Alex Awards

The Winners: 2008  

American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China, by Matthew Polly
Bill Bryson meets Bruce Lee in this raucously funny story of one scrawny American’s quest to become a kung fu master at China’s legendary Shaolin Temple.

Growing up a ninety-pound weakling tormented by bullies in the schoolyards of Kansas, young Matthew Polly dreamed of one day journeying to the Shaolin Temple in China to become the toughest fighter in the world, like Caine in his favorite 1970s TV series, Kung Fu. While in college, Matthew decided the time had come to pursue this quixotic dream before it was too late. Much to the dismay of his parents, he dropped out of Princeton to spend two years training with the legendary sect of monks who invented kung fu and Zen Buddhism. Expecting to find an isolated citadel populated by supernatural ascetics that he’d seen in countless badly dubbed chop-socky flicks, Matthew instead discovered a tacky tourist trap run by Communist party hacks. But the dedicated monks still trained in the rigorous age-old fighting forms—some even practicing the "iron kung fu" discipline, in which intensive training can make various body parts virtually indestructible (even the crotch). As Matthew grew in his knowledge of China and kung fu skill, he would come to represent the Temple in challenge matches and international competitions, and ultimately the monks would accept their new American initiate as close to one of their own as any Westerner had ever become.

Laced with humor and illuminated by cultural insight, American Shaolin is an unforgettable coming-of-age tale of one young man’s journey into the ancient art of kung fu—and a funny and poignant portrait of a rapidly changing China.

Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff
Jane Charlotte has been arrested for murder.

She tells police that she is a member of a secret organization devoted to fighting evil; her division is called the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons—"Bad Monkeys" for short.
This confession earns Jane a trip to the jail's psychiatric wing, where a doctor attempts to determine whether she is lying, crazy—or playing a different game altogether. What follows is one of the most clever and gripping novels you'll ever read.

Essex County Volume 1: Tales from the Farm, by Jeff Lemire
Lester is 10 years old. His mother just died, so now he lives on a farm with his uncle Ken. Lester is crazy about superheroes: he reads cool titles like The Flash; writes and draws a comic called Heroes and Villains; and even has a superhero outfit that he wears pretty much all the time, especially when he's defending the Earth from space aliens. Lester befriends Jimmy Lebeuf, who works at the Esso station. Jimmy is a grown up who used to be a hockey player; for some reason he takes an interest in Lester. They read superhero comics, play ice hockey and build a fort together. Unfortunately, Uncle Ken doesn't approve of this friendship and tells Jimmy to knock it off. This is the first volume of a trilogy set in the author's hometown of Essex County, Ontario. One of the interesting things about this graphic novel is the setting: for a place that's in the middle of nowhere, there's a lot happening here. Although it's not explicitly stated, it's pretty obvious that Jimmy is Lester's father. I'm not sure what to make of the ending—does Jimmy really die or is the entire episode part of Lester's fantasy life? The b/w art is gritty and choppy and does a great job of illustrating the emptiness (both physical and emotional) of the landscape. This graphic novel contains bad language (f-bombs galore) and is recommended for adults and older high school collections that emphasize avant-garde/independent/art-house comics.

Genghis: Birth of an Empire, by Conn Iggulden IGG
He was born Temujin, the son of a khan, raised in a clan of hunters migrating across the rugged steppe. Temujin’s young life was shaped by a series of brutal acts: the betrayal of his father by a neighboring tribe and the abandonment of his entire family, cruelly left to die on the harsh plain. But Temujin endured—and from that moment on, he was driven by a singular fury: to survive in the face of death, to kill before being killed, and to conquer enemies who could come without warning from beyond the horizon.

Through a series of courageous raids against the Tartars, Temujin’s legend grew. And so did the challenges he faced—from the machinations of a Chinese ambassador to the brutal abduction of his young wife, Borte. Blessed with ferocious courage, it was the young warrior’s ability to learn, to imagine, and to judge the hearts of others that propelled him to greater and greater power. Until Temujin was chasing a vision: to unite many tribes into one, to make the earth tremble under the hoofbeats of a thousand warhorses, to subject unknown nations and even empires to his will.

The God of Animals, by Aryn Kyle Large Print KYL
When her older sister runs away to marry a rodeo cowboy, Alice Winston is left to bear the brunt of her family's troubles -- a depressed, bedridden mother; a reticent, overworked father; and a run-down horse ranch. As the hottest summer in fifteen years unfolds and bills pile up, Alice is torn between dreams of escaping the loneliness of her duty-filled life and a longing to help her father mend their family and the ranch.

To make ends meet, the Winstons board the pampered horses of rich neighbors, and for the first time Alice confronts the power and security that class and wealth provide. As her family and their well-being become intertwined with the lives of their clients, Alice is drawn into an adult world of secrets and hard truths, and soon discovers that people -- including herself -- can be cruel, can lie and cheat, and every once in a while, can do something heartbreaking and selfless. Ultimately, Alice and her family must weather a devastating betrayal and a shocking, violent series of events that will test their love and prove the power of forgiveness.

A wise and astonishing novel about the different guises of love and the often steep tolls on the road to adulthood, The God of Animals is a haunting, unforgettable debut.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah 966.4 BEA & Large Print 966.4 BEA
My new friends have begun to suspect I haven't told them the full story of my life.
“Why did you leave Sierra Leone?”
“Because there is a war.”
“You mean, you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”
“Yes, all the time.”
I smile a little.
“You should tell us about it sometime.”
“Yes, sometime.”
This is how wars are fought now: by children, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. Children have become soldiers of choice. In the more than fifty conflicts going on worldwide, it is estimated that there are some 300,000 child soldiers. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them.
What is war like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Child soldiers have been profiled by journalists, and novelists have struggled to imagine their lives. But until now, there has not been a first-person account from someone who came through this hell and survived.
In A Long Way Gone, Beah, now twenty-five years old, tells a riveting story: how at the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he'd been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts.

This is a rare and mesmerizing account, told with real literary force and heartbreaking honesty.
Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones
In a novel that is at once intense, beautiful, and fable like, Lloyd Jones weaves a transcendent story that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the power of narrative to transform our lives.

On a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, where the teachers have fled with most everyone else, only one white man chooses to stay behind: the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, who sweeps out the ruined schoolhouse and begins to read to the children each day from Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations.

So begins this rare, original story about the abiding strength that imagination, once ignited, can provide. As artillery echoes in the mountains, thirteen-year-old Matilda and her peers are riveted by the adventures of a young orphan named Pip in a city called London, a city whose contours soon become more real than their own blighted landscape. As Mr. Watts says, “A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe.” Soon come the rest of the villagers, initially threatened, finally inspired to share tales of their own that bring alive the rich mythology of their past. But in a ravaged place where even children are forced to live by their wits and daily survival is the only objective, imagination can be a dangerous thing.
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss Science Fiction ROT
Told in Kvothe's own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature. A high-action story written with a poet's hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard.

Night Birds, by Thomas Maltman MAL
The summer of 1876 feels like the end of the world to fourteen-year-old Asa Senger. Locusts plague the prairie farms; his family is about to lose everything. The Dakota Indians have been banished from Minnesota, yet an aged Indian appears. His father, the sheriff, jails him, counting on a bounty payment, but Asa is somehow compelled to free the old man, and must bear this guilt. The James-Younger gang, preparing to rob Northfield, stops at their farmhouse. What has propelled them into his life? In this time of fear, another mysterious visitor appears, an aunt who has been confined to an asylum for years. His mother wants nothing to do with her; his father welcomes her. Asa learns that his identity is bound up in a lost history, The Great Sioux Uprising, which everyone else wants to forget. Prefigured by the twin ravens Hunin and Munin-Memory and Understanding-from his dead grandfather's treasured Grimm's fairy tales, Asa learns that the past is as close as his own heartbeat. Without understanding that past he can neither know who he is, nor who he may become.

The Spellman Files, by Lisa Lutz LUT & Large Print LUT
Meet Isabel "Izzy" Spellman, private investigator. This twenty-eight-year-old may have a checkered past littered with romantic mistakes, excessive drinking, and creative vandalism; she may be addicted to Get Smart reruns and prefer entering homes through windows rather than doors -- but the upshot is she's good at her job as a licensed private investigator with her family's firm, Spellman Investigations. Invading people's privacy comes naturally to Izzy. In fact, it comes naturally to all the Spellmans. If only they could leave their work at the office. To be a Spellman is to snoop on a Spellman; tail a Spellman; dig up dirt on, blackmail, and wiretap a Spellman.
Part Nancy Drew, part Dirty Harry, Izzy walks an indistinguishable line between Spellman family member and Spellman employee. Duties include: completing assignments from the bosses, aka Mom and Dad (preferably without scrutiny); appeasing her chronically perfect lawyer brother (often under duress); setting an example for her fourteen-year-old sister, Rae (who's become addicted to "recreational surveillance"); and tracking down her uncle (who randomly disappears on benders dubbed "Lost Weekends"). But when Izzy's parents hire Rae to follow her (for the purpose of ascertaining the identity of Izzy's new boyfriend), Izzy snaps and decides that the only way she will ever be normal is if she gets out of the family business. But there's a hitch: she must take one last job before they'll let her go -- a fifteen-year-old, ice-cold missing person case. She accepts, only to experience a disappearance far closer to home, which becomes the most important case of her life. The Spellman Files is the first novel in a winning and hilarious new series featuring the Spellman family in all its lovable chaos.

The Winners: 2007

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly  Sci-Fi CON
Thriller writer Connolly (Every Dead Thing) turns from criminal fears to primal fears in this enchanting novel about a 12-year-old English boy, David, who is thrust into a realm where eternal stories and fairy tales assume an often gruesome reality. Books are the magic that speak to David, whose mother has died at the start of WWII after a long debilitating illness. His father remarries, and soon his stepmother is pregnant with yet another interloper who will threaten David's place in his father's life. When a portal to another world opens in time-honored fashion, David enters a land of beasts and monsters where he must undertake a quest if he is to earn his way back out. Connolly echoes many great fairy tales and legends (Little Red Riding Hood, Roland, Hansel and Gretel), but cleverly twists them to his own purposes. Despite horrific elements, this tale is never truly frightening, but is consistently entertaining as David learns lessons of bravery, loyalty and honor that all of us should learn.

The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig  DOI & Large Print DOI
Doig, a native of Montana, has been celebrating the natural beauty of his state and depicting the pleasures and challenges of frontier life for many years now in books like This House of Sky and English Creek. Here he returns to Montana to deal with these signature themes once again, with very satisfying results. Set in the early 1900s, this novel is a nostalgic, bittersweet story about a widower, his three sons, and the year these boys spend in a one-room country schoolhouse. The novel begins with the father, Oliver, hiring a widowed housekeeper named Rose from Minneapolis (her advertisement reads Can't Cook but Doesn't Bite). She arrives with her unconventional brother, Morrie, in tow. Morrie is something of a scholar, and he soon finds himself pressed into service as a replacement teacher. During the course of the novel, these intriguing and unpredictable characters come together in surprising and uplifting ways. This is an affectionate, heartwarming tale that also celebrates a vanished way of life and laments its passing.

Eagle Blue: A Team, A Tribe, and A High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska  by Michael D’Orso  796.3 DOR
Everything in Alaska's bush is tough, from earning a living to surviving the elements. One thing that helps citizens in the isolated, mostly Native American bush communities cope with the long winters is high-school basketball. Fort Yukon High School had 32 students enrolled in 2004, and of those, 14 boys and 7 girls were on the respective basketball teams. The boys program is one of the most successful in the state: the preceding eight seasons, they won regional titles and most recently advanced to the finals before losing. With the OK of school officials and the players, D'Orso imbedded himself with the team for the 2004-05 season. He lived in a small Fort Yukon cabin, attended all the practices and games, and tried to learn as much as possible about the culture of the town in which the players live. The result is a thoroughly fascinating mix of sports and cultural anthropology. The basketball narrative is fascinating as D'Orso examines the team dynamic, a la John Feinstein, but the real beauty of the book emerges in the contextual portrait of life in a small bush town where the traditions of hunting, trapping, and fishing are slowly eroded by the culture of snowmobiles, video games, and television. An inspiring, sometimes disturbing portrait of a culture in crisis.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen   GRU
Life is good for Jacob Jankowski. He's about to graduate from veterinary school and about to bed the girl of his dreams. Then his parents are killed in a car crash, leaving him in the middle of the Great Depression with no home, no family, and no career. Almost by accident, Jacob joins the circus. There he falls in love with the beautiful performer Marlena, who is married to the circus' psychotic animal trainer. He also meets the other love of his life, Rosie the elephant. This lushly romantic novel travels back in forth in time between Jacob's present day in a nursing home and his adventures in the surprisingly harsh world of 1930s circuses. The ending of both stories is a little too cheerful to be believed, but just like a circus, the magic of the story and the writing convince you to suspend your disbelief. The book is partially based on real circus stories and illustrated with historical circus photographs.

Color of the Sea by John Hamamura
Born in Hawaii to Japanese parents, Sam Hamada is not destined to follow in his father's footsteps as a mere plantation worker. Education, both traditional schooling and martial arts training, is Sam's ticket out, leading him to college on the mainland, where he meets Keiko, the fetching, willful daughter of Japanese immigrants. Yet while Keiko and Sam are falling in love, their adopted and native lands are preparing for war. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Keiko's family is incarcerated in internment camps while Sam is drafted into the U.S. Army, where he unwittingly plays a key role in the bombing of Hiroshima, still home to his mother and siblings. To be a Japanese American in mid-twentieth-century America was to be perceived as neither Japanese nor American, and it is this conflict that informs Hamamura's ambitious coming-of-age novel, in which the fate of two people amid the devastation of war reveals how the promises of honor and the security of love can rescue souls and restore faith.

The Floor of the Sky by Pamela Carter Joern   JOE
Joern intricately weaves together a compelling family saga and a beautifully rendered paean to the land her characters love and are struggling to preserve. Rooted in the Nebraska Sandhills, Toby, an aging widow, lives with her older sister in the house their parents built before the Depression. Toby invites Lila, her pregnant 16-year-old granddaughter, to stay with them until her baby is born, in part to assuage the long-standing rift between Toby and Lila's mother. While sifting through her feelings about her pregnancy, impending motherhood, and adoption, Lila simultaneously begins digging into family secrets, including the death of Toby's first love in an accident caused by her father and the son Toby gave up for adoption months later. Surrounding the intertwined details of this family's loves, jealousies, and regrets like a cocoon is their emotional bond with the land itself--the land they're in danger of losing to a ranching conglomerate. Joern's lyrical and painterly descriptions of the vast Sandhills are the perfect backdrop for this subtle drama.

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis  796.33 LEW
Best-selling author Lewis (Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game) shows how changes in the pro game—wrought by 49ers head coach Bill Walsh's efficient passing attack and a defense emphasizing Lawrence Taylor–style speed rushers from the quarterback's blind side—mean that the offensive left tackle position now rivals the quarterback both in importance and in pay scale. Lewis's discussion of evolving strategy is woven into the true focus of his book, a profile of African American football prodigy Michael Oher. One of 13 children of a drug-addicted mother, Oher was homeless in Memphis when he was placed in the Briarcrest Christian School and then adopted by a wealthy white family. He found a sense of belonging and a future. He is now the massive left tackle for the University of Mississippi. His strange, sad, and yet inspiring tale is grippingly told here.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell  MIT
Thirteen chapters provide a monthly snapshot of Jason Taylor's life in small-town England from January 1982 to January 1983. Whether the 13-year-old narrator is battling his stammer or trying to navigate the social hierarchy of his schoolmates or watching the slow disintegration of his parents' marriage, he relates his story in a voice that is achingly true to life. Each chapter becomes a skillfully drawn creation that can stand on its own, but is subtly interwoven with the others. While readers may not see the connectedness in the first two thirds of the book, the final three sections skillfully bring the threads together. The author does not pull any punches when it comes to the casual cruelty that adolescent boys can inflict on one another, but it is this very brutality that underscores the sweetness of which they are also capable. With its British slang and complex twists and turns, this title is not a selection for reluctant readers, but teens who enjoy multifaceted coming-of-age stories will be richly rewarded. The chapter entitled Rocks, which centers around the British conflict in the Falkland Islands in May 1982, is especially compelling as Jason and his peers deal with the death of one of their own.

The World Made Straight by Ron Rash
Rash (Appalachian studies, Western Carolina Univ.; Raising the Dead) once again succeeds in offering a convincing portrayal of Southern life. Protagonist Travis Shelton drops out of high school and loses his job at the local grocer's. With no money and no prospects, he resorts to stealing marijuana from the town's most savage drug dealer, Carlton Toomey, but on his third attempt is caught in a bear trap set by Toomey to catch the thief. After a brief hospital stay, Travis moves into a trailer with Leonard Shuler, a schoolteacher-turned-dealer who has lost his teaching license and family. As time passes, Travis becomes deeply involved in studying Leonard's books, and Leonard realizes the boy's potential for success outside their small town. Their eccentric friendship provides Travis with a final opportunity to outrun his violent ancestry and make something great of his future.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield  SET
Margaret Lea, a bookish loner, is summoned to the home of Vida Winter, England's most popular novelist, and commanded to write her biography. Miss Winter has been falsifying her life story and her identity for more than 60 years. Facing imminent death and feeling an unexplainable connection to Margaret, Miss Winter begins to spin a haunting, suspenseful tale of an old English estate, a devastating fire, twin girls, a governess, and a ghost. As Margaret carefully records Vida's tale, she ponders her own family secrets. Her research takes her to the English moors to view a mansion's ruins and discover an unexpected ending to Vida's story. Readers will be mesmerized by this -story-within-a-story tinged with the eeriness of Rebecca and the willfulness of Jane Eyre. The author skillfully keeps the plot moving by unfurling a new twist in each chapter and leaves no strand untucked at the surprising and satisfying conclusion. A wholly original work told in the vein of all the best gothic classics.