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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

 
 

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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Slow Burn

Slow Burn

posted by:
June 15, 2012 - 8:01am

Coral GlynnLovers of historical fiction will want to check out Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron. The novel begins in 1950s England after the war has ended. Coral Glynn, a young nurse, heads to Hart House to care for the aging Mrs. Hart. Also living in the house is Major Clement Hart, who was injured in the war and is dealing with demons of his own. The Major is suffering from repressed sexuality and a confusing love for his childhood friend, Robin Lofting. Mrs. Prence, the irascible housekeeper, takes an instant dislike to Coral, and upon the unexpected death of Mrs. Hart she harbors many suspicions about the new live-in nurse. When an unexpected proposal happens, followed by a disturbing event in the nearby woods, the lives of the characters begin to change in wholly unexpected ways.

 

The English countryside in 1950 is the perfect setting for these characters; each comes with baggage and is very unsure of what the future holds. Cameron slowly reveals facts about Coral, drawing out the mystery as there is more to her than first meets the eye and the reader will become intrigued by her and the decisions she is forced to make. The magic of Coral Glynn revolves around the characters, their hidden secrets and desires, and missed opportunities.

 

Fans of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca should enjoy this story. Like Rebecca, Coral is living alone in a strange setting with an unknown gentleman and a distant and unlikeable housekeeper. Coral Glynn is a quiet novel that sneaks up on the reader, with the beautiful writing, quietly revealing plot details while introducing the reader to several characters they will want to get to know and spend time with.  Appealing for anyone that wants a character-driven story with a hint of mystery and suspense, this title will also be perfect for book clubs.

Doug

 
 

Tapestry

Tapestry

posted by:
June 14, 2012 - 8:30am

GlowHistorical fiction offers a window into the past for readers to experience the lives and circumstances of people during a previous era. The pleasure of acquiring a more comprehensive knowledge of an earlier time period has fans of this genre always on alert for the next great book. Glow, by Jessica Maria Tuccelli, is just such a book. Set in the remote mountain region of Hopewell County, Georgia, the novel chronicles both the childhood of Amelia McGee and her family’s story from before the War of Northern Aggression to the outbreak of World War II. This is an all-encompassing family saga told from multiple perspectives, and the reader will appreciate the family tree included at the beginning of the novel.

 

In the Takatoka forest, once occupied by the Cherokee, Indian legends are as commonplace as Bible stories. The community is made up of whites, freed slaves, half-breeds, mulattos, voodoo practitioners, and the occasional ghost. Glow is an intricately woven tapestry of folklore and heritage, rich with the colloquialisms of this unique region. Tuccelli spent several years exploring Northeastern Georgia to soak up the local flavor and she utilizes beautifully descriptive and jargon-filled vocabulary to paint an authentic portrait of bygone days. 

 

At the core of this character-driven story is love, especially the joy and the heartbreak associated with everlasting love and the strong bonds which mothers and fathers share with their children. The classic theme of family and friendship engages readers of all genres and leaves them with the feeling of having personally been woven into the author's tapestry. This is one of those books that you don’t want to end.

Jeanne

 
 

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

 
 

Unmistakably Irving

Unmistakably Irving

posted by:
June 1, 2012 - 2:01am

In One PersonRegular readers of John Irving flock to his literary novels for the strengths of his quirky, flawed characters as much as their circumstances. Irving fans have come to expect certain elements, present in so many of the author’s works—a New England setting, boarding school culture, an absent father, the search for self, wrestling, and of course, bears. All of these are present and accounted for in one way or another in his latest novel, In One Person.

 

Billy Abbott, of the small town Vermont town First Sisters, suffers from what he calls “dangerous crushes.” At age fifteen, Billy’s crushes include the town librarian Miss Frost, his stepfather Richard Abbott, who teaches Shakespeare at Favorite River Academy, and Kittredge, the physically stunning bully from the wrestling team. Billy’s crushes know no bounds of age or gender, something he acknowledges in conversations with Miss Frost. She guides him though the great love stories of literature, from the Brontë sisters to Dickens and finally James Baldwin’s novel of same-sex desire, Giovanni’s Room. As in many novels, literature becomes salvation.

 

The theater looms large in Billy’s life. His mother spends time in the wings as the line prompter for the community theater group’s productions, while his petite, sprightly maternal grandfather Harry is well known for playing leading lady roles. In an appropriate turn, Billy himself is cast as the sprite Ariel in The Tempest. Genetics seem to have much to do with his sexual proclivities, through both Harry and Billy’s absent birth father, a man he knows little about until later searches through school yearbooks reveal surprising truths.

 

Told in the immediate first person point of view, In One Person spans more than fifty years, chronicling Billy’s myriad relationships with men, male-to-female transsexuals (before the term transgender came into use, he points out), and even a few women. The novel is at turns absurdly funny, broadly comic and ultimately poignant. In One Person stands as a character-driven exploration of self, and the often fluid nature of sexuality.

Paula G.

 
 

A Summer Hit Parade

A Summer Hit Parade

posted by:
June 1, 2012 - 1:01am

The Red HouseBroken HarborHeading Out to WonderfulThe upcoming reading forecast looks promising as several bestselling authors release new titles. Mark Haddon, Tana French, and Robert Goolrick each have a new book coming to BCPL in June or July. Get ahead of your summer reading and put one or more of these on reserve now.

 

Mark Haddon made a splash several years ago with his story, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which he told from the point of view of a boy with autism.  Haddon is known for his keen depictions of internal dialogue which bodes well for his newest book, The Red House. Posh Mark invites his sister Angela and her brood to spend a week with his new wife and stepdaughter at an English country house in a belated attempt at family bonding. Told in each of the eight different vacationers’ voices, Haddon illustrates how little of ourselves we reveal even to those who would claim to know us best.

 

Irish author Tana French writes suspense fiction with an edgy psychological angle. Her debut In the Woods won mystery’s Edgar award and introduced her crime-solving Dublin police department. Her fourth title, Broken Harbor, features murder squad Detective Sergeant Mick Kennedy. He is investigating the grisly deaths of a squeaky-clean suburban father and children as the mother’s life hangs by a thread in intensive care. Solving this crime requires Kennedy to revisit the tragic events of his own childhood…but will he be able to maintain the requisite objectivity to find the killer?

 

Robert Goolrick’s taut and twisty tale of obsession and passion (no, it is NOT a Fifty Shades of Grey read-alike,) The Reliable Wife made him a book club circuit darling. In his next book, Heading Out to Wonderful, he once again excels at setting a vivid scene, this time in small town Virginia. Outsider Charlie Beale arrives to settle down in the hamlet of Brownsburg but an entanglement with the lovely wife of the wealthiest man in town escalates into a fervor with far-reaching consequences.

Lori

 
 

A Ride in the Blistering Sun

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to KashgarArdent convictions entwined with bewitching messages of faith can be a stormy mix, especially when boundaries blur and cultures clash. Two British sisters face this predicament. Their efforts to help establish a Christian mission in rural China extract a high price in Suzanne Joinson's impressive, multi-layered debut novel, A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar.  

 

The story begins in 1923 in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, where new missionaries Lizzie and Eva English join their aloof, determined leader, Millicent Frost. While Lizzie appears passionate, Eva is suspicious of religious conversion and is basically along for the ride, literally. Traveling with her trusty BSA lady's roadster bicycle, Eva hopes to publish her guidebook, A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar. Meanwhile, another story unfolds in present day London. Frieda Blakeman is feeling alone and dislocated in her life when she meets a homeless man from Yemen who appears one day sleeping outside her door. Their eventual friendship leads the pair to an abandoned flat Frieda has inherited and to a minefield of family history. 

 

Joinson's alternating narrative style sets the stage for what is to come. The parallel storylines share symbolism and metaphors that link together the characters' connection to their world and the ability to escape that connection. It is no coincidence that birds feature prominently in both stories as a symbolic "sense of freedom" or that Eva's bicycle is a "shield and my method of escape."     

 

Drawing on her considerable travel experiences, Joinson transports her readers to an exotic locale, rich with authentic voices and evocative prose. Readers of Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) and Paul Theroux (The Great Railway Bazaar) may enjoy this tale of the traditions and challenges of a world at large.

Cynthia

 
 

Jennifer Lawrence Takes on Southern Gothic

SerenaFew audiences can think of The Hunger Games without picturing Jennifer Lawrence, the talented young actress who portrays Katniss Everdeen and who also earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the 2010 film version of Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone.  So what’s next for the famous “girl on fire?”  According to Entertainment Weekly, Lawrence will soon be starring in yet another page-to-screen adaptation, this time as the title character in Ron Rash’s 2008 thriller, Serena

 

Set in Depression-era North Carolina, Rash’s story introduces us to newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton as they stake their claim to a lumber empire deep in the Appalachian Mountains.  The two rule over their territory like feudal lords and Serena quickly proves herself to be a survivor in the harsh wilderness, an equal to any of the men.  But after Serena learns she cannot bear children, she unleashes a murderous plot against George’s illegitimate son to secure her power and plunges into madness rivaling that of Lady Macbeth.  Hauntingly written, this is a gothic tale of greed and corruption driven by an unforgettable female character.  Jennifer Lawrence is definitely no stranger to visceral leading roles, but Serena promises to be a dark and exciting departure from the good-hearted protagonists the actress usually plays.    

  

Serena was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and is a highly recommended pick for fans of Cormac McCarthy and Charles Frazier.  While the film adaptation (co-starring Bradley Cooper) doesn’t hit theaters until 2013, you can check out your copy of Serena today!    

Alex

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Mysticism, Opium, and Titanic

The House of Velvet and GlassHave you ever wondered what it must have been like to stroll through the elaborately appointed rooms of the Titanic on its maiden voyage, or dine alongside extravagantly dressed women and some of the wealthiest people in the world? Did you ever consider what Old Shanghai may have been like for a crew of sailors after months at sea, or speculate about one of its infamous opium dens?  What about envisioning how it must have felt to be alive during the early days of the twentieth century in affluent Boston, where social standards defined every aspect of your life?  The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe is a masterfully woven tale that encompasses all of these settings and more. 

 

The story is set in the years preceding World War I and revolves around lives of the Allston family.  The mother and youngest daughter have perished on Titanic’s ill-fated crossing 3 years previous, and the eldest daughter Sibyl continues to struggle with their loss.  Her mother’s death has forced her into the role of family caretaker.  She and her father are residing in the family’s brownstone in Boston’s wealthy  Back Bay region when her younger brother abruptly returns home from school under mysterious circumstances.  Sibyl has taken to attending séances hoping to contact her Mother, seeking both comfort and advice regarding her brother.

 

This story moves between different time periods, telling the back story of Mr. Allston when he was a young sailor and the account of the Titanic passengers.  Howe effectively weaves all of these plots into a complete, cohesive, and interesting story. Her thorough descriptions and authentic flare make each scene come to life.  No details are spared in this enchanting historical novel that will capture your imagination and your heart.

Jeanne