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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

 

Life As We Come to See It

Life As We Come to See It

posted by:
September 14, 2012 - 8:45am

An Uncommon EducationWaiting for one’s life to begin often means missing out on the present. In An Uncommon Education, Elizabeth Percer presents a reflective, coming-of-age story. Naomi Feinstein spends her childhood waiting for circumstances to change, especially hoping for more friends and freedom from her classmates’ cruelty. As a young adult, she gradually comes to terms with her life, embracing both its imperfections and possibilities. 

 

More than one person’s reflections, however, this book is also an immigrant story and family saga. Naomi chronicles her lonely childhood with first-generation immigrant parents who were often in poor health. Her father was Jewish and her mother a Catholic who converted to Judaism, which furthers her feelings of isolation and confuses her sense of identity and where she belongs. Gifted with a photographic memory and fascinated from an early age with saving lives and curing illness, Naomi goes to Wellesley College to become a doctor. Her time at the school is heavily influenced by her initiation into a secret Shakespeare society comprised of students who are all unconventional or outsiders in some capacity.

 

Although a large part of this story takes place at a university, Naomi’s true “education” is the life lessons she receives along the way, particularly when a scandal threatens her hard-earned friendships. Percer’s writing is very poetic and lyrical. As a narrator, Naomi is smart and insightful, and as her character matures, so does her narrative style and thought process. Readers will relate to her journey, which is less heroic than it is a series of wrong turns and learning by trial and error. A good recommend for book clubs.

 

Melanie

 
 

Playing with Identity

Playing with Identity

posted by:
August 16, 2012 - 2:19pm

Playing Dead“Have you ever wondered about who you are?”

 

Playing Dead by Julia Heaberlin begins with a letter Tommie McCloud receives from a stranger, which throws her own identity and childhood into question. This leads the child psychologist and former rodeo competitor on a journey from her native Texas hometown, where she has just attended her father’s funeral, to the Chicago mob scene and meetings with a whole cast of seedy characters. At the heart of the story, though, the question remains: who is Tommie and who are her real parents? Through her journey, she collects little bits of information that eventually come together to reveal a family history far different than Tommie grew up knowing.

 

What sets this story apart from the usual family drama? First is the setting. Heaberlin, a former award-winning journalist and small-town Texas native, evokes a landscape with open ranges, oppressive heat and historical family ties to the land. Second is the plot structure. There is no solid ground. This is a story which continues to unravel, with every piece of the puzzle leading to more questions. Third is a flair for the dramatic. Rodeo competitions, hit men, kidnappings, unsolved murders and a mother with dementia (who of course holds important family secrets) all factor in to the story. A tale of twists and turns, Playing Dead will appeal to anyone who likes family sagas, mysteries or action/adventure stories. 

 

Melanie

 
 

Miscarriage of Justice

Miscarriage of Justice

posted by:
August 2, 2012 - 8:01am

Anatomy of InjusticeA rush to judgment was all it took to set in motion an unjust arrest, trial and imprisonment. In Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong, Raymond Bonner walks readers through a little-known crime and its subsequent investigation which was marred by police blunders and mismanagement of the crime scene. Further, poor legal representation prevented anything close to a fair trial for the suspect.

 

In 1982, an elderly white woman in Greenwood, South Carolina was found brutally murdered in her home. The man eventually arrested and convicted for the crime was low-income and African-American. His only connections to the house were a single fingerprint and a few checks from the owner for maintenance work. Yet prosecutors persisted and Edward Lee Elmore was tried, convicted, and served 30 years in prison. Twenty-seven of those years were spent on death row.

 

The case is meticulously researched by Bonner, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Investigation of the crime scene did not follow official procedures, and Elmore was represented by lawyers who did a shoddy job at best. It was not until 11 years later that Diana Holt, a lawyer working with the disenfranchised, took on his case. Her persistence eventually led to the overturning of Elmore’s death sentence. But it wasn’t until March 2012, just after this book was published, that he was actually released from prison. Anatomy of Injustice is as much a saga of an unsolved case as it is a look at what goes wrong when the justice system is compromised by politics, inefficient lawyers, and a desire to solve a crime at the cost of a fair investigation. A fascinating true crime read, it will also appeal to anyone interested in human rights and the legal process in the United States.

Melanie

 
 

The Survivor Who Wasn't

The WOman Who Wasn't ThereWhere were you on September 11, 2001? Almost all Americans who were old enough to remember that fateful day will have a story. At first glance, The Woman Who Wasn’t There: The True Story of an Incredible Deception by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. appears to be a tale of individual courage and triumph. Tania Head had one of the most remarkable 9/11 stories of all. She was working for Merrill Lynch on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower, and witnessed the first plane hit the North Tower. Badly burned, she barely escaped alive. She also lost her fiancé, who worked in the North Tower.

 

Head’s story was so powerful that when she shared it on survivors’ network sites, she quickly became an inspiration and a leader. She successfully lobbied to bring more recognition and funding to survivors, and led tours at Ground Zero. Shockingly, in 2007 a reporter uncovered that all of the information she provided, including details about her job and her fiancé, was false. But that was just the beginning. Why would someone go to such lengths to deceive?

 

Head’s story is presented as fact for most of the book, with her deception revealed only towards the end. Guglielmo directed a documentary, also called The Woman Who Wasn’t There, chronicling Head’s status change from heroic survivor to fraudulent imposter. This is an amazing story of vast deception and extreme irony. Although Head technically did nothing illegal, her falsification of information and betrayal of trust of the survivors was egregious. Her deception in the aftermath of such a horrific tragedy left many feeling further victimized. But ironically, in spite of the lies, her story led to more recognition and services for actual 9/11 survivors.  

Melanie

 
 

Life, Love and Amusement

Life, Love and Amusement

posted by:
July 6, 2012 - 9:00am

Easily AmusedPoint, Click, LoveSummer is a time for fun. So, why not a few delightfully light reads to complement?

 

Easily Amused by Karen McQuestion is the story of Lola, an almost 30-year-old whose great aunt has left her a sprawling house on a street full of caring neighbors. Sounds perfect? Not to Lola, who just wishes for a little more privacy and a few less invitations to neighborhood events. The real catalyst comes when Lola’s frustrating younger sister, Mindy, announces her own wedding will be on Lola’s 30th birthday. Lola must have a date for this occasion – not just any date, but someone to show up Mindy and someone willing to go along with a (fake) announcement of engagement. Enter Ryan, who seems to just fall from the sky and could possibly be the answer to Lola’s problems. Lola is a funny, self-deprecating narrator, and McQuestion’s writing is smart and fast-paced with a clever plot.

 

Another book for summer entertainment is Point, Click, Love by Molly Shapiro. This fun tale follows four friends, Claudia, Annie, Maxine and Katie, in Kansas City. Where each of these women are in their lives and where they want to go makes for amusing stories about love, marriage, relationships and everything in between. This is Shapiro’s debut novel, and it has well-developed, likeable characters plus sophisticated writing. She also does a great job of adding context to a Midwestern city where not many stories are set. Comparisons have been made to Sex and the City – this book definitely celebrates women’s independence and exploration of choices. 

 

Enjoy taking these two books to the beach or any other place (Kansas City?) you may find yourself this summer. Both provide a fun story with no additional heavy baggage. 

Melanie

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One Man’s Journey, One Family’s Saga, One Country’s History

Wish You Were HereReflection can sometimes tell the whole story.  In Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here, there are few characters, even less action, but plenty about how memory and evaluation of past choices occupy our present-day lives. 

 

The story revolves around Jack, who came from a Devonshire farming family but was forced to abandon his family’s profession after fear of mad-cow disease forced them to put the herd down.  As the story begins, the majority of the family members once close to Jack, those who helped define him, have passed.  He is reliant solely on his wife Ellie, with whom he has co-owned a campground and vacation resort for several years.  This has afforded them a more luxurious lifestyle than farming, but has set them adrift from the family and community connections of their childhood. 

 

The real shift in the story comes when Jack belatedly learns of the death of his brother Tom, a soldier who has been killed in Iraq.  Tom was already long estranged from the family, but going to retrieve his body and bring him home for burial proves a catalyst for Jack to reflect back on his life and choices.  More overarching is the theme of the impact of war not just on his family but on the country of England as a whole, going back many generations. 

 

Swift, who previously won the Booker Prize for Last Orders, spins a slow tale, bereft of suspense or much action. Yet the story he tells is beautiful and poignant.  Readers will want to know how Jack reached his present state, and what the near future holds for him.  Fans of The Shipping News or Olive Kitteridge will appreciate this understated tale about connections to home and family. 

 

Melanie

 
 

Survival Games

Survival Games

posted by:
June 12, 2012 - 8:01am

What They Do in the DarkTrauma in childhood assumes many forms. This message resonates loudly through multiple characters in Amanda Coe’s debut novel, What They Do in the Dark. Two school girls, Gemma and Pauline, live in the same rough Yorkshire neighborhood but inhabit different worlds. Gemma comes from a financially stable yet broken family, while Pauline grows up in abject poverty with an abusive mother.  Through a random playground encounter, the two girls become reluctant acquaintances and find a strange brand of stability in each other.  As the story evolves, however, their partnership becomes more volatile. Other characters’ stories, including those of a child television star and a bullied classmate, become interwoven and, in Lord of the Flies-fashion, tragedy ensues. 

 

A screenwriter, Coe does an excellent job setting the scene. Readers experience the grittiness of a working-class neighborhood in England, witness the cruelty that poorly supervised school-aged children can inflict on one another, and are confronted with the dangers facing any child who lacks a social safety net. The terse and plain-spoken dialogue between the characters also lends to the tension and instability that exist. 

 

This book does take patience. The plot is subtle. The chapters are short and at first provide seemingly random snapshots into the two girls’ and other characters’ lives. But for readers who stick with the book, all of these pieces evolve into a darker and more complex tale. Much like Emma Donoghue’s Room or Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, both of which focus on children raised in violent and dysfunctional environments, this story leaves a strong and unsettling impression. 

Melanie

 
 

Criminal Minds From Other Times

Deadly ValentinesDeath in the City of LightLooking for a little history to go with your true crime? Two recent titles provide thrilling accounts of historical murders. One is set in Chicago and chronicles the rise and fall of Al Capone’s chief assassin, Jack McGurn. The other is about a serial killer in World War II Paris. Both are thoroughly researched, emphasizing the mayhem and extremism prevalent in these time periods. In Deadly Valentines: The Story of Capone's Henchman "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn and Louise Rolfe, His Blonde Alibi, Jeffrey Gusfield opens with an account of the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 Chicago.  Known assassin Jack McGurn and his girlfriend Louise Rolfe are the likely suspects.  But how does a boy from an immigrant family and a middle-class Midwestern girl end up embodying the Roaring Twenties’ hallmarks of excess, liquor, and grisly murder? By tracing their lives from childhood, Gusfield draws a connection between humble beginnings and a gangster lifestyle rife with crime and corruption. 

 

David King’s Death in the City of Light follows the rise of Marcel Petiot, who was regarded as a kindly doctor of the less fortunate until multiple human body parts were found in the basement of his Paris home in 1944.  His subsequent trial quickly devolved into a media circus. The Nazi occupation and government corruption further complicated matters and added to the train wreck of judicial proceedings, leading to a frustrating and perplexing conclusion.Perhaps most fascinating about both books are the unanswered questions.  Was Louise cold-blooded, or just someone unable to live a conventional life?  How did Petiot actually kill his victims? Those who enjoy historical accounts full of drama, danger and mystery (like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City) will find these books to be satisfying page-turners. 

 

Melanie

 
 

An Amusing State of Cluelessness

An Amusing State of Cluelessness

posted by:
May 19, 2012 - 10:42am

A Surrey State of AffairsShe has a daughter on a reality show called Dungeon.  Her Lithuanian maid just does not understand what it means to properly look after a house.  And for some reason, her match- making skills amongst her fellow church bell ringers do not seem to be working. 

 

So begins A Surrey State of Affairs by Ceri Radford.  Constance Harding has lived a perfect sort of sheltered existence as a British housewife in Surrey, but lately modern-day life has not cooperated with her. She is forced to start a blog (suggested by her thoughtful son as an alternative to sharing everything with only him) and give daily updates to the World Wide Web about life as she sees it. 

 

Get ready to relive 2008 day by day!  Constance is a faithful blogger, even when her beloved parrot almost flies away.  She struggles to find the perfect conservative woman for her son, puzzles about why her daughter wasn’t excited about her 19th birthday party (who wouldn’t like a magician or fairy cakes?) and continuously thinks up reasons for her husband’s erratic behavior.  Her interpretation of life and events stays humorous and fresh, and it is all part of the charm of this clueless fifty-something narrator who is about to experience one big dose of reality from the modern world.

 

This amusing book is perfect for a light weekend or vacation read.  It’s entertaining and straightforward.  Fans of Alexander McCall Smith and Winifred Watson will love this delightful story.  

Melanie

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The Dance of the Two Sisters

The Dance of the Two Sisters

posted by:
May 11, 2012 - 1:01am

The Cranes DanceCranes really do dance.  But instead of the bird kingdom, The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey explores the world of professional ballet and the relationship between Kate and Gwen Crane, two dancers who are also sisters.  They have always had a “professional” rivalry – Kate more lively and dramatic, Gwen stronger on technique.  When Gwen suffers a nervous breakdown, Kate scrambles to keep her own life on track and also to figure out where her sister’s life derailed.   As the past unfolds, it becomes clear that the sisters’ story is also a “dance”: Kate tried to ignore the signs that all was not well, even as Gwen’s idiosyncrasies became more disturbing. 

 

Why is this book intriguing?  It’s straightforward but well written.  Howrey, herself a professional dancer, adds plenty of details to the practical life situation of a dancer trying to make it to the top in New York City.  Dancers crammed into studio apartments, putting themselves through punishing classes and instructors, constantly scoping out the competition in other students…it’s a tough existence.  Yet even knowing more about the harsh realities of the ballet world and how slight the chance is of having a successful career, for dance lovers it still seems…magical.  There’s still that pull. 

 

Also keeping the reader engaged is Kate’s narrative.  It is at times sarcastic, even abrasive, but also funny.   As an added bonus, several ballet plots are outlined (complete with dry humor) and wrapped into the story.  As the book evolves, Kate comes to her own understanding about the relationship between herself, her sister and her profession.   For fans of the film Black Swan, here’s a story with psychological depth and a slightly more hopeful ending. 

Melanie