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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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Across the Pond Contenders

Across the Pond Contenders

posted by:
September 13, 2012 - 8:30am

Bring Up the BodiesThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FrySkiosWhat do Skios by Michael Frayn, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, and Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies have in common? Each has been included on the Long List of Great Britain’s highly coveted contemporary fiction award, the Man Booker Prize.

 

Taking place on the private Greek island of Skios, blonde Nikki Hook is the coolly capable public relations rep for the prestigious Fred Toppler foundation. She is preparing for the arrival of, and fantasizing about, much vaunted guest speaker Dr. Norman Wilfred. Nikki’s gal pal Georgie is heading to a secretive tryst at the other end of the island with dilettante playboy Oscar Fox. Lost luggage, mistaken identity, wrong rooms, taxi-driving brothers, and a language barrier all figure prominently in this farce, both comedic and satirical. Euphoksoliva, anyone?

 

Hobby-less Harold is recently retired. Seemingly estranged from his only son, on the very last nerve of his house-cleaning wife, and locked in desultory lawn care chats with his recently widowed neighbor, Harold needs a purpose. Purpose arrives via the mail in the guise of a brief letter from former co-worker Queenie Hennessy, who writes to let Harold know she is dying. Harold responds with a quick condolence note but instead decides that if he walks to see Queenie himself, she will survive. Marching along in yacht shoes and a neck tie, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has Mr. Fry walking five hundred miles through England as he develops both blisters and perspective in this charming yet poignant tale.

 

Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to Hilary Mantel’s 2009 winner of the Booker Prize, Wolf Hall, and again features Thomas Cromwell. Now a powerful minister to Henry VIII, Cromwell’s job is to clear out Anne Boleyn as Henry yearns to replace her with Jane Seymour. Written using present tense, the author offers a fresh view on Cromwell as a thoughtful reformer carrying out the wishes of the King. Mantel’s skill in writing fascinating and suspenseful historical fiction is on display here, drawing in the reader despite the foregone conclusion. Mantel plans a third book which will complete the Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

 

Lori

 
 

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About DNA (But Were Afraid to Ask)

The Violinist's ThumbOur genes can be likened to a story, and the gray, sticky paste of DNA is the language in which the story is written, according to Sam Kean, author of The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code. Kean relates the history and function of DNA and genes and their effect on collective and individual human development.

 

Watson, Crick, and Mendel are familiar names linked to DNA and gene theory but few people have heard of Thomas Hunt Morgan and his assistant, ladies’ man Calvin Bridges, or Catholic Sister Miriam Michael Stimson. Kean fleshes out years of tedious research undertaken by lesser-known scientists that paved the way for the award-winning discoveries. RNA, DNA palindromes, Y chromosomes, and mitochondria—all hard science terms that could prove overwhelming—are balanced by Kean with humor and relatable anecdotes. DNA injury and resiliency is illustrated by the case of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a man unfortunate enough to be exposed to the bomb detonation in Hiroshima, who then travelled to Nagasaki in time to be blasted again.

 

The Violinist’s Thumb refers to virtuoso Niccolo Paganini, whose musical gifts were, in part, due to a genetic error inhibiting his body’s ability to produce collagen; his disease allowed him to stretch his hands to perform amazing violin feats.  Unfortunately it also contributed to his poor health and early demise. Kean explains how cat hoarding behavior can be linked to careless litter box cleaning, and cautions the reader to avoid eating a polar bear’s liver should you find yourself stranded at the North Pole. The book ends by raising thorny questions about cloning and the implications of analyzing a single person’s genome. Readers who enjoy popular science writing, such as Mary Roach’s Stiff, will find a winner in The Violinist’s Thumb.

Lori

 
 

Life, Love, and Ducks

Life, Love, and Ducks

posted by:
September 4, 2012 - 8:00am

The Chemistry of TearsMerriam-Webster’s dictionary defines automaton as “a mechanism that is relatively self-operating” such as a robot. Such a machine forms the underpinning of the two-time Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey’s newest book, The Chemistry of Tears.

 

Carey introduces Catherine Gerhig, a London museum curator. She has just been told about the unexpected death of co-worker and family man Matthew, with whom she has been having a covert long-term affair. Catherine’s boss assigns to her the labor-intensive job of reassembling a complicated Victorian mechanical toy in attempt to distract her from her overwhelming grief. Amongst the chests of parts, Catherine finds the journals of Henry Brandling. Brandling was an Englishman who had traveled to rural Germany to commission clockmakers to build a fantastic mechanical duck which he intends to present to his beloved sickly son.

 

Webster’s second meaning for automaton refers to a machine operating according to predetermined directions; Catherine and Henry, as revealed through his diaries, both seem to be on autopilot themselves. Henry is on his single-minded quixotic quest to bring home a toy, the magical novelty of which he believes will spark his son to live. Self-medicated Catherine is slogging through the motions of life, unhinged as she is by her anguish at losing her lover.

 

Carey is a clever writer who blurs the distinctions between man and machine. Catherine eats only to live, Henry despairs at the paucity of food available to him, and what turns out to be a swan has a fully functioning digestive tract and eats for the entertainment of others. Henry and Catherine are objects of manipulation, as is the swan. The Chemistry of Tears is a well-written and intelligent story and Carey’s illuminating descriptions of antique mechanical inventions are a lovely bonus.  

Lori

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American Royalty

American Royalty

posted by:
August 20, 2012 - 7:03am

Mary's MosaicJack 1939Here in America, we don’t have a Charles, Diana, and Camilla nor a William and Kate. We do, however, have the Kennedy clan. From the enchanted Camelot era to the recent tragedy of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s wife’s suicide, this extended family’s accomplishments and foibles play out in the press and provide fodder for books to satisfy a public curiosity which shows no sign of waning. Two recent releases, the true crime Mary’s Mosaic by Peter Janney, and the fictional Jack 1939 penned by Francine Mathews, mine the Kennedy history and mystique while each traveling a very different path.

 

Who really killed Jack Kennedy?  Trying to sort out the conspiracy theories surrounding the President’s death is akin to falling down a rabbit hole.  Author Peter Janney takes on the 1964 murder of Washington DC denizen Mary Pinchot Meyer in Mary’s Mosaic and ties the fatal—and unsolved-- shooting of the well-connected Meyer to the events surrounding the assassination of her lover and confidante JFK. Heavily researched and footnoted, Janney posits that the CIA engineered both deaths because Meyer’s pacifism and use of marijuana and hallucinogens were influencing President Kennedy’s views leading to policy decisions contrary to what the CIA felt best for the nation. Janney implicates CIA officials including his own father, Wistar Janney, and Mary’s former husband Cord Meyer in the tangled web of DC agendas and cover-ups. Reading like a who’s who of the Cold War era, Mary’s Mosaic will appeal to those well-versed in the Warren commission report as well as Kennedy family buffs.  

 

Jack Kennedy and family also make an appearance in Francine Matthew’s novel Jack 1939. Set in the Europe of pre-World War II, Kennedy is anointed a secret agent by President Roosevelt who is bucking for a third term in office; Jack’s mission is to interrupt the German machinations interfering with Roosevelt’s ambitions. Matthews, a former CIA analyst, mixes history with a spy thriller in this fascinating and fast-moving story of what-if conjecture.

 

Lori

 
 

The Gold and Silver Twins

The Gold and Silver Twins

posted by:
August 7, 2012 - 7:55am

The EnchantressWith the publication of The Enchantress, Irish author Michael Scott concludes his six volume The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series. Part historical fiction, part fantasy, and part action/adventure, Scott uses figures from both history and mythology to weave a complex saga of good versus evil while relying on legend and mysticism to propel this series along.

 

Teenage twins Sophie and Josh Newman are introduced in the first book, The Alchemyst. Flamel and wife Perenelle, masquerading as San Francisco booksellers, recognize the brother and sister as the magical gold and silver twins destined to fulfill an ancient prophecy. Chaos reigns when Golems attack the bookstore, stealing an ancient text written by Abraham the Mage; the Dark Elders could destroy the human world with the secrets contained within the book. However, Josh managed to retain some of its most crucial pages -- and the chase is on!

 

History buffs will recognize names such as the alchemists Flamel and their arch enemy, Dr. John Dee, who was an advisor and scientist for the court of Elizabeth I. Mythology fans will enjoy appearances by Isis and Osiris (ostensibly the twins’ parents), Bastet, Scathach, and Quetzelcoatl, along with visits to sites like Danu Talis and the continuing quest for the formula for immortality. This series should be read in order, as the books, each named for a central character, take the reader further along the journey of Josh and Sophie. They realize not only the scope of their own power but decide how best to wield it and with whom their allegiance lies. Sharing elements with both the Harry Potter books and Rick Riordan’s Olympian series, as well as Deborah Harkness’s Discovery of Witches trilogy, Scott’s stories should appeal to teens and adults alike.

Lori

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To Kill a Carolina Parakeet

To Kill a Carolina Parakeet

posted by:
July 30, 2012 - 8:50am

The CoveAuthor Ron Rash hails from the hills of North Carolina and is the chair of Appalachian studies at Western Carolina University so it is no surprise that his novels are steeped in the culture of the Smoky Mountains. Rash’s star is on the rise; an earlier book, Serena, is being made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and his latest book, The Cove, made the NYT bestsellers list. 

 

In The Cove, Laurel Shelton and her brother Hank live in a gloomy cove outside rural Mars Hill, North Carolina. Their homestead is considered cursed after the untimely deaths of their parents and Laurel, born with a purple birthmark covering her shoulder, is marked as a witch and shunned by the superstitious townspeople. Laurel hopes Hank takes a wife, as a sister-in-law will ease her loneliness. Instead, Laurel finds an injured mute flutist named Walter in the woods and as the Sheltons shelter Walter, a relationship blossoms between the two. At the same time, the Mars Hill residents are infected by the prevailing anti-German sentiment generated by WWI and the hysteria threatens to spill over into the cove even as Laurel begins to suspect Walter of harboring a dangerous secret.

 

Rash’s intimate knowledge of the Appalachian people shines through in this book and he often weaves fact and fiction together. Mars Hill and its college are real, as were the Vaterland cruise ship and the beautiful but hunted to extinction Carolina parakeet. The narrative is rich with colloquial speech, the main characters are well-developed with Laurel especially written well, and the story unfolds in Southern Gothic tradition as a stonecutter quoting Gray’s Elegy says “the paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Readers who appreciate books set in the mountains of the American south might also enjoy author Sharyn McCrumb.

 

Lori

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Of Roots and Stones

House of StoneHey America, Your Roots Are ShowingPulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid, a Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, was an Oklahoman of Lebanese descent. In 2006, faced with a crumbling marriage stateside, Shadid focused on restoring his great-grandfather’s abandoned home in the village of Marjayoun, Lebanon. His book, House of Stone, is as much of a lesson on the political and cultural history of the Ottoman empire as seen from Marjayoun as it is a chronicle of an American trying to conduct the frustrating business of home improvement with local contractors while recreating his “bayt.” A nuanced Arabic word roughly meaning home, a bayt is the place of one’s roots. Mr. Shadid’s poignant story merging his family’s past and present was published posthumously; he died of an asthma attack this past February while attempting to leave Syria on horseback. Surprisingly, especially in light of the beautifully detailed architectural descriptions of the home, the book does not include photographs.

 

Also dealing with family history but on a far lighter note is Megan Smolenyak’s Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing.  Smolenyak is a professional genealogist and chief family historian at Ancestry.com. Her clients have included the U.S. Army (finding primary next-of-kin for soldiers,) the FBI (civil rights cold case crime-solving,) the BBC (tracing family members of sailors who died on the USS Monitor), and even her own curiosity, as she sketches the family tree of Michelle Obama.  These assignments and more are covered in her latest book as she utilizes the traditional paper trail and oral interviews, supplemented by DNA testing, to solve family mysteries. Entertaining but always respectful toward her subjects, Smolenyak finds an unlikely link between Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond, and debunks the myth that immigrants’ surnames were mangled at Ellis Island by uncaring clerks. Hey America, Your Roots are Showing is an enjoyable look at genealogical detective work.

 

Lori

 
 

Pretty or Not?

Pretty or Not?

posted by:
July 3, 2012 - 1:49pm

The ListIt’s a given: high school, angst, and a painful self-consciousness go hand in hand for everyone except the “in-crowd,” right? Or maybe not. Siobhan Vivian takes a probing look at high school students in her new novel, The List, and explores the impact of being one of the infamous eight girls named on a cruel, anonymously authored cataloging of the prettiest and ugliest in each grade.

 

Being listed as the prettiest would seem to guarantee a charmed life for a high school girl and initially, ninth grader Abby revels in the extra attention garnered due to her appearance. Senior Margo feels somewhat entitled to be in the prettiest category, as was her older sister a few years back. Sophomore Lauren is surprised by her inclusion especially as this is her first year of public school, having been homeschooled previously. Struggling with a blooming eating disorder, junior Bridget rationalizes that making the prettiest list means her weight loss was—and is-- necessary.

 

On the flip side, receiving the label of ugliest should be devastating and for eleventh grade Sarah, always a nonconformist, the list pushes her to an extreme. Jennifer, hiding a secret, decides to celebrate her notoriety as a 4-time “winner” while beautiful queen-bee Candace is certain that her name was placed on this side of the sophomore list in error. Freshman varsity athlete Danielle just hopes her new boyfriend isn’t bothered by her being tagged as “Dan the man.”

 

Taking place in the week leading up to the homecoming dance, each girl has the opportunity to look at friendships and family in a new light; each must also decide if she embraces the label thrust upon her or forge her own identity independent of The List. Fans of realistic fiction will enjoy this title which reminds us to look inside not only others but ourselves, too.

Lori

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Double Trouble

Double Trouble

posted by:
June 29, 2012 - 8:30am

Gone, GirlCanadaEagerly anticipated by readers, Pulitzer prize winner Richard Ford and best-selling suspense writer Gillian Flynn have each released a new book in time for summer reading. Flynn’s Gone Girl is a dually narrated tale of a marriage gone wrong with a thriller's edge. Ford’s latest novel, Canada, is a coming of age tale from a master wordsmith.

 

In Gone Girl, we are introduced to couple Nick and Amy. Once darling newlywed writers living a charmed life in New York City, they’ve relocated to Nick’s decidedly less urbane Missouri hometown after the rise of the internet leads to the demise of their magazine employers. Nick buys a neighborhood bar with his twin sister Margo while unemployed Amy chafes at the constraints of a small town lifestyle. Amy disappears and naturally, husband Nick becomes the prime suspect. The couple takes turns telling the story; Nick’s present tense accounts alternate with the backstory provided by Amy’s journal entries. Fans of Gillian Flynn know she does not write for the gentle reader, as her style is taut with sharp edges, raw language, and keen observations into the darker, hidden bits of the human psyche.

 

In Canada, Richard Ford also introduces a set of twins, Dell and Berner, brother and sister respectively. Author of the lauded Bascombe trilogy, Ford’s prose is clear and direct without being spare and complements both the prairie setting and plot-driven story recounted by Dell.  The Montana twins’ parents uncharacteristically rob a bank and end up in jail; Berner runs off, leaving Dell to be smuggled over to an unsavory family friend in Saskatchewan. Dell’s journey becomes more than a trip across the border as he comes to terms with his parents’ actions, loss of family, and a new, unasked-for life on a rough fringe of society.

 

Lori

 
 

The Left and Right Hands

The Left and Right Hands

posted by:
June 18, 2012 - 8:30am

The Book Of JonasFifteen-year-old Younas is brought to Pittsburgh after the Muslim village in which he lives is destroyed and his family killed by American troops.  Rechristened Jonas, he asks a relief worker why her organization is helping him. She responds:

 

"...our country sometimes has a habit of making a mess with its left hand and cleaning it up with its right. We are the right hand."

 

Author Stephen Dau explores these themes of duality and contradiction in his thoughtful debut novel, The Book of Jonas.

 

As in Chris Cleave’s bestselling Little Bee, Dau tells the story of a young immigrant leaving behind unspeakable horrors in a homeland at odds with the comfortable English-speaking country of destination. The author allows the story to unfold using alternating narrators, offering sharp commentary on Western customs and culture as viewed by the immigrant Jonas. His fate is entwined with that of MIA Christopher Henderson, an American soldier party to the offensive on his village, and Jonas is gently pressured to recount his past by both his US court-ordered counselor and Christopher’s mother who is desperate for any news of her son. Jonas reflects that the truth of a matter and what the law requires don’t necessarily coincide and he attempts to adapt to his new country while struggling to reconcile the nature of his relationship with the soldier. Dau dangles the questions of who is the savior and who is the saved and wonders about the imprecision of memory and words to convey the truth of an experience in this compelling and beautifully written book.  

 

Lori

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