Mr. Nilsson came into our lives. It was as close to a cult as I’ve ever seen around our house, complete with wires in Emma’s braids, striped tights on Lewis, and circus shows in the backyard.

Perhaps because we all enjoyed the big stories so much, neither of our kids felt compelled to learn to read independently at a very young age. Captain Underpants was the first book a six-year-old Emma read aloud by herself to her four-year-old brother, who was delighted. In fact, they reluctantly slogged through boring level readers, until I would tell them to forget about that and we would pile back on the couch with our favorite micro niche of cheerful fantasy. During those days, The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards set us on the quest for anything as good. The Battle of Castle Cockatrice by Gerald Durrell (unfortunately out of print) was terrific with its parrot who annually aired all the words in the dictionary, and then anything by Eva Ibbotson, particularly The Secret of Platform 13.

It was on New Year's Eve of his third year when Lewis’s godfather told him that if he left his favorite books open on that night at midnight the characters would come to life. Being the fearful little guy that he was, Lewis came running down stairs well after his bedtime to slam Little House on the Prairie shut, realizing that the Indian who stealthily came into Ma’s kitchen demanding corn cakes was going to soon be coming out of that book and into his house.

Lewis in particular was hooked on audio books and the rest of us followed suit. We lived for Erickson’s Hank the Cow Dog stories with Hank the head of ranch security and his Texas drawl. We piled into the car to play My Only May Amelia as we drove through Astoria, Will Hobbs’s Ghost Canoe in Neah Bay, or the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder like On the Banks of Plum Creek, providing a soothing narration to long road trips. Even years later at 12 and 14, these kids of ours made a pact to finish all Harry Potter books by listening to the Jim Dale audio to assure that neither one got to the end first.

So maybe I could have done this mothering thing differently and my children would be practical scientists or mathematicians in the making, but instead they are exactly as they always have been and really in my opinion, should be, the sorts who love stories, bookseller’s children. I am forever grateful for those years spent reading to them. So if you are at home with little ones, I suggest you make time to read. Read a lot to them. Punctuate your days with books, piles of books on the couch. You will never regret it.

Happy Mother's Day,
Nancy Page
Owner and Bookseller

The Renton airport will be visited by a pair of senior citizens this weekend, both officially retired but still extremely active and looking sharp. Streamlined, too, if I may say. One is an original B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, and the other is a P-51 Mustang fighter. They’ve been brought into town by a private organization that maintains the planes and keeps them in service as flying museums. And as profit generators—you can sign up to take a flight in one or the other, but it’ll set you back at least $450. Not bad as once-in-a-lifetime experiences go, but there are cheaper ways to find out what it’s like to pilot one of these vintage military machines. I mean by reading about it, naturally....Read More

(Our store journal keeps you posted on books we're excited about, our literary musings, and other reading-related rambles. If you like, you can sign up to receive our posts by email.)

No, this is not a picture of Island Books (thank goodness). This, my friends, is what happens when you tackle some home reorganization. Far too many of your possessions get shoved into the home office.

Don’t be misled by the bookshelves. That’s only a fraction of the books in my house. The rest are in boxes or scattered randomly across the room. But my purpose today is not to complain about the mess that is my house, because eventually we’ll get it put back together again. Instead, I’m here to pose a question. How do you organize your bookshelves?

As I watched this mess pile up, I took note of where my books have been living. When we originally moved in in 2010, it made some sense. My husband’s books were mostly separated from mine. His were mostly medical journals, history, classics, narrative nonfiction, and science. Mine were mostly literary fiction, thrillers, more classics, ballet books, and some young adult. By keeping our books separate we had some categorical clarity....Read More

It’s been too long since we talked about comics here on Message in a Bottle, and it’s a particular pleasure that someone close to Island Books has given us a great reason to do so. Alec Longstreth is a born-and-bred Mercer Islander, and his new graphic novel Basewood is currently dressing up our shelves quite handsomely.

At first glance, it seems like classic comic kid stuff, as Longstreth’s own description suggests: “Adventure! Mystery! Tree houses! A Wolf-Dragon! Basewood tells of a young man who wakes up in the woods with no memory of how he got there. The reader follows along as our hero tries to uncover the details of his mysterious past.” Perfectly accurate, and yet there are deceptive depths here, ones that can be summed up in the difference between the words “simple” and simplistic.” The amnesiac protagonist is seeking a self and a home, and his story has all the resonance of an ancient epic or a fairy tale quest. As such, it’s great for all ages....Read More

My 19-month-old twins like Mercerdale and Luther Burbank, but their favorite outdoor play spot on the island is Deane’s Children’s park. It’s my preference too because the lush surrounding trees and ferns mean they can’t take off running as easily.

There’s another big reason to love this gem: the dragon. The original 50-foot, six ton dragon was created in 1965 by an artist named Kenton Pies. Just this past year, the Parks and Recreation Department tracked down Pies in Montana and commissioned him to rebuild the dragon. Late last fall, the new and improved structure made an impressive debut. Generations of families who grew up playing on the old dragon brought their own kids to make a tradition out of the new one. My kids love crawling through the stomach, playing peek-a-boo around the jaws, and cautiously sliding tummy-first down the tail.

As you can imagine, the real-life dragon has inspired much talk about dragons beyond the park. Now when we read books with dragons in them, we can ask the kids, “Where’s the dragon?” and they can point to it, even if they aren’t saying the word yet. The best is when we are walking towards the park and I ask them where the dragon is. They know exactly what I mean, and the fingers immediately point and a bunch of unintelligible baby-gibberish comes pouring out (which I translate to: “Yay! Dragon! Yay!”). Basically, dragons are a hit....Read More

Journalism (excepting that branch of it that involves reporting from war zones while ducking sniper fire) doesn’t appear to be especially difficult. Most of the time it seems fairly straightforward, but it’s actually a tricky business. Even if you’ve figured out which questions to ask which people to find out what you want to know, you have to assemble the answers like puzzle pieces. You can tell how hard it is to make the picture come out right when you read an article about a subject you know well. That’s what happened last week when little old Island Books popped up in the New York Times.

We saw a noticeable spike in traffic on our website and blog after the story first ran (above the fold on the NYT home page, no less)....Read More

(Our store journal keeps you posted on books we're excited about, our literary musings, and other reading-related rambles. If you like, you can sign up to receive our posts by email.)

Dragons, time travel, and magic bake shops dominate the middle grade reader display month after month. For the most part this collection of silly, magical, and not-too-scary stories does the trick for the kids who look to me for advice at the Island Books counter. But occasionally a real mystery fan comes along, or more often a kid trying to cover all the required genres for a school reading list. There’s a reason that category is always left to the end, namely because there just hasn’t been a very good selection of mysteries for kids in a long time. Nancy Drew, Harriet the Spy, and the Hardy Boys can only go so far, though they are the real deal when it comes to good whodunits.

The mysteries I manage to recommend are usually imbedded in a fantasy adventure book or a piece of good general fiction, when a slightly unknown piece of plot business becomes clear at the end of the story. So imagine my surprise and pleasure at seeing our newly curated collection of middle-grade readers literally piled with straight-up mysteries for kids....Read More
My mother-in-law is staying with us this week, which sounds like I’m setting up a rather stale joke. I’m not coming on all Henny Youngman, though—I very much enjoy her visits. First of all, they make my wife happy, and second, my mother-in-law is no mean chef. If you haven’t tried her couscous or her lapin à la bière et aux pruneaux, you’re missing out, let me tell you. More than that, listening to her talk about her life is better than watching whatever premium cable TV show currently has you on the edge of your seat.

She grew up in Blida, Algeria, part of a nuclear family that we’d all recognize, though her own mother was born into a polygamous household with sixteen siblings. My mother-in-law thus has more cousins and other relations than I can count, maybe more than a hundred. She describes what sounds like a fairly idyllic childhood, playing at the foot of the fruit trees her father planted in their courtyard and outrunning the boys down the street in her bare feet. She had pets, too, of the usual kind. You know, like a baby gazelle and a fennec fox. She also kept a lamb at one point, although I don’t think it followed her to school.

She did go to school, which wasn’t a universal practice for girls in that place at that time. Her father was by all accounts a thoughtful, gentle man, and if he wasn’t completely immune to the sexism around him, he must have had only the mildest case, because he treated his daughter with respect and afforded her as much opportunity as he did her brothers. Not all were so lucky, as the Francophone writer Assia Djebar has spent her career illustrating. She’s a near-exact contemporary of my mother-in-law, born in a neighboring community, who in novels such as Fantasia (trans. by Dorothy S. Blair) and Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (trans. by Marjolijn de Jager) has created a panorama of the female experience in North Africa from the nineteenth century to the present day...

The government in Paris struggled to maintain the status quo as Algerians fought against the French army and among each other for different kinds of independence. Those of French descent (often called pieds-noirs, or “black feet”) battled against Muslim traditionalists in what was effectively a simultaneous revolution and civil war. As a teenager, my mother-in-law rode along with ill-equipped French soldiers into dangerous territory, providing basic medical care to indigent villagers, particularly women. You might know that modern hospitals administer antibiotic eyedrops to babies immediately after birth, but did you know that in the field the juice from a sliced lemon can serve as a substitute? It did in the late 1950s in Algeria, anyway...

The half a million French soldiers dispatched to what were euphemistically called “operations in North Africa” felt ignored and unsupported, much as American troops in Vietnam did. Even afterwards, few wanted to discuss the war, but in the thick of the fight, one novel appeared that addressed it directly. In 1957, Daniel Anselme published On Leave, about three soldiers who return briefly to a home that doesn’t want them. It sank like a stone and wasn’t rediscovered until it was translated in 2014 by David Bellos. His introduction to the new edition expertly contextualizes the story and establishes Anselme’s brilliance. It’s doubtful that any novel has more closely examined the experience of men unmoored by war....Read More

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