Category Archives: Fiction

Strong Female Protagonists

Wild Seed. Photo courtesy of

Anyanwu. Photo courtesy of

  • Ifemelu from Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Intelligent, outspoken, Nigerian expat Ifemelu observes and records the struggles of racism and identity in her perceptive and searingly honest blog.
  • Carla, Sandra, Yolanda and Sofia from How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez –  4 spirited, teenage sisters from the Dominican Republic must navigate growing up in a new and foreign culture.
  • The Narrator/”Offred” from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – A sharp and observant woman attempts to define herself against a dystopian society which only values women for their reproductive capabilities.
  • Flavia de Luce from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley – Precocious and brilliant 11-year-old Flavia de Luce has a penchant for poison, chemistry, and trouble.
  • Jane Eyre from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – A woman of great moral fiber and backbone: “I am no bird and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”
  • Hannah Heath from People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks – Heath is a young Australian book conservator who appraises ancient manuscripts.
  • Anyanwu from Wild Seed by Octavia Butler – A powerful woman who can regnerate, stop bullets, heal and harm, caught up in a time-traveling struggle.
  • Dolly from The Grass Harp by Truman Capote – Sixty-year-old Dolly develops a secret remedy for dropsy and lives in a tree house.
  • Katsa from Graceling by Kristin Cashore – Katsa is “gifted” with the talent of killing, and by the time she is 18, she’s working unhappily as the King’s henchmen when she decides to strike out on a different path. Beautiful, deadly, cunning, and compassionate, Katsa is a complex heroine.
  • Little Bee from Little Bee by Chris Cleeve – Little Bee is a cautious, keen observer of others, a civil war survivor, and a Nigerian refugee who has fled to London.
  • Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Colins – Forced to fight to the death against other sixteen-year-olds in a dystopian society, Katniss–with her hunting skills, her powerful sense of justice, and her fierce love of and loyalty to her friends and family–is a force to be reckoned with.
  • Dinah from The Red Tent by Anita Diamant – Dinah was a minor character in the Book of Genesis, but in Diamant’s book, she takes center stage as a young woman who comes into her own.
  • Syrenka from Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama – Syrenka is a mermaid who abandons her underwater life for a chance at love on land.
  • Lucy Honeychurch from A Room With a View by E.M. Forster – Beautiful and kind Lucy Honeychurch is constrained by society and customary politeness until she travels to Italy and discovers her own feisty and passionate spirit.
  • Raquel “Rocky” Rivera from The Gangster of Love by Jessica Hagedorn – A young, spirited Filipino woman who pursues her career as a rock musician while struggling to assimilate into American culture.
  • Diana Bishop from A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness – An orphaned daughter of two witches, Diana Bishop is herself a witch, in addition to being an intelligent historian.
  • Kerewin Holmes from The Bone People by Keri Hulme – Half Maori (native New Zealander) Kerewin Holmes is a brilliant, strong, independent and artistic recluse who lives alone in a tower by the ocean.
  • Ayesha from She by H. Rider Haggard – Ayesha is a mysterious and powerful Egyptian Queen who discovers the secret of immortality.
  • Jenny Fields from The World According to Garp by John Irving – Jenny is a strong-willed and compassionate nurse who raises Garp as a single mother.
  • Frankie Landau Banks from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart – Frankie is a smart, tough, and curious sophomore who learns about a secret boys-only society at her boarding school and hatches up a cunning plan to turn it on its head.
  • Elphaba from Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire – Elphaba subverts every idea of the evil witch, and enchants as an endearing, green-skinned outcast.
  • Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I from The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell. A fascinating fictional portrayal of two of Britain’s strongest, most intelligent and famous royal women.
  • Mma “Precious” Ramotswe from The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith – An intelligent, warm, and intuitive woman, Precious is Botswana’s only female detective, and her methods are anything but conventional.
  • Aerin in The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley – A strong and complex young woman, Aerin is an outsider princess who must fight the forces of evil to save her kingdom.
  • Florence Gordon from Florence Gordon by Brian Morton – Florence Gordon is a blunt, brilliant, extremeley critical 76-year old feminist icon.
  • Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath – A young, smart, sensitive and determined female writer.
  • Sally Lockhart from The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman – Sally Lockhart is a sixteen-year-old orphan who must dodge death in her quest to uncover the secret  behind a mysterious ruby.
  • Olive Kitteridge from Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – A gloriously abrasive, cantankerous, opinionated, and determined woman.
  • Hama and Matron from Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese – Because, in the words of our Librarian Cara B., “these are not the lead characters, but they are two of my favorite (and most kick-a**) women characters ever.”
  • Celie from The Color Purple by Alice Walker – a woman of letters, Celie perceptively and honestly documents her harrowing life and her developing strength and resilience against powerful odds.
  • Maggie and Queenie from Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein – Queenie is a British spy who is caught and interrogated by the Nazis for secret codes; her close friend Maddie is a skilled and daring British pilot

And, if you’re interested, there’s a fun book titled How to Be a Heroine; or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis.

A Non-Traditional Award List for Teens Living in the Margins of Society

homeless-youthOne of the most amazing aspects of reading is the ability to discover and empathize with any and every experience you can possibly imagine. You can read up on people who are exactly like you, you can step into the skin of a being who has never existed in our world, or you can visit a place that once existed and now only continues to do so in ruins and fossilized records.The point is, you get to choose your own experiences. And they’re endless.

Sometimes we want to read about people who are similar to ourselves; it’s a way to understand the world and how we relate to it. After a while, though, you may want a change. I know that lately I’ve been craving stories that aren’t about lives similar to mine, but feature, in fact, a very different set of circumstances. Again, it’s a way to understand the world and how we relate to it. Maybe it’s a type of voyeurism. Maybe it’s a form of consolation. More likely, it’s genuine interest. It’s a desire to stretch my empathy; to expand my sense of experience (even though I’m not actually experiencing it. Thought to discuss at a latter date: what is the difference between reading about or watching an experience as opposed to living through it directly? What can indirect experiences teach us? What is the benefit?). Some have said it’s a form of self-punishment; the desire to dive into dark holes of despair and hopelessness. But there again, is the beauty: each of us gets to choose our own experiences. We may not be able to control much about our “real” lives, but we can sure choose the types of lives we want to explore in books.

For some of you, the following book list, which speaks to “teens living in poverty, on the streets, in custody, or a cycle of all three” will offer experiences you’re completely unfamiliar with or perhaps don’t care to read about. That’s fine. For those of you who sense something interesting, pursue it. Lists like this are important in that they allow all of us to see a group of people who, while facing significant and difficult challenges, are often invisible in everyday society. They help those of us who are familiar with the subject matter (teen incarceration, custody, poverty, homelessness) to work through our own experiences. They remind us that we’re not alone. At the same time, these lists help those of us who have (luckily) never had to deal with such experiences that there people out there not only facing them, but having to live with all of these challenges, daily. And whenever you step outside of your comfort zone, there’s valuable wisdom, experience, or insight to be gained.

The ASCLA has a Library Services for Youth in Custody group which advocates for youth who have been detained in various types of correctional institutes.These books are recommended for anyone who is interested in teens living in the margins of society. Check out their website for the complete list of 25 titles.

The 2014 top ten (of which Mill Valley Library carries 6) are:

An excellent resource for incarcerated youth, the Beat Within is a non-profit organization that works with juveniles in detention facilities to express their thoughts and feelings through words and art. Check out some pretty powerful and amazing work created by teens in the program on the Beat Within’s Facebook page.

There Be Monsters!


Reality with a Twist: Magical Realism



steampunk“In three short words, steampunk is Victorian science fiction. Here “Victorian” is not meant to indicate a specific culture, but rather references a time period and an aesthetic: the industrialized 19th century. Historically, this period saw the development of many key aspects of the modern world (mechanized manufacturing, extensive urbanization, telecommunications, office life and mass-transit), and steampunk uses this existing technology and structure to imagine an even more advanced 19th century, often complete with Victorian-inspired wonders like steam-powered aircraft and mechanical computers.”


Coming of Age Fiction


Italian Mysteries

classic-venice From Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series to Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, from Roslund & Hellstrom’s Ewert Grens series to Jussi Adler-Olsen Department Q series, and my personal favorite (particularly when listened to in audiobook form, narrated by the warm, husky voice of Robin Sachs) Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole mysteries, Scandinavian crime novels have been all the rage for the past few years. If you haven’t checked out Jussi Adler-Olsen or Jo Nesbo and you enjoy  perceptive, troubled detectives and extremely dark, psychologically twisted mysteries, do yourself a favor and pick up a book or two of their work. However, if you’re tired of the cold Scandinavian gloom and are looking for something similar, why not try heading south to the romantic and occasionally dangerous locale of Italy? To whet your appetite for fine Italian crime, consider the following:

  • The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri. The first book in the Inspector Salvo Montalbano series, set in a fictional Sicilian town. Touches of optimism peek through the gritty atmosphere.
  • Bandit Love by Massimo Carlotto. Set in Padua, Carlotto introduces hard-boiled noir detective, Mario Burratti, aka, the Alligator. A tale of corruption and revenge.
  • A Walk in the Dark by Gianrico Carofiglio. A legal thriller set in Bari, featuring defense attorney Guido Guerrieri. 2nd in the Guido Guerrieri series. Unexpected plot twists merge with clever, sharp writing.
  • Ratking by Michael Dibdin. The first in the Commissoner Aurelio Zen mystery series, set in Perugia. (Dibdin was born in Britain.) World-weary, cynical detective is balanced out with patches of dry humor.
  • The Crocodile by Maurizio de Giovanni. A noir detective novel featuring Sicilian Inspector Giuseppe Lojacono and set in Naples. Grim with memorable, lovelorn characters.
  • Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon. Queen of the Italian detective novel with a strong sense of place, Leon introduces Venetian police Commissario Guido Brunetti in the first of a long-running series. Exquisite descriptions and a world-weary, honest Detective.
  • Carte Blanche by Carlo Lucarelli. The first in the Commissario de Luca Trilogy, set in Italy as the tail-end of WWII. Gritty noir.
  • Death of an Englishman by Magdalen Nabb. The first installment of the Florence Inspector Marshal Guarnaccia series. (Nabb was an expatriate living in Italy.) Compassionate, self-effacing hero faces significant social and political troubles.
  • A Private Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco. Scerbanenco has been called “the Godfather” of Italian Crime; here he introduces disbarred doctor Duca Lamerti, the anti-hero of the series set in Milan. Bleak with unforgettable characters.
  • To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia. An anti-hero mystery which provides an inside look at Sicilian life. A quick read with spare prose which delivers a powerful critique on Sicilian society.


Man Booker Prize

manbookerawardMan Booker Prize Winners

Awarded to the finest fiction written by a citizen of the U.K., the Commonwealth, or the Republic of Ireland.


Nebula Awards (Sci-Fi/Fantasy)

nebulaawardsNebula Award Winners

Awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Inc. for Outstanding Science Fiction and Fantasy.


Hugo Awards (Sci-Fi/Fantasy)

hugoawardHugo Award Winners

Awarded annually to the best book in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The awards are given in multiple categories, but only Best Novel is listed here unless otherwise noted.