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Saint Mazie

posted by: December 30, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover of Saint MazieIn Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg, the title character is a flawed human being who reaches out to the poor around her yet never gives up on life’s pleasures. Mazie Phillips-Gordon is a self-proclaimed good time girl. Her favorite things in life are cigarettes, alcohol and having fun. Despite her hedonistic ways, Mazie is also a pushover for the vagrants who populate her Lower East Side world during the Great Depression.
 

Attenberg sets up the story as a documentary on Mazie told in part through her diary and also through the interviews and observations of people who knew her. By using different points of view, Attenberg allows us to see the good in Mazie that she often fails to see. She and her younger sister Jeanie are rescued by their sister Rosie who takes them away from their abusive father and ineffectual mother. However, both girls go through rebellious periods making life difficult for Rosie. In an effort to try and curb Mazie’s life spent in bars and speakeasies, Rosie’s husband has Mazie work in the ticket booth at his movie theater. Feeling confined in the box office – which she refers to as her ‘cage’— Mazie manages to keep her spirits up by helping the homeless people in her neighborhood. Attenberg may refer to Mazie as a saint in the title, but this book recounts the unvarnished world of a woman who lived life to the fullest.    
 


 
 

American Housewife

posted by: December 29, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover of American HousewifeHelen Ellis’ American Housewife is a satirical collection of 12 short stories featuring a group of enthralling, outrageous and disturbing women. There are humorous vignettes, such as “Southern Lady Code,” which offers biting translations of benign Southern phrases and “How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady,” which provides tips on how to do just that. There are fleshed-out stories full of characters and situations that are just a little too bizarre to be real — a relocation program for child beauty pageant contestants, an email exchange between neighbors that escalates into all-out war. In “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” we meet a has-been writer who leads the competition in finding the best deals at yard sales and estate auctions, to the annoyance of the producers who would rather feature the Playboy bunny. “My Novel is Brought to You by Tampax” stars a writer working hard (or hardly working) on her next novel, sponsored by Tampax. A Tampax representative will do anything to make sure she meets her daily writing goal — starting with bribing her neighbors into bringing the writer meals in exchange for feminine hygiene products. The tales feel true enough to make readers uncomfortable even as they’re laughing at the absurdity. Don’t inane parodies of reality shows actually sound like plausible reality shows? And is it such a stretch that a tampon company could make the leap from sponsoring daytime television to sponsoring novels? 
 

These stories are a fictional alternative for people who enjoy humorists like Jenny Lawson and Laurie Notaro. Ellis even received a nod from Margaret Atwood as one of her favorite books of the year: “Surreal tales of American weirdness, with details that ring all too true.” You probably haven’t murdered your neighbor over the tacky décor in your common area…but maybe you’ve briefly considered it.
 


 
 

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

posted by: December 28, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes StoriesThere’s something magical about the fandom of Sherlock Holmes. For over 100 years, the fans have refused to believe that the detective isn’t real. They send him letters and marriage proposals, form historical societies around him and pay tribute with that most earnest form of flattery, fan-fiction. Otto Penzler’s The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories is the mother lode of such tributes, collecting a whopping 83 short stories from such literary heavyweights as J. M. Barrie, Kingsley Amis and P.G. Wodehouse.

 

Sherlock fans of all walks of life will find something to enjoy in this collection, because by density of volume: there has to be! There are modern classics such as Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case,” in which Holmes is barred from a crime scene due to an allergy to the victim’s cats, and Neil Gaiman’s “The Case of Death & Honey,” in which Holmes sets out to solve death itself, and succeeds astonishingly. There are also historically fascinating pieces such as the story Conan Doyle wrote for the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, and contemporary parodies in which such clever lines as “Elementary, my dear God!” are uttered.

 

In the last year alone there’s been a plethora of new stories about the Great Detective such as Dan Simmons’ The Fifth Heart, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes and the film Mr. Holmes, adapted from Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind. It is altogether shocking to observe the similarities between the Holmes of the 1800’s and the Holmes still captivating audiences today, and reading this century’s worth of stories will give you the humbling feeling of watching a small torch pass from writer to writer across decades. Consider giving this to anyone who’s impatiently awaiting the next season of Sherlock. And really, isn’t everybody?


 
 

Lady Killer

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

Cover art for Lady KillerJames Bond, who? Meet Schuller. Josephine Schuller. Most people call her Josie and, although she may fit the description of a Bond girl, she's the type of woman who could take Bond down and end his days of drinking shaken, dry vodka martinis. Why and how, you ask? Well, don’t let this homemaker, wife and mother of two, fool you. She is a vicious assassin who knows how to work a knife inside and outside the kitchen. Josie Schuller is the Lady Killer in Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich’s graphic novel set in the early 1960s.

 

Josie Schuller reminds me of Angelina Jolie’s character, Jane Smith, in the 2005 film Mr. and Mrs. Smith and January Jones’ Betty Draper in AMC’s hit television series, Mad Men. In Lady Killer, Josie tricks her twin daughters, husband and friends into believing that she is just a stay-at-home wife and mother. What they don’t know is that she is also an agent working for Mr. Stenholm, who gives her assignments to terminate lives. Josie learns that she is on Mr. Stenholm’s target list when he sends her co-worker, David Peck, to execute her. Josie devises her own plan to eliminate them both.

 

This graphic novel is most definitely a treat. The eye-catching, vintage-inspired illustrations by Joëlle Jones and the delicious colors by Laura Allred lured me in. Lady Killer has everything you want in a graphic novel. Stunning artwork? Check. An interesting protagonist? Check. Brilliant colors? Check. A page-turning story? Check.

 

So, what are you waiting for? Drop what you’re doing and get your hands on Lady Killer by Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich. You won’t regret it.


 
 

The Marriage Pact

posted by: December 22, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Marriage PactIt’s Marci Thompson’s Big 3-0, and her life on this milestone birthday isn’t at all what she envisioned in M.J. Pullen’s debut The Marriage Pact. Instead of a successful career, a handsome husband, a couple of kids and a dream home, Marci is working a temp accounting job, having an affair with Doug, her married boss, and living in what used to be a motel room. But then Jake, one of her closest friends from back home in Atlanta, sends her a picture of a cocktail napkin contract the two of them drunkenly signed 10 years ago — they would get married if both were still single at 30.

 

The reappearance of this pact shakes Marci’s belief in her feelings for Doug, who is promising to leave his wife and start a real life with Marci. She puts Jake on the back burner, but is crushed when Doug unceremoniously dumps her because his wife is pregnant. While trying to stay strong at work, the depth of her pain is severe, and she finally realizes she needs to make big changes in her life to alter the bleakness of her future. She moves back to Atlanta where she has the support of family and friends, including Jake.  

 

Jake is ready to pick up where they left off, but Marci's heart is still recovering. The two take baby steps toward a real relationship and even get engaged, but have they really grown up? This is a fast-paced, funny read with likeable and charming characters who readers will look forward to meeting again as Pullen adds to this appealing series. Fans of Emily Giffin, Lauren Graham and Jennifer Weiner will delight in a new author to add to their list of favorites.

 


 
 

Gold Fame Citrus: He Said, She Said

posted by: December 21, 2015 - 7:00am

Gold Fame CitrusTom:
Claire Vaye Watkins’ novel Gold Fame Citrus prophesizes apocalypse by desertification. When part of the United States is engulfed by sand and declared uninhabitable, it becomes a refuge for those looking to escape from the lives they’ve made for themselves. To some, threats of dehydration and starvation are worth the risk to avoid returning to civilization.
 

Luz and Ray are surviving: after drought choked the West Coast and sand spread to the seas, it’s all anyone can do. California has shrunk into itself as golden kestrels encroached and devoured the landscape. Most have fled to military refuge zones to the north and east, but for some, that is a less desirable option than wandering the wasteland as a newly branded “Mojav.” After rescuing Ig, a malnourished child born into a gang of abusive Mojavs, Luz and Ray depart from the derelict McMansion they’ve been squatting in, hoping to find an old contact who can expunge their pasts and allow them passage into sanctuary.
 

During their journey across an ever-evolving frontier of shifting sands, Luz and Ray struggle to suppress nostalgia as they teach Ig about what their world has become. After losing the main road when the sand swallows the tire tracks, Ray leaves Luz and Ig to find gasoline for the car and fades from man to apparition on the horizon and alters the course of their new lives.
 

Readers who enjoyed Watkins’ short story collection Battleborn: Stories will recognize her beautiful prose style and wonderfully creative imaginings. Perhaps the best part of Gold Fame Citrus is the extended description of the desert itself, likening its fluid motions to those of the oceans.
 

Megan:
Watkin’s new novel about a frighteningly realistic, drought-stricken California is so clearly and crisply described that readers are immediately sucked into this unnerving story. The writing is as blindingly brilliant as the landscape. The book is at once beautiful and brutal.
 

Californians are portrayed as a group of people always searching for something better, buried gold for the taking, legendary status or even year-round citrus. The dunes destroy that California, and most flee. However, some continue to be drawn by an almost supernatural magnetism to the wasteland left behind. These “Mojavs” carve out an existence, forming strange new communities with few and fluctuating rules.
 

Watkin’s characters are made more tangible by their flaws and readers can’t resist the urge to protect them from themselves as well as their ruthless environment.
 

When Ray has to strike out and look for help, Luz and Ig are rescued by a seemingly peaceful society existing in refuge on the very edge of the habitable world. The leader of this group becomes an increasingly menacing character, and the group sheltering Luz and Ig begins to look more and more like a cult. This is an interesting twist in the story given Watkin’s own personal history. The father she never really knew was Charles Manson’s trusted assistant, often in charge of recruiting young women. Though she didn’t really know him, she does explore the topic of cults in her first collection of short stories, Battleborn. Readers will also enjoy Margaret Atwood’s new apocalyptic novel The Heart Goes Last.
 


 
 

After Alice

posted by: December 21, 2015 - 7:00am

After AliceDid you ever wonder if anyone else went down the rabbit hole like Alice did 150 years ago? Was anyone looking for her on that summer day? If so, your next must read has to be After Alice by Gregory Maguire, the story of another girl’s journey through Wonderland and the subsequent search for her and Alice above ground.
 

Told in two parts, Maguire first introduces us to Ada, Alice’s friend who is mentioned briefly at the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. She is the opposite of Alice. Stricken with severe scoliosis, she walks with a limp, has poor color and is not fanciful in the least. While looking for Alice along the riverbank, she comes upon the strange rabbit hole and down she goes! Just steps behind Alice, Ada encounters many of the curious characters familiar to us all – definitely a highlight for us readers! But will she find Alice in this strange underworld where everything is not as it seems? Will she make it home safely? Meanwhile, above ground, two people are searching for Alice and Ada that day: Lydia, Alice’s 15-year-old sister, and Miss Armstrong, Ada’s governess. The second part of the story deals mainly with their adventures. Their search leads us through the town of Oxford, the University and to both Alice’s and Ada’s homes. Mirroring the journey through Wonderland, they encounter many curious characters including Charles Darwin and Siam, a former slave who escaped via the Underground Railroad.
 

Take the time to get to know Ada, Lydia and Miss Armstrong. Join them on that summer’s day in Oxford. You will come away with a newfound understanding and love for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. You may also want to read (or reread) it. Trust me, it gets better each time! Other novels by Maguire worth a look are Wicked: Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, my personal favorite! I also suggest checking out Gregory Maguire’s October 25th interview with NPR, which is both entertaining and insightful.


 
 

Golden Age

posted by: December 18, 2015 - 7:00am

Golden AgeThe saga of the Langdon family continues with the much-anticipated third volume of the Last Hundred Years trilogy, Golden Age by Jane Smiley. Resuming the story in 1987, the youngest generation comes of age at a time of high-stakes finance, political intrigue and new ways of farming that challenge the family homestead. Complacently assured, Congressman Richie Langdon does just enough of his political homework to be consistently reelected. His twin brother Michael, ever the financial wizard, sees opportunities in every weakness. Charlie, the newly discovered nephew, faces life with unconquerable optimism regardless of his struggle for a purpose. Guthrie, once the inevitable heir to the family farm, fights in Afghanistan instead. Meanwhile, the whole world faces an insidious new enemy determined to destroy.
 

As tragedies both domestic and international test this family, their one foundation rests solidly on the family farm. While the globe rages with anger, in the end, it becomes apparent that not all enemies are far from home.
 

Smiley weaves the profound events of the late 20th century through her characters’ lives with a deft hand. The chronicle of so many lives is an ambitious undertaking, and yet each character remains genuine and unique. She begins with a family gathering, which serves as a refresher of the broad cast of characters. A helpful family tree is also included. The chapters are organized by each year, moving through the lives of each individual, young and old.
 

Jane Smiley is the author of several novels, including A Thousand Acres, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. The first entry in the Last Hundred Years trilogy is Some Luck, followed by Early Warning. Reading these titles in order is strongly recommended. Spending time with the Langdon family is highly enjoyable.
 


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