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Between the Covers / Shhhh... we're reading.   Photo of reading after bedtime
Melanie Brevis

A former day care teacher, Peace Corps volunteer, and non-profit worker, Melanie Brevis enjoys the many surprises that fill her days when she's surrounded by people, communities, and of course books! As a librarian at the Perry Hall Branch, she looks forward to all aspects of her job and is always ready to recommend a good book, especially true crime, biographies or fiction at any age level. Melanie enjoys a variety of genres, especially realistic fiction and family sagas, but also spends a lot of time reading picture books with her young son.

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Bloggers

 

Man on the Run

Man on the Run

posted by:
April 15, 2013 - 8:15am

SchroderThe disappearance of a child is a parent’s worst nightmare. Amity Gaige’s latest book, Schroder, is a kidnapping tale with a twist: it’s told from the perspective of the kidnapper, who is also the child’s father. Eric Kennedy is writing to his estranged wife from prison, explaining why he abducted their daughter Meadow and chronicling the time he spent on the run with her. His story becomes a broader reflection of his life and his misguided decisions and deceptions.

 

When Eric feels he’s being unfairly treated in divorce proceedings, he drives off with his daughter during one of his custody visits. Through the course of the story, the reader learns the history of Eric, who was born Erik Schroder in East Berlin. He and his father emigrated to the United States under murky circumstances, and Erik originally used the name Eric Kennedy to gain admission to a summer camp. The name sticks, staying with him into adulthood, although modern technology and identity tracking make it increasingly difficult for him to maintain a false persona. Gaige does an excellent job building two contrasting main characters: Meadow is an incredibly perceptive yet wholly innocent six-year-old, while Eric is a deeply flawed adult who puts his daughter’s safety at risk multiple times. There is a train wreck feel to the story as he makes one poor decision after another.

 

Gaige drew inspiration for this story from the famous case of Clark Rockefeller, whose multiple false identities were discovered after he kidnapped his daughter in 2008. The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal is an account of that story. In Schroder, Gaige manages to show that Eric is not a terrible person, just a “bad choicer”, as she refers to him in an interview with NPR.

Melanie

 
 

It's the End of the World as We Know It

Full Body BurdenThree Mile Island, Chernobyl, and most recently Fukushima have all made names for themselves in the history books, but lesser known is Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant in Colorado. In Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, Kristen Iversen draws on her own experiences living in one of the neighborhoods close to the plant and later working there herself. The result is part family memoir and part historical account of Rocky Flats, which was quickly built after World War II. At first, Rocky Flats was seen as a boon to the community, bringing a myriad of jobs and stability to the region. Later, it became known as one of the most contaminated places in the U.S., with high rates of illnesses amongst workers and environmental threats to the surrounding neighborhoods. During its years of operation, several major accidents occurred, including a fire in 1969 that could have turned into a disaster on par with Chernobyl if not for a series of fortuitous actions on the part of plant workers. Activists and residents became increasingly vocal about problems, yet it wasn’t until the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Environmental Protection Agency conducted a joint raid of the plant in 1989 that truths finally came to light.

 

Iversen does an excellent job weaving together the stories of Rocky Flats and her own family with the common thread of secrecy: much like government and plant officials downplayed gross negligence and destructive environmental practices, her parents hid problems in their own home, including alcoholism and financial hardships. She also skillfully charts both her family’s history and Rocky Flat’s legacy to bittersweet conclusions, posing a question still being contemplated today: Are we living under the protection of the bomb, or under its shadow? Readers who enjoy narrative science books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, disfunctional family memoirs like The Glass Castle, or environmental justice accounts like A Civil Action will all find reason to be intrigued with this book.  

Melanie

 
 

Secrets, Politics and Life in the ‘70s

You are the Love of My LifeUnrelated secrets simultaneously surface, threatening to destroy a family, a neighborhood and a country in Susan Richards Shreve’s latest novel, You Are the Love of My Life. A community on the outskirts of Washington, DC is the perfect backdrop for this story set in 1973, just as Watergate is ready to engulf the capital and the nation. In this seemingly tranquil neighborhood, Lucy Painter grew up in a family drowning in secrecy. Her father, an advisor to Harry Truman, committed suicide due to “the information he kept”. Her mother changed their last name and moved them across the country for a fresh start, but these actions only served to catapult Lucy towards an adult life equally full of secrecy and lies. When Lucy moves with her two children back to her childhood home, she hopes for a life of anonymity. But intrusive neighbors, especially fellow mother Zelda who has been hiding a dysfunctional marriage, threaten the protective shell she’s built around her life. When Lucy’s daughter Maggie becomes entranced with Zelda and further isolates herself, Lucy realizes she must lay bare her past in order to move forward in her own life and rescue her daughter.

 

Shreve does an excellent job creating nuanced characters who don’t reveal all their cards. In addition to Lucy and Zelda there is August, a former professor who’s widowed and struggling with professional shortcomings, Lane, who is coping with the then-shame of breast cancer treatment, and Adam, Zelda’s husband and Vietnam veteran who is silently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Shreve’s novel highlights a time in American history when normalcy and conformity battled with larger social issues and political blunders too big to ignore, a time when underlying tensions came to a roiling boil.

 

Melanie

 
 

Still Waters Run Deep

Still Waters Run Deep

posted by:
December 10, 2012 - 8:55am

Those We Love MostChange can happen in an instant. This is the central message in Lee Woodruff’s debut fiction book, Those We Love Most. On the surface, this is a story of old themes. Members of an upper-middle income, multi-generational family are devastated by a tragedy, and existing small cracks and relationship fissures are suddenly split wide open. Roger and Margaret Munson are an older couple with three grown children. They have a seemingly stable marriage, yet pursue separate interests much of the time. Their eldest child, Maura, is a product of her parents. Married with three young children, she and her husband live a comfortable if staid existence until one spring day when their eldest son is struck by a car and killed. The four adults all cope with the loss differently and must face past transgressions and secrets as part of their path to healing.

 

Lee Woodruff writes from personal experience about unexpected tragedy. Her husband, Bob Woodruff, was an ABC News Anchor who was injured in an explosion in Iraq in 2006 and suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result. She has written two non-fiction books about her experiences, one co-authored with him. Despite the somewhat predictable plot, Woodruff creates characters with depth and believability, and this is what keeps the reader engaged in this heartbreaking yet redemptive story. Although there are no real surprises in Those We Love Most, it is a thoughtful study about how people cope with grief as individuals and as a family unit. Is there one prescribed path individuals should follow when processing loss? Are beliefs in an afterlife or higher power necessary to come to terms with the death of a child? Far from sentimental, this book raises difficult questions about death, redemption and putting lives back together in a less-than-perfect fashion.

 

Melanie

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A Warped Sense of Reality

The Girl BelowThere is an unsettling mystery at the heart of Bianca Zander’s debut novel, The Girl Below, a tale of family secrets and self-discovery set in modern-day London. When Suki Piper was a little girl, she lived with her parents in a basement flat in Notting Hill. One night, her parents threw a party in their building’s courtyard. During the revelry, Suki and a few others became trapped underground in a World War II-era air raid shelter on the property. Suki has no memory of how she escaped, and this incident haunts her repeatedly, in dreams and also in waking moments when she is suddenly transported back to the party. She has other strange memories, including a hand which would reach out to her from a wardrobe and an unnerving statue of a girl in her neighbor’s flat. In the present day, Suki is in her late twenties and having a tough time. After a decades-long lonely existence in New Zealand trying to reconnect with her father, she has returned to London. Having little success with a job search or friendships, she becomes reacquainted with her former neighbors, a nice but dysfunctional family. Suki is once again launched into her past and must make sense once and for all of her fractured family and the missing pieces.

 

Suki can be a frustrating narrator, coming across as fairly lazy, impulsive and immature. Yet as she embarks on her search and more is revealed about her unstable family and upbringing, she becomes a more sympathetic character. Childhood events are relayed as Suki remembers them, giving a large portion of the story a fantastical, magical bend. Among her influences, Zander cites authors as diverse as Haruki Murakami, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sarah Waters. From these inspirations, a unique story is spun.  

 

Melanie

 
 

The Life and Trials of Amanda Knox

A Death in ItalyThe Fatal Gift of BeautyIt has now been a full year since Amanda Knox, tried and originally convicted of murdering her British roommate in Perugia, Italy, was freed from the Italian prison where she spent almost four years. In A Death in Italy: The Definitive Account of the Amanda Knox Case, John Follain provides an exhaustive look at the proceedings. He builds background,  from the personal histories of Knox, her roommate Meredith Kercher and others intimately involved with the case, to the details of Knox’s and Kercher’s first days in Perugia and their social activities in the days leading up to the attack. He then follows the investigation, trial and subsequent retrial, ending with statements from the courts as to why Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were both freed. A third person who was also convicted, Rudy Guede, remains in prison. 

 

Follain is a crime reporter, and at times the narrative can feel bogged down with details and interviews which are not particularly relevant to the investigation. But overall it provides a good perspective on the case, and shows where errors on both sides were made. It also is a solid testament to the emotional impact of the crime on involved individuals, even those not related to the victim or the accused. A good companion to this book is Nina Burleigh’s The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox. It was published in 2011 before Knox’s and Sollecito’s convictions were overturned. Having lived in Perugia for the duration of the trial, Burleigh provides an impressive history of the Italian justice system, and how conservative religious theory, ancient paganism and organized crime all played a role in the outcome of the first trial. Both books are excellent reads for people interested in the case, and readers will return to the media version of the investigation and trials with a newfound perspective. 

Melanie

 
 

Through the Eyes of a Child

Through the Eyes of a Child

posted by:
November 2, 2012 - 7:01am

 

What I DidIt all begins with a boy, a father and a busy street. Christopher Wakling’s latest book, What I Did, shows how one small incident can become a case study in multiple viewpoints, having a much greater impact on people as a result. Billy runs into the road ahead of his father on an outing to the park. His father reacts with the typical fury of an overworked parent, cursing and roughly handling his son. What takes this incident from minor to major is a woman who sees him disciplining the boy and calls child protective services, who launch an investigation. What is equally intriguing and at times baffling for the reader is trying to determine the details of what actually happened, since the story is told by an unreliable narrator--six-year-old Billy.

 

Despite the serious plotline, the narration is often laugh-out-loud funny. Billy’s voice is similar to the young narrators of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Emma Donoghue’s Room. Lacking in social skills, he is imaginative and has a unique perspective of the world around him. He also has a fascination with animals and science, and his commentary is interspersed with random bits of trivia. Still, the reader only has Billy’s perspective, and his actions are steered by a six-year-old’s intellectual capacity for understanding what to do and say in order to bring this incident into proper perspective. A few sections read like a “Who’s on First” routine, when Billy misinterprets what is being asked by social workers and doctors. Wakling has an interesting background, and mentioning on his website that this book was in part inspired by his own experience with fatherhood and the character flaws it has exposed in him. This is a unique, engaging read where the reader roots for Billy and his parents, despite their flaws.

 

 

Melanie

 
 

Magical Music and Cambridge Spires

The Bellwether RevivalsBenjamin Wood’s debut novel The Bellwether Revivals begins with a mystery: a crime scene with two people dead and a third barely alive. But what happened prior? The rest of the book is about the events leading up to that moment. Oscar Lowe is a working-class twenty-something who makes a living as a care assistant at a nursing home. Eden and Iris Bellwether are ambitious siblings from a privileged background who both study at Cambridge. A chance meeting brings Oscar into their elite circle, which he soon finds is convoluted and laden with social traps. Oscar begins a relationship with Iris but finds that threatened by the increasing eccentricities of Eden, who believes himself capable of healing through hypnosis and the power of his music. Eden is also the clear leader of their group of friends, which begins to take on cult-like characteristics as Eden’s delusions become more grandiose. When Eden starts to feel he’s losing control of Iris and his parents, real tragedy ensues.

 

A classic story in one sense of the clash between the haves and have nots of society, this is also a gothic tale which delves into diverse topics such as mental illness, social isolation and music theory. Moreover, it is an intergenerational story, where those who were once young and charting the pathway to new innovations are now dependent upon and look up to the younger generation of today. Similar to The Talented Mr. Ripley or School Ties, Wood paints a picture that shows that being wealthy isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Fans of British novels and psychological drama will enjoy this story of complex relationships and intrigue. 

Melanie

 
 

Family Secrets and Country Stars

Miss Me When I'm GoneGretchen Waters had an exciting life, one tragically cut short by a fall down an icy set of library stairs. In Miss Me When I’m Gone by Emily Arsenault, her accidental death turns out to be much more when her best friend, Jamie Madden, begins researching Gretchen’s papers and her past.

 

This story is a unique blend of southern honky-tonk country and New England mystery. Gretchen’s success had come via a book, Tammyland, which she wrote following her own divorce. A travel memoir of sorts, Gretchen toured the southern states, visiting sites of famous female country music stars and writing about their lives while reflecting on her own. A second book was in the works, and Jamie soon discovers that it is an even more personal investigation into Gretchen’s own life and childhood. As she talks with more people, Jamie senses that Gretchen’s death may not have been simply an accident. 

 

Although a mystery, this book has elements of fun and quirkiness, especially the interspersed biographies on country music singers which are excerpted from the fictitious Tammyland. It’s hard to imagine how one chapter about Tammy Wynette could lead seamlessly into another chapter about a quest to find one’s biological father, but Arsenault makes it work and keeps the story fresh and engaging. This book is an enjoyable read; it may even provide inspiration to visit some country music sites, or at least sing along to a few Dolly Parton tunes!

Melanie

 
 

A Family’s Journey Through Darkness

January First“Schizophrenia is a little like cancer. You can’t trust that it will ever go away completely.” Michael Schofield begins with these reflections as he chronicles his journey to understand and combat his daughter January’s mental illness in January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her. For the first five years of her life, Michael and his wife Susan knew only a few certainties about January.  First, she was a genius, with an IQ of 146. Second, she had an extremely active imagination, to the point where she created her own private world and hundreds of imaginary friends. Third, she rarely slept and needed constant stimulation, keeping both parents in a state of total exhaustion and often despair. January was also more prone than the average child to tantrums and fits of rage, which intensified after the birth of her brother, Bodhi. The Schofields had hoped that a sibling would give January a much-needed companion, but were horrified when she tried time and again to physically harm the infant. After many wrong turns and countless battles with California’s mental health and education systems, January was diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia, a condition much more severe in children than in adults.

 

Schofield’s complete honesty, even when it means portraying himself in a less than flattering light, is one of the most powerful draws of this book. He lays bare the family’s physical, emotional and financial struggles. Conveyed particularly well are the immense frustrations the Schofields experience on a daily basis, as they deal with insurance companies, doctors who won’t return calls, and a child who does not respond to traditional reinforcements or punishments.  At present, the situation with January has improved, thanks in large part to a creative living situation – for several years the Schofields kept two apartments so January and Bodhi could live apart - and a drug cocktail which has reduced the severity of her hallucinations. As Schofield concludes, the family has learned to embrace the positive in each day but know that January’s condition may still deteriorate. To find out even more about Jani, visit Schofield’s website, which includes links to media coverage on the family.

Melanie