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The Rogue Not Taken

posted by: January 5, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Rogue Not TakenBestselling author Sarah MacLean brings TMZ to pre-Victorian times in The Rogue Not Taken, the first in her new Scandal & Scoundrel series. Lady Sophie Talbot preferred life as a commoner, but when her father’s success secured him an earldom she was thrust into the highest echelons of London society. Sophie shies from the spotlight until her philandering brother-in-law causes her to create a very public scene and earn the scorn of the aristocracy. Think along the lines of the Beyonce/Jay Z/Solange elevator incident and you’ve got the picture.

 

Vowing to leave London, she stows away in the carriage of Kingscote, the Marquess of Eversley. King is a charmer with an ill-deserved (but welcome) reputation as a rake. When Sophie is discovered, King is sure that she is trying to trick him into marriage despite her avowal that he is the last man she would ever marry. Sophie asks King to take her to her childhood home claiming a lost love is waiting for her. While he is disbelieving, he agrees to give her a ride.   

 

This will turn out to be the journey of a lifetime for these two who are at odds from the beginning and continue to snipe along the way. Yet when trouble strikes, they have each other’s backs and slowly the bickering turns to flirtatious banter and the sparks begin to fly. This compelling story is enhanced by MacLean’s fast-paced storytelling, clever dialogue and sharp wit. Sophie and King are clearly drawn, engaging characters whose emotional connection is palpable. This intense romantic journey is peppered with comedy and action while also serving as a cutting commentary on pre-Victorian upper class society.


 
 

Almost Interesting

posted by: January 4, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Almost InterestingIs David Spade’s memoir Almost Interesting? No way, I say! It's actually extremely interesting. Filled with hilarious childhood stories, Saturday Night Live anecdotes and embarrassing tales of life in Hollywood, it's both entertaining and quick to read. He serves up his life story, warts and all!
 

Told chronologically, he takes us on wild ride through his childhood in Arizona, to his days as a struggling L.A. comic, followed by his tenure at SNL and ends with his life as a Hollywood celebrity. Uncontrollable laughter will overtake you as you read his account of pledging a fraternity, losing his newly purchased car in Hollywood and being catfished by a model’s parody account. Seriously, that happened, and quite recently, too! Even the story of his crazed assistant Skippy attacking him is hilarious. You'll also enjoy his tales of working on SNL. He candidly offers up both his favorite and least favorite hosts and musical guests. Trust me, he goes there! My favorite is his account of the infamous Sinead O’Connor performance. Finally, you will feel his overwhelming sense of loss when he discusses his best friend, Chris Farley.
 

If you’re a fan or just like to read about celebrities, I encourage you to get your hands on a copy of Almost Interesting. I’m not kidding. Do it! You can read it in quick bursts or in one long sitting, but since Spade is a comedian be prepared to laugh out loud, and even more so if you listen to the audiobook, since he narrates it. Be forewarned though, at times he is raunchy, but nothing wildly inappropriate. To see Spade in action on SNL, check out the DVD Saturday Night Live: The Best of David Spade. Knowing the backstories makes it much funnier.
 


 
 

The Red Storm

posted by: January 4, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover of the Red StormIn the debut novel The Red Storm by Grant Bywaters, life isn’t easy for William Fletcher, former-boxer-turned-private-detective living in segregated 1930s New Orleans; not many white people are willing to respect, let alone hire, an African American private eye. When his former employer and mob associate, the violent Bill Storm, reappears in Fletcher’s life with a final request – to locate Storm’s daughter – Fletcher figures things couldn’t get worse.
 

But then, Storm is found shot in the head, and his killer seems to be gunning for his daughter. She hires Fletcher as protection, setting off a chain reaction of escalating violence between the police and different mob factions. Fletcher has to use all of his boxing experience and investigative instincts to survive the coming storm.
 

The Red Storm is a treat for any hardboiled detective or historical fiction fan and especially so for fans of boxing as the book is rife with references. Bywaters is frank in his depictions of violence, be it a boxing match or a fight between mobsters. He also never lets the reader forget the time period he’s writing in either; not only does he reference specific events and places in New Orleans history but he also doesn’t shy from the slang or the racial issues. Counterpoint to the rampant casual racism and segregation is Fletcher himself, who won’t let anything impede his investigations. 
 

It’s easy to understand why Bywaters won the Best First Private Eye Novel Competition sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) and Minotaur Books, with his professional experience as a licensed private investigator adding authenticity to Fletcher’s fictional investigations. Reminiscent of Walter Mosley and James M. Cain, mystery fans will appreciate this new voice in hardboiled detective fiction.
 


 
 

The Dogs

posted by: December 31, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover of The DogsIt’s nighttime, the lights are off in your living room and you see your frightened mother standing there in the darkness peering out the window. Your mom clutches her phone and calls the police because she thinks, no, she knows that the man inside the car parked across the street from your home is the same man who’s been tracking you down for years. He has found the both of you. So, your mom tells you to “Get your things,” because you’re moving for the fifth time. Well, that is exactly what Cameron Weaver, a teenage boy, and his mom experience in Allan Stratton’s psychological thriller teen novel, The Dogs. Oh, and the maniac that is stalking Cameron and his mom, is his dear ol’ Dad.
 

Cameron’s mom rents a new place that is 800 miles away. They move into a creepy, dilapidated farmhouse way out in the country in a town called Wolf Hollow. On Cameron’s first day at his new school, he hears rumors that his house is haunted. This is not good news for Cameron because he tends to imagine things. Ever since he and his Mom started running away from his Dad, Cameron has become more fearful and prone to having nightmares. The worst part is that his nightmares feel real because he never experiences the waking up part. Cameron’s new environment has a negative effect on him because he begins to hear strange noises, such as dogs howling. He starts to see and converse with a young boy named Jacky McTavish, who lived in the same house decades ago. By the way, Jacky may or may not be dead. No one really knows what happen to him, except maybe the mysterious property owner, Art Sinclair, who used to be Jacky’s best friend. When Cameron learns that a murder occurred at his house back in the early 1960s that involved Jacky, Jacky’s parents and a pack of dogs, he starts his own secret investigation to learn what really happened to Jacky. As Cameron gets deeper into his investigation, he finds himself getting into trouble. Furthermore, he and others start to question his sanity.
 

For those who are looking for a psychological thriller with a bit of mystery, I definitely recommend that you get your paws on The Dogs. The writing is splendid—Allan Stratton sure knows how to set the tone and lure you into the story. 
 


 
 

Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto

posted by: December 31, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover of Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto.High school heartthrob Sakamoto is unflappable. In Nami Sano’s new manga series Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, he evades a bevy of traps set by his fellow schoolmates and keeps the flocks of smitten girls in check like a true gentleman, all while aiding his less popular classmates. Throughout the premiere volume, he remains upstanding as he helps his classmates, teachers and even the bullies who target him, with his seemingly endless repertoire of “secret skills.” Sakamoto has an ability for every occasion and deploys them only once he tires of toying with his adversaries. 
 

When a group of jealous dudes rigs a dusty eraser to fall on Sakamoto as he enters the classroom, he catches it without even looking. In the bathroom, the pranksters hurl buckets of water over the walls of the stall Sakamoto occupies, but he already has his fashionable umbrella open. When he gets back to class he discovers his desk is missing, so he makes the best of it by lounging on the windowsill and letting the sun illuminate his alabaster skin and the breeze whisper through his hair. 
 

There’s just no getting to Sakamoto. After witnessing a guy surrendering his lunch money to a group of bullies, Sakamoto becomes his self-appointed mentor and gets them both jobs at a fast food joint. Together, they man the grill and fry stations during busy weeknights, and Sakamoto’s student begins to develop a sense of pride derived from his newfound work ethic.
 

Handsome, charming, selfless, witty...Sakamoto has so much going for him; so much that it makes readers wonder whether he’s even human. Readers who enjoy shonen manga will enjoy the satire in the first volume of Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, and readers who are more partial to rom-coms will be head over heels for the titular character.
 

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Saint Mazie

posted by: December 30, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover of Saint MazieIn Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg, the title character is a flawed human being who reaches out to the poor around her yet never gives up on life’s pleasures. Mazie Phillips-Gordon is a self-proclaimed good time girl. Her favorite things in life are cigarettes, alcohol and having fun. Despite her hedonistic ways, Mazie is also a pushover for the vagrants who populate her Lower East Side world during the Great Depression.
 

Attenberg sets up the story as a documentary on Mazie told in part through her diary and also through the interviews and observations of people who knew her. By using different points of view, Attenberg allows us to see the good in Mazie that she often fails to see. She and her younger sister Jeanie are rescued by their sister Rosie who takes them away from their abusive father and ineffectual mother. However, both girls go through rebellious periods making life difficult for Rosie. In an effort to try and curb Mazie’s life spent in bars and speakeasies, Rosie’s husband has Mazie work in the ticket booth at his movie theater. Feeling confined in the box office – which she refers to as her ‘cage’— Mazie manages to keep her spirits up by helping the homeless people in her neighborhood. Attenberg may refer to Mazie as a saint in the title, but this book recounts the unvarnished world of a woman who lived life to the fullest.    
 


 
 

Between the Covers with Jen Larsen

posted by: December 30, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover of Stranger HereJen Larsen’s critically acclaimed memoir Stranger Here detailed her own choice to have weight-loss surgery and the unexpected highs and lows that followed losing 180 pounds. In her teen fiction debut, Larsen tackles weight-loss surgery again in Future Perfect.
 

Ashley Perkins is the type of kid that any parent or grandparent would be shouting about from the rooftops: class valedictorian, AP student, on the volleyball team and now she’s set her sights on getting into Harvard. All of her friends and family know she is a shoo-in for admission. In her grandmother’s eyes, though, the main thing setting Ashley back is her looks: she’s fat.
 

Every year since her 13th birthday, Ashley’s grandmother presents her with a card: 50 pounds lost equals a trip to Disneyland, 80 pounds lost equals a shopping trip to Paris, 100 pounds lost equals a brand new car. Every year, Ashley has turned down her grandmother’s offer, but when this year’s card offers her Harvard tuition for the cost of having weight-loss surgery, Ashley struggles with the decision more than she ever has. Should she give in to her grandmother’s demands for how her body “should” look to get everything she’s ever dreamed?
 

Jen LarsenBetween the Covers recently caught up with Jen to talk about her novel.

Between the Covers: (No spoilers, please!) While you were writing this novel, did you know what choice Ashley was going to make? Did it change for you while developing her character?

Jen Larsen: I did know! Because her final choice is completely central to why I wrote this book. I wanted to write a character who was everything I wanted to be, and as brave as I wish I were, when I was her age. I wanted to write a book that was the book I needed when I was struggling with my own body issue demons, fear, doubt and isolation.
 

BTC: You documented your own weight loss surgery and its impact on your life in your memoir Stranger Here; what influence did your own weight loss have on this novel? 
 

JL: When I chose to get surgery, I thought it was my only option—that I had no other choice, because it would be impossible for me to be fat and happy and lovable. That idea is dangerous and so incredibly wrong and yet so prevalent. Future Perfect is a counter to it, an argument for the fact that the body image standards that get pushed on us by the media and even by our own well-meaning family are limited, bigoted and cruel. There's no loving yourself "despite" your flaws, because your body isn't flawed. Not looking like a Victoria's Secret model is not some kind of defect.
 

BTC: Unlike other teen heroines "of size," Ashley never hides behind her body as a suit of "fat armor." She's not separate from her body, she just is. That is so refreshing! In developing Ashley's character, what pitfalls did you want to avoid? How did you reconcile those pitfalls with having to write a teenage character? 
 

JL: It was really, really important that Ashley's voice be authentic. She rejects the idea that fat is a dirty word. She is fiercely, defiantly happy in her body, almost defensively so — because I think when you're a teenager you are very much still in a role where your beliefs and feelings feel challenged by your adults and your peer group. You feel as if you always need to be on guard, fighting back.
 

But Ashley also has ordinary doubts and fears and worries that nag at her. She compares herself to other girls, she has fleeting moments of self-doubt when she wonders why her boyfriend thinks she's beautiful, she struggles with her family's nagging and comments. When you're a teenager, your family's opinion is both the most important and the opinion you feel like you need to reject or rebel against. And that's part of what fuels her need to push back as hard as she can. 

BTC: This novel could've easily translated to an adult trying to decide if this surgery was for her, so why teen? Teen voice can be very hard to capture, and these kids were very realistic. How did you transition your writing style to suit teen, if at all?
 

JL: Because I believe teen fiction is so, so important. There's this huge number of brilliant, hungry kids out there looking for themselves in the books they read, wanting their worries, interests, hopes, needs understood and validated. I choose teen because I thought this story and idea and message is so important for teens to hear when they're in the throes of their own struggles with the expectations of the adults around them.
 

BTC: Ashley's group of friends could each have a wonderful novel in and of themselves! In writing these characters, why was it important for you to stress how, in a lot of ways, these friends were her family perhaps more than her family was?
 

JL: Thank you! I love her friends very much. I wanted to talk about what happens when the family you have isn't the family you need. It's so important to surround yourself with people who give you strength, who love you and support you. It's okay to push back against your family's expectations if they don't understand you, or care for you the way you need, and create your own community to help give you the strength you need and support your sense of identity and self-worth.
 

BTC: I've seen a lot of people comment that "No loving grandmother would ever do this to a child!" Do you agree? Why is Grandmother so hard on Ashley when she gives others such love and attention (her dad, Jolene, etc.)?
 

JL: That kind of direct criticism and pressure on kids about their weight and size is incredibly common, from the really subtle stuff I used to get as a kid ("Why don't you just butter one piece of toast and then press it against the other piece?") to flat-out disapproval and condemnation. Parents and caregivers are roped into The War on Obesity by doctors, and forget that study after study shows that shaming and coercion is useless and, in fact, incredibly harmful. It can cause life-long eating issues, disorders, depression and even more weight gain. It is real and it is common and it is horrific.
 

Ashley's grandmother genuinely believes she's doing right and good—that she is taking care of her granddaughter in the best way she knows how, and actually helping her to achieve her identity. She thinks if Ashley wants to be successful, she can't be fat. That she'll be denied opportunities and struggle in her career. She thinks she's helping Ashley fight back. And in that sense, she's helping Jolene fight back against the people who reject Jolene's sense of self, unaware of the irony in celebrating Jolene's body autonomy while dismissing Ashley's.
 

BTC: What's next for you and your writing? (Please, please tell me there's a Jolene book somewhere.)
 

JL: I love Jolene and would love to write a book about her! But currently I'm working on a couple of new teen books—my first fantasy novel ever, a retelling of the "Princess and the Pea" and a book that's incredibly important to me, about two girls in love and San Francisco and social justice.
 

Thank you so much for such awesome questions!


 
 

Breakthrough!

posted by: December 29, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover of BreakthroughA fascinating read that focuses on both local and internationally important histories, Breakthrough! Is the record of the surgeon Alfred Blalock, his assistant Vivien Thomas and Dr. Helen Taussig, who teamed up to invent an operation to save some of their tiniest patients. Previous to the innovation of Blalock, Thomas and Taussig in 1944 there was an affliction known as “blue baby” syndrome, in which the patient’s color would change and their breathing would gradually decrease This syndrome was almost always fatal, and affected mostly patients between birth and 5 years of age. Dr. Taussig often worked with and attempted to treat many of these Blue Babies and was the leading expert on the disease  but she needed the help of an experienced surgeon to develop and perform what she thought could be the cure. She, Vivien Thomas and Dr. Blalock were all working at Johns Hopkins at the time and although Blalock was reluctant to take on the task at first, he eventually agreed. Essential to the story is the fact that Thomas, who because of his African American heritage had been kept at the level of assistant instead of given schooling and credentials that would have promoted him to surgeon, was the main developer of the operation, which involved re-routing veins in the heart in order to increase oxygen flow in afflicted patients. The incredible delicacy and skill Thomas possessed could not be put into practice in the operating room directly, but he did assist and direct Blalock every step of the way on the revolutionary day that all three of their efforts paid off and their first young patient was permanently cured.
 

Breakthrough! is a fascinating piece of local history that discusses how much medicine has advanced in this century, the racial and gender barriers we have overcome and those still left to tackle on the horizon. It’s excellent reading for personal interest or for research on the topic of the blue babies disease or any of the individual doctors the account centers around.


 
 

American Housewife

posted by: December 29, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover of American HousewifeHelen Ellis’ American Housewife is a satirical collection of 12 short stories featuring a group of enthralling, outrageous and disturbing women. There are humorous vignettes, such as “Southern Lady Code,” which offers biting translations of benign Southern phrases and “How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady,” which provides tips on how to do just that. There are fleshed-out stories full of characters and situations that are just a little too bizarre to be real — a relocation program for child beauty pageant contestants, an email exchange between neighbors that escalates into all-out war. In “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” we meet a has-been writer who leads the competition in finding the best deals at yard sales and estate auctions, to the annoyance of the producers who would rather feature the Playboy bunny. “My Novel is Brought to You by Tampax” stars a writer working hard (or hardly working) on her next novel, sponsored by Tampax. A Tampax representative will do anything to make sure she meets her daily writing goal — starting with bribing her neighbors into bringing the writer meals in exchange for feminine hygiene products. The tales feel true enough to make readers uncomfortable even as they’re laughing at the absurdity. Don’t inane parodies of reality shows actually sound like plausible reality shows? And is it such a stretch that a tampon company could make the leap from sponsoring daytime television to sponsoring novels? 
 

These stories are a fictional alternative for people who enjoy humorists like Jenny Lawson and Laurie Notaro. Ellis even received a nod from Margaret Atwood as one of her favorite books of the year: “Surreal tales of American weirdness, with details that ring all too true.” You probably haven’t murdered your neighbor over the tacky décor in your common area…but maybe you’ve briefly considered it.
 


 
 

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

posted by: December 28, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes StoriesThere’s something magical about the fandom of Sherlock Holmes. For over 100 years, the fans have refused to believe that the detective isn’t real. They send him letters and marriage proposals, form historical societies around him and pay tribute with that most earnest form of flattery, fan-fiction. Otto Penzler’s The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories is the mother lode of such tributes, collecting a whopping 83 short stories from such literary heavyweights as J. M. Barrie, Kingsley Amis and P.G. Wodehouse.

 

Sherlock fans of all walks of life will find something to enjoy in this collection, because by density of volume: there has to be! There are modern classics such as Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case,” in which Holmes is barred from a crime scene due to an allergy to the victim’s cats, and Neil Gaiman’s “The Case of Death & Honey,” in which Holmes sets out to solve death itself, and succeeds astonishingly. There are also historically fascinating pieces such as the story Conan Doyle wrote for the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, and contemporary parodies in which such clever lines as “Elementary, my dear God!” are uttered.

 

In the last year alone there’s been a plethora of new stories about the Great Detective such as Dan Simmons’ The Fifth Heart, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes and the film Mr. Holmes, adapted from Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind. It is altogether shocking to observe the similarities between the Holmes of the 1800’s and the Holmes still captivating audiences today, and reading this century’s worth of stories will give you the humbling feeling of watching a small torch pass from writer to writer across decades. Consider giving this to anyone who’s impatiently awaiting the next season of Sherlock. And really, isn’t everybody?


 
 

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