I was away from the office (and the computer and the blog) in one way or another for all of August. All that airplane travel allowed me to put a dent in my “for fun” reading pile.  Here are the highlights:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett – I have to admit that I was hesitant to pick up this book. I kept seeing reviews everywhere and when I read that Stockett worked in the New York magazine world, I thought “well that explains it.” But curiosity got the better of me and boy was I happy it did.  The Help is one of those books that you can’t put down, but kind of want to so that the characters and writing stay with you as long as possible. Here’s a quick summary : After graduating from Ole Miss with a degree in English, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan returns to her parents’ cotton farm in Jackson. It’s 1962 and the civil rights movement is underway, but she is largely unaware of the tensions gathering around her town. When her best friend makes a political issue of not allowing the “help” to use the toilets in their employers’ houses, she decides to write a book in which the community’s maids — their names disguised — talk about their experiences. Aibileen and Minny share the narration with Skeeter in an unsparing portrait of the conditions of black servitude a century after the Civil War.  PW called The Help “Assured and layered, full of heart and history, this one has bestseller written all over it.” And I couldn’t agree more!  I was particularly impressed with Stockett’s ability to give a unique and compelling voice to every character in the story, from Skeeter, who’s curiosity and strength set her down a path she never imagined, to Aibileen, who has raised 17 white children, and from Minny, who’s sharp tongue gets her in trouble with her white bosses, to the Junior League members who trust their maids with their kids, but not their silverware.

Catching Fire  by Suzanne Collins – This is the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy and resumes right where the first one left off.  Here’s a summary : Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen has won the annual Hunger Games with fellow district tribute Peeta Mellark. But it was a victory won by defiance of the Capitol and their harsh rules. Katniss and Peeta should be happy. After all, they have just won for themselves and their families a life of safety and plenty. But there are rumors of rebellion among the subjects, and Katniss and Peeta, to their horror, are the faces of that rebellion. The Capitol is angry. The Capitol wants revenge.  I absolutely loved The Hunger Games, but it took me a while to warm up to Catching Fire.  First there was the recap element to contend with (you know, where Katniss has to tell you about her life and hunger games experience incase you haven’t read the first book), but I also didn’t love Katniss as much as I did in the first book.  In The Hunger Games she’s assertive, skillful, driven and vulnerable. Here’s she’s a bit wishy-washy about who she loves and what she stands for.  But in a way that’s par for the course.  Catching Fire is more about the politics of The Capitol than about Katniss’ personal life so we get a lot more of Katniss trying to navigate socio-economic climates than we do her pondering her feelings. Once the action heated up, however I was hooked and the set up for book three was stellar.

Going Bovine  by Libba Bray – I was captivated by the cover for this book.  The design is hipster cool and features a cow walking around with a Travelocity garden gnome under its arm – how rad. Here’s a brief note : All 16-year-old Cameron wants is to get through high school—and life in general—with a minimum of effort. It’s not a lot to ask. But that’s before he’s given some bad news: he’s sick and he’s going to die. Which totally sucks. Hope arrives in the winged form of Dulcie, a loopy punk angel/possible hallucination with a bad sugar habit. She tells Cam there is a cure—if he’s willing to go in search of it. With the help of a death-obsessed, video-gaming dwarf and a yard gnome, Cam sets off on the mother of all road trips through a twisted America into the heart of what matters most. Although I found Cameron at times uninspired (he sometimes sounded more like a clichéd teenaged boy than I would have like), once he set off on his road trip, I became totally engrossed in the book.  Cameron’s journey takes him to New Orleans in search of a universe-hopping physicist by way of a smoothie-drinking cult and Florida Spring Break populated with fame seeking teens. His journey is crazy, hilarious, heartwarming and sad and it’s as much about finding a cure as it is about finding himself. And that’s what makes the book work – it’s an emotionally-based quest story. Cameron is surrounded by a garden gnome, a punk-rock angle and in possession of a magic trumpet and Bray makes all of it feel totally believable, exciting and necessary.