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Between the Covers / Shhhh... we're reading.   Photo of reading after bedtime
Lori Hench

As a child, Lori Hench fell in love with Beverly Cleary's books and has had her nose in a book ever since. Now an adult, she finds saying "but I have to read this for work" is a wonderful excuse for avoiding housework and other distasteful chores. When she's not reading, she works at the Randallstown Branch and enjoys recommending literary fiction, memoirs, and current nonfiction. She admits to still liking children's books and, in a pinch, will read absolutely anything.

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Cover art for Go Set a WatchmanLet’s get it out of the way: Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman is no To Kill a Mockingbird. For 55 years, the reclusive Lee has been lauded for her Pulitzer Prize-winning story of racial inequality and justice in Alabama as told by young Scout, and yet Lee remained a curiosity by shunning publicity and never publishing another word. Earlier this year, the book world was set atwitter with the news that Lee had agreed to the publication of Watchman, an early and forgotten manuscript said to be fodder for what became her beloved classic.

 

Go Set a Watchman opens with Scout, now Jean Louise Finch and a NYC resident, riding the sleeper car train back to Maycomb for her annual visit. She thinks about marrying childhood friend Hank who now practices law with Atticus, and she prepares for the inevitable head-butting with her Aunt Alexandra, who remains ever the example of proper Southern womanhood. Instead, grown-up Scout finds that she can’t go home again as she discovers the men she reveres have feet of clay, ascribing to a repugnant philosophy of white supremacy, paternalism and disenfranchisement.

 

Lee’s particular gift of filtering a puzzling world through the mindset of a child shines in Watchman, just as in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise’s memory of when she, Jem and Dill played a backyard game of church revival, which ends with a naked Scout’s “baptism” in an algae-slicked fish pond, is a lovely and gently sardonic poke at small town religious tradition. Both stories deal with coming of age in a community governed by a rigid unforgiving class structure which neither blacks nor whites escape. Watchman, however, seems more firmly rooted in a past when ugly language and divisive actions were acceptable in polite society, and here Jean Louise is left dealing with the unsatisfying ambiguities of adulthood.

 

Isaiah 21, verse 6: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. The watchman is both the announcer of the events he witnesses and a moral compass. Go Set a Watchman serves to remind the reader of the imperative to follow one’s conscience.

 

Lori

 
 

Summer Suspense

Summer Suspense

posted by:
July 23, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Wrong ManCover art for Dark RoomsLooking for the perfect book to take poolside, distract you on the plane or transport you from your backyard lawn chair? Lose yourself in The Wrong Man by Kate White or Lili Anolik’s Dark Rooms, each story filled with suspense and misdirection.

 

In The Wrong Man, Kit Finn just ended a staid relationship and feels like she is treading water. On a buying trip to Florida, the interior designer resolves to shake up her life and chance stepping outside her comfort zone. Chance presents itself as Matt Healey, a hot and handsome fellow New Yorker who arranges to keep this new romance going once they return to the city. But when Kit shows up at Matt’s door for dinner, she finds instead The Wrong Man; it’s the real Matt Healey and he is not the man Kit met in Florida. As Kit tries to figure out this case of misrepresented identity, she’s drawn in to a web of deceit and corporate corruption which just might turn deadly. Author Kate White, who served as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan for 14 years, writes a snappy, sexy mystery which keeps the reader guessing till the last pages.

 

Author Lili Anolik is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Her debut novel, Dark Rooms, tells a chilling and somewhat seamy tale. Posh Chandler Academy is an archetypal New England prep school brimming with wealth and privilege. Grace is a graduate of Chandler, her parents on its teaching staff, but she’s dropped out of college and is living at home while she focuses on solving the shooting death of her charismatic younger sister Nica. Nica’s death has unraveled the family — former good girl Grace is popping pills while her father drowns his sorrows in alcohol. The girls’ mother, a photographer who both favored and obsessively photographed Nica, decamped to an artist commune, effectively abandoning what’s left of her family. Grace’s refusal to accept the official story — that an alienated student smarting from unrequited love shot Nica and hung himself — helps her discover her own strength and independence as she unearths the grim secrets sheltered in Chandler’s ivy-covered towers.

 

For other twisty thrillers, try Disclaimer by Renee Knight or Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight.

Lori

 
 

Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press

Cover art for Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black PressEye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press by James McGrath Morris is the biography of a groundbreaking reporter who covered seminal events of the civil rights movement. Morris, a former journalist himself, writes about Payne’s work in journalism which forged a new path, as a woman and as an African American.   

 

Ethel Payne, born in 1911, was raised in Chicago’s West Englewood area—one of the few enclaves in Chicago which permitted  African-Americans to live outside the racially segregated “Black Belt” neighborhoods. By 30 years old, this granddaughter of slaves was reporting for one of the nation’s preeminent African American newspapers, the Chicago Defender. Her trajectory continued as Ms. Payne reported on civil rights issues domestically and abroad. She investigated the state of black soldiers stationed in Japan and interviewed Vietnam’s General Westmoreland about the treatment of black troops fighting in the war. As a member of the White House Press Corps, she won accolades from Clarence Mitchell after she questioned the Eisenhower administration about discriminatory practices. Payne was present for the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, rubbed elbows with presidents (even entertaining Richard and Patricia Nixon in her home), met with foreign leaders and traveled with Winston Churchill in Africa. Her efforts to end apartheid allowed her a private audience with Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Eye on the Struggle chronicles Payne’s illustrious career, made all the more remarkable by Payne’s unswerving approach of recording events both important to and from the perspective of black Americans. 

Lori

 
 

The Turner House

The Turner House

posted by:
June 25, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Turner HouseDetroit: in its heyday, it was the bustling host to Motown and the "Big Three" auto manufacturers. The city also served as a mecca for African Americans escaping Jim Crow and taking advantage of the jobs available in its thriving economy. Set in Detroit, Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, tells the story of husband and wife Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children while exploring their ties to their family home in Detroit.

 

Oldest sibling Cha-Cha is the Turner family patriarch by default. At 62 years old, he is both accustomed to and tired of assuming the role of leader to his younger siblings. With his father’s passing and his mother’s deteriorating health, the family’s house on Yarrow Street, once an emblem of success in Black America, is vacant and crumbling and saddled with a mortgage 10 times the home’s current value. While the Turner children jockey with their differing views of what to do with the debt-ridden property, Cha-Cha is engaging in a mid-life retrospective, evaluating his relationships with his parents, his wife and his siblings. The narrative revealing how Francis and Viola each made their way to Michigan from rural Arkansas is especially poignant. Flournoy’s writing is gentle, pointed and witty as she explores if blood ties, shared memories or something else entirely creates family bonds. Fans of Anne Tyler or J. California Cooper will lose themselves in the thoughtful story of The Turner House.

 

Lori

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Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

Cover of "How to be Both" by Ali Smith Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction 2015 BannerFor nearly 20 years, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction has been honoring the contributions of women writers around the world for their extraordinary contributions to contemporary fiction. This year’s winner, announced on Wednesday, June 3, is How to be Both by Ali Smith.

 

Prize judges describe the winning book as a story of “grief, love, sexuality and shape-shifting identity.” Two separate narratives, entitled Camera and Eye, take place 500 years apart with a glorious painted fresco as the link to both. Camera is the story of George(ia), a contemporary English teen who is thinking over exchanges with her mother who has since died. Eye tells of Francescho, an Italian girl, also motherless, masquerading as a boy in order to gain entrance as a painter in the 15 century art world. Smith says her inspiration to write How to be Both came from viewing Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa’s beautiful works.

 

The shortlist of nominees included beloved local author Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which follows a Baltimore family as its younger generations cope with their aging parents. A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie combines Ottoman Empire history, archaeology, a treasure hunt and romance against the backdrop of World War I. Rachel Cusk was nominated for Outline, a book of revelatory conversations between a woman and an assortment of people who cross her path while she is teaching a writing class in Greece. Rounding out the shortlist are two titles which appeared earlier on Between the Covers: The Bees by Laline Paull, which immerses the reader in an imaginative, totalitarian honeybee hive society; and Sarah Water’s The Paying Guest, which explores the effects of societal constraints on women, resulting in a crime of forbidden passion in post-World War II England.

Lori

 
 

All Trains Lead to Infidelity

All Trains Lead to Infidelity

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

Cover art for Hausfrau There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but for Anna Benz there is only one way to meet your lover…and that's by train. Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel, Hausfrau, watches Anna’s downward spiral as she grasps at physical intimacies in an attempt to fill the gaping emotional void of her life.  

 

Anna, an American living in a hamlet in Switzerland, is profoundly unhappy. She finds the Swiss — including her banker husband Bruno — remote, and her few friendships with expats are unfulfilling. Her struggles with the local Schwiizerdütsch dialect increase her feelings of alienation, even from her three children. The train leaving the village beckons Anna with an escape. She enrolls in a German class, but quickly finds herself in an extramarital affair with a classmate. Soon after, she drifts into another sexual relationship with a family friend.

 

Essbaum writes Anna as a passive woman with little will, or does she? Anna enters into liaisons readily, yet resists female friendship. Frustrated with her sadness, her husband suggests psychotherapy. As her Jungian analyst probes Anna’s psyche and interprets her dreams and her language teacher parses grammar, Anna holds back, refusing to fully participate in the very activities she’s chosen to allay her distress. Essbaum’s use of language is precise as she slowly reveals Anna’s story by cycling between past and present, illuminating the nature of her discontent as her decisions become increasingly reckless and self-destructive. Doktor Messerli tells Anna in a therapy session, “…there’s no need to seek out those mistakes. For now it is they who seek you.” Intense and disconcerting, Hausfrau is an unforgettable portrait of a desperate woman.

Lori

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Short Stories Sweet and Tart

Short Stories Sweet and Tart

posted by:
March 26, 2015 - 7:00am

This House Is Not for Sale by E. C. OsonduStone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret AtwoodShort stories are usually read in a single sitting. Pick up either of these new collections, This House Is Not for Sale by E. C. Osondu or Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood, and find that sitting stretching out as one story leads to the next.

 

This House Is Not for Sale is set in a nameless African village. The main character of each story lives in Grandpa’s grand family house and so falls under his powerful, and perhaps corrupt, domain. Some of the stories feature ordinary problems, like Abule and his serially cheating wife or Uncle Currency’s workplace embezzlement. Other problems are more closely tied to African folklore, such as the soul-stealer who prevents Tata from carrying pregnancies to term. Conflicts are illuminated by anonymous villagers’ gossipy commentary reminiscent of a fragmented Greek chorus, and when necessary, the godfather-like Grandpa steps in to deliver a final judgment. Esondu, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, captures both the joy and pain of everyday life in these thoughtful vignettes.

 

Bitingly irreverent wit, an unsentimental use of aging protagonists and unpredictable plots mark the wonderful Stone Mattress. The first three stories form a sort of trilogy. In “Alphinland,” widowed Constance, author of a cult classic fantasy series, is guided through a blizzard by the blow-by-blow verbal instructions issued by her dead husband. At the same time, she is also remembering her first love, the pompous and ever-randy poet Gavin, who betrayed Constance with another woman. “Revenent” features Gavin, now an impotent curmudgeon married to his third, much younger wife who is heavily invested in preserving Gavin’s legacy, if not necessarily Gavin himself. Finally, in “Dark Lady,” all the players — including the “other woman” — meet again. Other stories revisit the friends from “The Robber Bride,” find a predatory widow meeting up with her rapist prom date of 50 years ago or track a one-trick pony author determined to snuff out old friends living off his royalties. Atwood is a master wordsmith and excels when revealing her characters’ internal dialogue. The only disappointment here is that by their nature, these stories are short so the pleasure of reading them ends too quickly.

Lori

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Here Be Some Very Bad Dragons

The Great Zoo of China by Matthew ReillyPuff the Magic Dragon conjures up a saccharine image, kind of like a winged Barney. A dragon named Melted Face with hide like Kevlar is more a feature of nightmares. Unfortunately for herpetologist CJ Cameron, Melted Face and his cronies have her in their sights in the rip-roaring action thriller The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly.

 

CJ is flying to China. The Chinese government is sparing no expense to bring her, along with influential politicians and reporters, to premiere their nation’s newest attraction: a phenomenal zoo designed to make the Disney’s amusement empire look rinky-dink. As they arrive at the park, located in a remote no-fly zone, CJ is stunned to see Greyhound bus-sized mythical creatures soaring through the sky. The official announcement? “Welcome to Great Dragon Zoo of China.”

 

Like a surreal Sea World, the visit starts with the equivalent of a dolphin show. A cute handler prompts dragons through tricks, explains they were were hatched from ancient eggs buried miles beneath the earth’s crust and ends by saddling up a sweet yellow dragon and flying into the clouds. CJ, however, sees both grim intelligence and simmering resentment in the lizards’ eyes, and this public relations visit quickly turns into a blood-soaked battle for survival as hordes of angry dragons turn their captors into prey. Furiously paced and laced with reptilian scientific factoids, The Great Zoo of China is an adrenaline-charged adventure of a tale.

Lori

 
 

Making a Difference

The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters by Wes MooreAuthor Wes Moore, not yet 40, is already quite accomplished. A graduate of Johns Hopkins and a Rhodes Scholar, an army officer with combat tours in Afghanistan, a Wall Street banker, a White House fellow and author of a bestselling memoir, Moore surely exceeds any standard measure of success. Moore’s newest book, The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters, reflects upon his varied experiences which have impressed upon him the importance of work which one believes to be meaningful.

 

Baltimore readers may already be familiar with his first book The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, which Moore was motivated to write after reading a newspaper article about a young Baltimore man who grew up a few blocks from Moore’s childhood home, imprisoned for his part in the shooting death of a security officer. That man’s name, too, is Wes Moore, and author Moore struggled to understand the difference in the life journeys of the two men. In The Work, Moore acknowledges his lifelong fascination with “fate and meaning…success and failure.” He goes on to highlight what he views as lessons learned from his myriad workplaces and shares stories about people who’ve inspired him and are also practitioners of work, paid or otherwise, aimed at serving others.

 

John Galina and Dale Beatty are the founders of Purple Heart Homes, which aims to provide disabled veterans with affordable and accessible housing. Liberty Elementary School in Baltimore City, where nearly all the students live below the poverty line, is led by Principal Joe Manko who cut the administrative budget in favor of bringing in technology and resources directly benefiting his classrooms. The Aley siblings formed American MoJo, a for-profit manufacturing company meant to employ struggling single moms. Moore also finds role models in every day folks who may not be as visible but exemplify passion and service, such as his grandfather or a NYC office cleaner. The Work includes an appendix of questions which, though introspective, could be used for triggering a book club discussion.

Lori

 
 

Vanished

Vanished

posted by:
February 9, 2015 - 8:00am

Cover art for DescentCover art for The Missing PlaceMissing children show up on milk cartons. What happens to missing adults whose disappearance may not trigger the same sense of urgency from law enforcement investigations? Novels The Missing Place by Sophie Littlefield and Descent by Tim Johnston combine taut suspense with a look at the family dynamics at play when an adult child vanishes.

 

Descent opens with Grant and Angie Courtland lazing in a Colorado hotel room bed while their son and college-bound daughter are out on an early morning mountain trail jaunt. A ringing telephone conveys the news to the parents that their Rockies summer vacation is now officially a nightmare. Sixteen-year-old Sean was found on the trail, unconscious and with a shattered leg; his older sister Caitlin has disappeared without a trace. Johnson examines the remaining Courtlands’ unique reactions to the tragedy while unraveling the mystery of Caitlin’s fate. Part family drama, part dark psychological thriller, Descent will keep the reader on tenterhooks to the end.

 

In The Missing Place, suburban Boston housewife Colleen Mitchell is flying to North Dakota armed only with a handful of text messages from her son Paul, who’s gone missing after he dropped out of college to work as a roughneck in the booming hydrofracking industry. Colleen ends up sharing lodgings with Shay, mother to a young man who went missing along with Paul, and the two women from opposite sides of the tracks form an uneasy alliance to search for their sons. Colleen brings her corporate lawyer husband’s financial resources to their quest while Shay brings tech savvy and street smarts, but is that sufficient to breach the cone of silence engineered by gas companies intent on guarding their bottom line? Littlefield, an Edgar Award nominee who writes for both adults and teens, deftly portrays the anguish of mothers determined to find their sons who end up uncovering some unexpected adult secrets, too.

Lori