Staff Picks - February 2018
Here's what we've been reading & recommending!
It was only a little over a year ago that I started reading…and recommending…THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY series by Genevieve Cogman. THE LOST PLOT is the fourth in the series and my enthusiasm for these novels is unabated! The Invisible Library itself exists outside of time and interacts with any number of simultaneously existing, alternate worlds. These worlds will tend to have a preponderance of order (Dragon) or chaos (Fae) energy and be inhabited by vampires and werewolves…as well as humans, Fae, Dragons…and librarians!
This outing finds the intrepid librarian Irene Winters and her student, Kai (the Dragon prince) visiting a Jazz Age era NYC in search of a missing librarian…who may have made a side deal with a Dragon in competition with another Dragon for a coveted post in a Dragon Queen’s court. Librarians are sworn to remain strictly neutral, siding neither with the Dragons or the Fae, so, this development could be disastrous…at many levels. Posing as, among other things, a gin-running gangster from England, this adventure has all the excitement and adventure, action…and humor, I have come to expect from this series. If you’re not already reading it…get started!
THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH by Ali Benjamin
After her best friend drowns Suzy stops speaking. As she puts it, “If people were silent, they could hear the noise of their own lives better. If people were silent, it would make what they did say, whenever they chose to say it, more important.” Instead of talking Suzy starts researching. She loves science, she doesn’t fit in with the “cool” kids, and she just knows that her friend couldn’t have drowned…there must have been an accident. This is a surprising middle grade novel that appeals to all ages. Be prepared to learn all about jellyfish and to fall in love with this lovely 12 year old narrator who is wise beyond her years.
THE MUSIC SHOP by Rachel Joyce
The story takes place in an unnamed British city and spans several decades. It begins in 1988, when Frank owns a record shop in a rundown part of the city and he has a gift for finding customers just the right music that they need in their life. His shop is pretty quiet until the day Ilse Brauchmann stumbles in. She changes Frank’s world and after a series of misfortunes and many years, he’s able to find just the music he’s been looking for.
STAFF PICKS - December 2017
If you read historical fiction or have an interest in the Viking Age…or are a fan of The Vikings (the History Channel series, NOT the football team, gees!) allow me to recommend Linnea Hartsuyker’s THE HALF-DROWNED KING. Hartsuyker identifies herself as being a descendent of Harald the Fair-Haired, considered to be the first king of all Norway. She has clearly done a great deal of research and read a lot of sagas. A young Harald is one of the novel’s characters, as is one King Hakon! I am unable to determine if this is OUR King Hakon. Ragnar Lothbrook is even mentioned several times in the narrative.
The central characters are siblings Ragnvald and Svanhild. Their grandfather was a regional king, but, their father was better known as a boaster and a drunk. Their mother married Olaf when he returned to their hall with the news that their father, Eystein, was dead, although he failed to tell her that he was the murderer. As the novel begins, Ragnvald is returning home from a raiding party in the company of sea king Solvi, who surprises him by cutting him with a knife and pitching him overboard. Ragnvald does survive to return home, from whence he is soon driven, off into the world to meet his wyrd or fate.
Olaf has some ideas about the spirited Svanhild, as well. At 16 she is of an appropriate age to make a marriage, hopefully to someone richer and better placed than Olaf. The man he has in mind is a giant, and, by Svanhild’s reckoning, old. Never mind his last several wives have died in childbirth because he makes such big babies. Ragnvald deposits his sister in the household of his betrothed until he can return for her. When they, too, try to marry her off to the old giant, she runs away and into the arms and bed of Solvi, yes, the same who tried to kill her brother. So, yes, lots of intrigue. Historically accurate intrigue.
This is intended to be the first title in a trilogy on the subject. The author encourages you not to do too much research into Viking Age history if you want to be surprised about what’s upcoming. I will say that a quick trip to Wikipedia taught me that Ragnvald is the father of Rollo (who was not really Ragnar Lothbrook’s brother) who is himself considered to be the father of Normandy on the French coastline.
I thought the following quote, from one Will Byrnes, a Goodreads reader/reviewer, well-described THE HALF-DROWNED KING. “This novel is not just a rollicking adventure. It is not just a wonderfully rendered fictionalized account of some very real historical events, offering a portrait of the lives of that era. It is also a very engaging tale of a brother and sister, both trying to make their way in a hostile world, both coping with questions of freedom versus a constricted security, both facing challenges in having to balance justice with vengeance. While they may not be written at the highest possible level of character portraiture, they are drawn well enough to make them relatable. You will care for both, even if you are likely to take exception to some of the decisions they make.”
JENNIFER’S PICK: THE LAST CASTLE by Denise Kiernan
History nerds, listen up! You’re going to want to get yourself in here and grab our copy of The Last Castle. It’s a look at the Gilded Age, the Vanderbilt family, and the construction and management of the largest private home ever built: The Biltmore. The Last Castle is stuffed with fascinating 20th century tidbits that made my historical senses tingle. This effort by Denise Keirnan was worth the wait after her amazing The Girls of the Atomic City, published in 2013. (I heartily recommend that book as well, which is also in our collection.)
Did I mention that George Vanderbilt was a very bookish fellow?
“George’s library ably reflected his personal taste and abiding adoration for books and all things literary. Of George’s estimated 23,000-volume collection, roughly 10,000 or so lived on these shelves. One New York City journalist to referred to George as the “best read man in the country,” and based on the entries and dates in the notebook in which George recorded the volumes he had read, he averaged eighty-one books a year, roughly one and a half each week.”
SARAH’S PICK: STRANGE WEATHER by Joe Hill
My plan had been to save the advanced copy of Joe Hill’s Strange Weather for my vacation, which was only a few days after I received the book. Well, that didn’t happen! I had all but the last few pages read as I boarded the plane, and as I finished it I was actually a little sad that I would never read it for the first time again. “Loaded” is a timely story about gun violence that could play out in any American town. I found myself hoping against hope that it would all be ok in the end, but if you’ve read Joe Hill in the past, you know there’s no guarantee of that. “Snapshot” is a short, strange trip into the world of a man with a Polaroid-like camera who wreaks havoc on strangers’ lives and memories. “Aloft” plays on one of my biggest fears. I can’t go up more than a few steps on a ladder, and there is no way that I would voluntarily jump out of a plane like the main characters! Just reading it made my stomach hurt at first. The story unfolds in such a way, though, that I found myself losing my fear along with the main character and enjoyed the ride for the entire 96 pages. In “Rain” a new threat to humanity is unveiled. In truth, I really didn’t need to add another nightmare scenario to the already potential threats to us all, but Hill’s imagination is, hopefully, simply that, and I won’t stay up nights worried about lethal rain. At least I hope I won’t. Short stories are a quick joyride through the author’s imagination and these stories are exceptional, a little terrifying, and wholly entertaining. I think you’ll race through them as I did and want to jump right back in at the beginning as soon as you turn the last page.
STAFF PICKS -October 2017
There's still time to squeeze in another summer read or two. Allow me to recommend LOLA, which, like a cup of campfire coffee is dark and gritty; strong and hard to put down.
I was intrigued to read it because it takes place in LA… I used to live in LA. It felt like LA, not that I spent that much time in South Central (although I did live in nearby Echo Park for a couple of years...) and I certainly did not have much occasion to rub shoulders with people like Lola.
Lola is the leader of a gang, although she's fine with most people thinking it's her boyfriend who's the boss. Lola is crafty, ambitious, businesslike and, in most situations, is one cold bitch. After you finish reading it you'll maybe be surprised to discover you've spent several hundred pages cheering for a cunning, murderous, drug-dealing, judgmental femme who has no use for her own mother. In fact, one of the reasons this is such a powerful, compelling read is that it allows us insight into a world many of us will never get up close and personal with. It's a primer on what it's like to be brown, to live in a community where gang membership is a good thing, a survival tactic, where running drugs is one of the few employment opportunities, where children are pimped out by their parents in exchange for a fix. Where early death is an expectation.
The plotting is sometimes a little ragged, not entirely following a coherent narrative arc. This is the author's first novel. Her prior writing experience is in television, and some of the action feels like that. It makes sense because it's happening...the sense doesn't necessarily come from the story itself. It is a thrill ride, though! One of the side plots deals with a young girl Lola discovers residing with her grandparents, who run a neighborhood taqueria. Lola knows Lucy's mother is a junkie, as is her own. Lola suspects Lucy's mother is pimping her out, as Lola’s mother did, and, once she discovers evidence of same, she goes to great lengths to protect Lucy from her family. One of the scenes that really got to me was when Lola decided she would enroll Lucy in an upscale kindergarten class. She fills out the application and packs Lucy a lunch and grabs some of the drug money from the hidey hole, packs Lucy into the car and heads to school. She didn't know about the waiting list to get into the program. She was not interested to learn that they'd be able to accept Lucy in a couple of weeks as a "diversity" student. Even though she is treated with consideration and respect by the school's administrator, it's a blow to have to face how markedly different the rules for their separate but adjacent communities are.
I found LOLA to be an original and formidable character... just the kind of fictional heroine I like: smart, tough and unapologetic. Looking forward to the sequel.
Jennifer’s Pick: ONE OF THE BOYS by Daniel Magariel
I have a habit of recommending books that I find tough but important. This month is certainly no exception.
One of the Boys is told from the perspective of a 12 year old boy who, along with his older brother, are caught in a custody fight between their parents. His father calls their divorce “the war”. That’s exactly how he treats it, as a battle to be fought and won. He uses his two boys as weapons and reminds them to go along with his plans so that they can be “one of the boys”. This short novel is about how helpless children can be in the face of adult problems: addiction, toxic masculinity, abuse, and twisted loyalties.
"Our dad was an act with a single end. His trajectory: down, down, down."
Sarah’s Pick: QUIET UNTIL THE THAW by Alexandra Fuller
A series of very short chapters come together to create one of the most beautiful stories I’ve read in recent memory. On the Lakota Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota, Rick Overlooking Horse and You Choose Watson (yes, there’s a story behind that name) are cousins and are often at odds. Their stories take separate paths and they choose to live very different lives. After three decades away, You Choose returns and disrupts life on the reservation in a destructive and tragic way. Fuller shows us how desperate and beautiful life can be on an American Indian reservation.
Staff Picks - August 2017
I admit that I’m choosing this book…not because I liked it so very well…or thought it was wonderfully well-written…but, because I think it would make a good “summer read.” Entertaining. Not too taxing. And, if it should end up in the lake…it really wouldn’t be that big a deal!
Eight hundred grapes…that’s how many it takes to make a bottle of wine. Wine, in my humble opinion, is the best part of this book. All of the discussion of growing grapes, harvesting grapes, processing grapes, fermenting grapes, casking wine, bottling wine and drinking wine….was great. The author, Laura Dave, seems to have a grasp of the subject and to enjoy writing about it.
The characters in the book and the actual plot, well, for those who enjoy “family dramas”…you’ll probably love this! I found the central character to be so centered on herself and so devoted to defending her position on the subject at hand that she was, well, not especially likeable. At all. Sure, it was funny that she drove in a frenzy from L A to her family’s vineyard in the Sonoma Valley…to have one of her brothers inquire, “You know that you’re still wearing your wedding dress, yes?” But, on the whole, I found it hard to buy that all these family secrets chose this exact moment in time to emerge.
Still…if you like wine…and romance…and family drama…I think you’ll enjoy EIGHT HUNDRED GRAPES very much!
JENNIFER’S PICK: What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
What We Lose is a debut novel that has the distinct flavor of a memoir. The story of Thandi, a woman caught between multiple worlds and grieving after a profound loss, is told in vignettes. Each section is powerful, insightful, and full of hope. This small book packs a big punch. I highly recommend it.
“I've amazed myself with how well I've learned to live around her absence. This void is my constant companion, no matter what I do. Nothing will fill it, and it will never go away.” –Zinzi Clemmons, What We Lose
SARAH’S PICK:Their Finest
A book-to-movie pick that I highly recommend. A movie crew commissioned by the British government must tell the story of the heroes of Dunkirk to attempt to raise morale and inspire the US to join the war. The telling involves a little creativity and some outright fiction. It’s funny, sweet, tragic, and uplifting. I so enjoyed the story, originally a novel by Lissa Evans called Their Finest Hour, about a part of history of which I knew very little. The humor is evident, even within the frame of a very serious time in history. Thoroughly enjoyable!
Staff Picks - July 2017
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
I picked this title as a book, now I’m recommending it as a movie…BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK….which I finally watched on the 4th of July. An excellent translation of the novel, outstanding performances, much to think about. Here’s what I ended up thinking – although of COURSE we should be thanking veterans and active military for their service, that thanks, so especially offered on a few select days each year, is so entirely inadequate. Unless we have been there ourselves, we can have no understanding of what it is they’ve seen, done, survived…or didn’t. We shouldn’t pretend we can understand. Moreover, if we truly honored the essential service these people provide to our nation, we would never allow them to be sent to defend corporate greed or personal agendas. I encourage everyone to see this important and sobering film.
Jennifer's July Pick:
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
I gobbled up Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay in one marathon day of reading. If you’re familiar at all with her work (Bad Feminist, An Untamed State) you’ll already know that she writes the sort of sentences that you want to furiously underline. Hunger is no exception.
Hunger is a powerfully written memoir about food and weight. It’s about moving through the world in a “wildly undisciplined body”. It’s about self-care and self-image. Gay’s vulnerability and honesty will take your breath away.
“This is a memoir of (my) body because, more often than not, stories of bodies like mine are ignored or dismissed or derided. People see bodies like mine and make their assumptions. They think they know the why of my body. They do not.”
-Roxane Gay, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
Sarah's July Pick:
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
Although not a new title, I highly recommend this one, the first of three mysteries featuring Cormoran Strike. When we first meet Strike, he is a down on his luck curmudgeonly English private detective who has been tapped to investigate the “suicide” of a famous supermodel, known to friends as Cuckoo. She has fallen to her death and her brother is convinced that it was murder. Strike soon finds himself investigating in a world of multimillionaires and spoiled beauties. A smart, witty mystery that will keep your attention from beginning to end.
Staff Picks - June 2017
I was not quite three years old when Emmett Till was murdered and dumped into a river in Mississippi with a gin fan strung around his neck with barbed wire. I may not have exactly known the story, but, the name was surely part of the vocabulary of the civil rights movement that formed the historical backdrop of my coming of age years.
I knew something about the struggle for voting writes. I knew the definition of miscegenation. I expected The Blood of Emmett Till to be a sober and informative read. But, I was not anticipating the emotional involvement. Author Timothy Tyson does an incredible job of placing you in that little town in Mississippi in the middle of the USA in the middle of the 1950’s, of describing the historical and social circumstances that led up to and resulted from the viscous murder of a 14-year old boy and the acquittal of his killers in a court of law.
In the book’s final chapter Tyson says, “From this tragedy large, diverse numbers of people organized a movement that grew to transform a nation, not sufficiently but certainly meaningfully. What matter most is what we have done and will do with what we do know. We must look at the facts squarely, not to flounder in a bitter nostalgia of pain but to redeem a democratic promise rooted in the living ingredients of our own history. The blood and unjust arc of our history will not bend upward if we merely pretend that history did not happen here.” A few pages later, in his Epilogue, Tyson says, “And difficult though it is to bear, his story can leave us reaching for our better angels and moving toward higher ground.”
Read this book!
Jennifer's Pick - Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
I heard the buzz about this book when it first came out in the fall of 2014. Due to a towering stack of other books that I wanted to get to I put off diving into this one. I wish I hadn’t procrastinated for even a minute.
Just Mercy is a nonfiction account of the author coming of age as a young attorney and his determination to help people who need help the most. Mr. Stevenson dedicated his life and career to serving prisoners on death row.
“I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
I started this book with the vague notion that the justice system probably wasn’t fair to everyone in equal measure but that it was chugging along as best it could. Just Mercy opened my eyes. Wide.
“Capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment’.”
The author addresses tough topics: mental illness, poverty, and racism. By turns Just Mercy is infuriating, hopeful, joyful, and heartbreaking. It isn’t an easy read. However, it is a necessary one.
Sarah's Pick - Where the Shadows Lie by Michael Ridpath
Set in Iceland, this mystery is the first in a four book series featuring Magnus Jonson, a cop from Boston who was born in Iceland. Jonson’s first case is a mystery with ties to Tolkien and an Icelandic saga. Rumor has it that the ring in Lord of the Rings actually exists and may be to blame for a series of murders, both past and present. Iceland’s landscape and history feel like additional characters in this atmospheric thriller. Fans of international mysteries…and The Lord of the Rings…should not miss this title.
Staff Picks - May 2017
I have been reading Neil Gaiman, champion of libraries and one-time Wisconsin resident for many years…and mostly enjoy his work. Being as I am of Norse descent (half Norwegian, half Danish) I have also been interested in the myths of our tribe and have, further, relished in the History Channel series VIKINGS including its many references to “the gods.” (although some of their made up ceremonies are a little outré…) So, was I anxious to read this fresh title from Gaiman? You bet.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but, I so thoroughly enjoyed it! The unexpected part, I think, was how easy it was to read. Although it is an accurate re-telling of the tales, the language is fresh and accessible. Vital. I encourage you to spend a few evenings curled up with these fabulous stories of gods and monsters, miracles and the end of time. I think that you will not be disappointed!
Sarah's Pick - Jeffrey Deaver’s latest Lincoln Rhyme novel is his usual fast paced, clue-driven, intelligent story. In this one, a traveling businessman is snatched off of an Upper East Side street in broad daylight. The perp leaves a miniature noose at the site of the kidnapping, and Rhyme must outmaneuver the suspect before he takes another victim. Full of twists, including a BIG one at the end!