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Two American Authors Named on the Man Booker Prize Shortlist

To Rise Again at a Decent HourWe Are All Completely Beside OurselvesThe shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced today, September 9. The competition was previously only open to authors from the U.K. and the British Commonwealth, but the rules have been amended to include novels written in English and published in the U.K., regardless of the author’s nationality. This is the first time in the award’s 46-year history that U.S. residents were eligible, and two Americans’ novels have made the cut. Joshua Ferris was included on the list for his darkly comic novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Our blogger Tom shared this book with Between the Covers readers earlier this summer. Karen Joy Fowler was named for her novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which was also featured on this blog last year.

 

The list also includes The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, J by Howard Jacobson, The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee and How to Be Both by Ali Smith, which have not all been published in the U.S yet. This list includes the titles available in BCPL’s collection.

 

AC Grayling, chair of the judging panel says, “As the Man Booker Prize expands its borders, these six exceptional books take the reader on journeys around the world, between the UK, New York, Thailand, Italy, Calcutta and times past, present and future. We had a lengthy and intensive debate to whittle the list down to these six. It is a strong, thought-provoking shortlist which we believe demonstrates the wonderful depth and range of contemporary fiction in English.”

 

The panel of judges will now re-read all of the titles on the shortlist and select the winner who will be named at an awards ceremony on October 14.

Beth

 
 

Three Women

Three Women

posted by:
September 8, 2014 - 7:55am

Cover art for Big Little LiesA school trivia night for parents goes horribly awry in Liane Moriarty’s new novel Big Little Lies. It was meant to be a bit of fun: parents dressed like celebrities, cocktails and trivia. By the end of the night, someone was dead. The answer lies hidden in secrets – both big and small – that some of the women are keeping.

 

When single mother Jane moves to town, she finds a sunny apartment near the beach. Her son starts kindergarten in a new school, but a pleasant first day quickly turns to accusations of bullying, and Jane and her son make their first enemy.  

 

Madeline’s daughter is also in the class, and she befriends Jane due to her strong willingness to defend others. Madeline’s own life is in turmoil. Although she has a new husband, she can’t seem to forgive her ex for abandoning her for a younger model.

 

Finally, there is the beautiful Celeste, who has no flaws and leads a picture-perfect life. Celeste has two overly zealous twins and more money than she knows what to do with. But Celeste is holding on to a secret more devastating than anyone can imagine.

 

Moriarty had great success with The Husband’s Secret, and fans of that novel will not be disappointed. The author has a great sense of character and delves into the lives of these three women with aplomb. The reader really gets to know them as well-rounded individuals, and when they begin to struggle, the reader will be invested. The mystery of the trivia night is ever present, and Moriarty builds suspense by slowly revealing information that will lead to the inevitable finale. The audio edition is skillfully narrated by Caroline Lee, who gives voice to the three women and creates an enjoyable listening experience. Big Little Lies is a great novel to prepare readers for the back-to-school season. Let’s just hope your school year goes more smoothly!

Doug

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A Splash of Mysticism

A Splash of Mysticism

posted by:
September 5, 2014 - 7:55am

Cover art for Season of the DragonfliesWhile living in Borneo in the 1920s, Serena Lenore discovers a rare flower and cultivates it until she returns to the United States, where she turns one flower into an empire. Serena grafted the flower until she had acres upon acres of the unique white bloom. From these exceptional blossoms, she created a perfume with the ability to change the fortunes of the women wearing it. The perfume became a widely kept secret and Lenore Incorporated grew (by word of mouth) into a legacy that Serena could pass on to her daughters.

 

Three generations later, the business is still booming and Willow, Serena’s granddaughter, is ready to retire from the family business. First she must select a successor. The obvious choice is her daughter Mya, who has lived on the farm all her life learning the ways of the business. When her estranged daughter Lucia returns home, Willow realizes she has a tough decision to make.

 

Season of the Dragonflies is Sarah Creech’s debut novel, but as a professor of English and Creative Writing, this isn’t her first experience as a writer. Creech uses her Blue Ridge Mountain background as a foundation for her book, creating carefully depicted images of rural Virginia and working in stories she heard as a child. The characters’ relationships are at times strained, but in the end comforting and relatable despite the novel’s fantasy aspects.

Randalee

 
 

Hero or Villain

Hero or Villain

posted by:
September 5, 2014 - 7:55am

Cover art for An Unwilling AccompliceAs World War I rages towards its close, nurse Bess Crawford is called to London to assist a former patient who is being decorated for gallantry by King George. Instead, she finds herself An Unwilling Accomplice to the hero’s escape plan in this historical mystery by Charles Todd.

 

Confident that her patient, Sgt. Jason Wilkins, is settled for the evening, Bess enjoys a rare quiet dinner in a hotel dining room with long-time friend Sgt. Major Simon Brandon. Before retiring for the evening, Bess checks her suffering patient, making him as comfortable as possible. The dawn’s light reveals an empty bed and her patient’s discarded bandages. How could a profoundly wounded man, requiring the use of a wheelchair, escape from a public building? The military police demand the answer to that question, and they think Bess is the key. Overnight, Bess’ record as a dedicated nurse known for her bravery and skill is blemished when she is implicated in his escape. Further complicating an already difficult situation, Sgt. Wilkins is a suspect in the murder of a civilian in a tiny village. Determined to clear her name, Bess and Simon must unravel the threads of the deep secrets so carefully concealed by the villagers.

 

Charles Todd is the pen name of the mother and son team Charles and Caroline Todd. Together, they capture the essence of the historical period, weaving an atmosphere of quiet desperation as soldiers and civilians alike bear the burden of the horrific war. Few authors have recreated the grave effect on a generation with the realism and sensitivity of this team of American writers. Fans of Anne Perry, Jacqueline Winspear and Kerry Greenwood will find a deeply satisfying read. Also recommended are the previous works in this series, which begins with A Duty to the Dead. Todd also writes a series centered on a shell-shocked soldier who resumes his position as an inspector at Scotland Yard. The Ian Rutledge series begins with A Test of Wills.

Leanne

 
 

Between the Covers with Julie Lawson Timmer

Cover art for Five Days LeftFive Days Left is the emotional journey of two people facing life-changing situations and making ultimate sacrifices in the name of love. Debut author Julie Lawson Timmer took time to answer questions about this powerful novel — sure to become a book club favorite — which Jodi Picoult calls “unique, gripping and viscerally moving.”  

 

Between the Covers: Mara and Scott are two ordinary people, living in different cities, pursuing dynamic careers and dealing with marriage and family. Over the course of five days, these two ordinary lives are extraordinarily changed. What was the genesis and inspiration for this story of a woman battling Huntington’s disease and a man battling the foster care system and even his own wife?
Julie Lawson Timmer: A few years ago, a friend of mine died after a long struggle with cancer. She was in hospice for the last several months of her life and she was spectacularly brave in facing what she knew would be her last months, weeks and days. During that time, and after she died, I was consumed with thoughts about what that must have been like for her — to know she wouldn’t be there for her kids’ graduations, their weddings, etc. I decided that writing about someone dealing with a fatal, incurable disease would be a way to explore the feelings my friend might have had. I also felt that exploring and writing about those feelings would be a way for me to honor her, even if the book was never read by anyone else. I chose Huntington’s because I didn’t want, or believe I had any right, to write my friend’s story. Five Days Left is not biographical in any sense.

 

I wanted to give Mara a break from her difficult situation, and adding the online group allowed me to do that. When I was casting around in my imagination for an online friend who Mara could become close to, Scott materialized, as did his job as a middle school teacher and coach. Technically, Scott and his wife are limited guardians of Curtis, not foster parents. Foster parenting involves months of background checks and classes and applications, etc., while being a limited guardian is a relatively immediate process, at least in Michigan. Given the urgency in Curtis’s situation, the foster system wasn’t appropriate. However, the concept of fostering and being a limited guardian are similar in that ultimately, you are caring for, making sacrifices for and, often, loving deeply a child who isn’t your own, and whose future is not in your control. In this regard, foster parents and limited guardians are in a similar position as step-parents, a role I hold. As a step-parent, I also care for, make sacrifices for and deeply love children whose future isn’t in my control, and I wanted to explore that.

 

 

BTC: In telling the stories of Mara and Scott, you explore sensitive issues such as foster care, suicide, infertility, adoption and marital durability. What led you to tackle such powerful topics? Describe the research process involved in ensuring accuracy of the details so integral to these characters’ stories.   
JLT: [The research] was the biggest surprise for me about the process. When I first came up with the idea for the book, I actually wasn’t intending to do much research. I thought I’d spend a little time online learning a bit about Huntington’s – which I knew nothing about – and then rely on “artistic license” to fill in the details of the disease in a way that advanced the plot. But “a little time online” is all it took for me to realize how horrible Huntington’s is, and to realize there was no way I could write about it unless I did it as accurately as possible. I thought (and still think) I owed it to the Huntington’s community to get the disease right.

 

So, I did months of research on my own, and then I talked to some Huntington’s experts to confirm that my understanding of the research was correct, and that I’d represented it accurately in the novel. In many cases, I’d gotten the facts wrong, and I ended up making significant changes to Mara’s sections in order to correct the inaccuracies. I’m certain – and upset – that I didn’t likely get the disease completely accurate, but any mistakes were my fault, not that of the experts.  

 

Photo credit Myra Klarman

BTC: Mara’s voice is engagingly honest from the first sentence of the book. The reader is painfully aware of her anger, fear and even joy. How were you able to capture all these emotions and create an authentic portrait of one woman’s struggle against mortality?
JLT: I was highly motivated to get those feelings as right as I could. For my friend, who lived it. And for me, too, as I have certainly spent my share of time, as I imagine most mothers have, thinking about how I would feel if I knew my children would have to grow up without me.

 

It was a struggle, in early drafts, to keep Mara from feeling overly sorry for herself. But I spent a long time thinking about her, and who she was, and I knew that she was not a complainer. She was a strong, stoic woman who wanted to be treated that way. So, I dialed her down quite a bit and ended up with someone whose thoughts and fears were truer to what I believe Mara’s would be.   

 

 

BTC: Almost even more surprising is the clarity of Scott’s voice. His love for his wife and foster son are evident as is the anguish he feels when he may lose one or both of them. How difficult was it to write from a man’s point of view?
JLT: My husband is a “guy’s guy,” which is how I’d describe Scott, and I have some close friends who are the same. I suppose I channeled them to a large extent. I did run a number of things about Scott past my husband – character motivation, turns of phrase, that sort of thing – to make sure I wasn’t attributing thoughts or phrases to him that weren’t ones a man would actually have. And there were times when my husband would say, “Uh, no way would he say that,” and I’d have to revise the dialogue. My husband’s help, from character motivation to dialogue to plot issues to making dinner and cleaning up so I could write is something I could talk about for a long time.

 

 

BTC: As heartbreaking as the story is at times, you tell it beautifully and manage to keep within the five-day timeline. Share with us your writing process for plotting this carefully constructed dual story. As a debut novelist, working attorney and mother to kids and dogs, how on earth did you find time to sit down and write?
JLT: Thank you for that lovely compliment! As for my plotting process, I am a major plotter/outliner. I carefully plotted how each story would go before I began writing. For an early draft, I wrote Scott’s entire story, and then Mara’s, and then did something close to cutting and pasting to get the chapters to alternate. In later drafts, I realized the story came out better if I wrote each chapter as it appeared in the book, rather than writing all of one character’s chapters at once.

 

As for the work/family/writing balance, that one was, and remains, tough. I discovered the only time people aren’t looking for me is between the hours of 4 a.m. – 6 a.m. Even then, because my company is global and I’m in the habit of checking email often, I could sometimes end up on calls or reviewing contracts before dawn instead of writing. But most days, those dark, quiet hours were mine, and I found that I could get two solid scenes written in that time. My wonderful husband set coffee every night and often left encouraging sticky notes on the coffee maker for me – something that made a huge difference, especially on cold, dark winter mornings.  

 

 

BTC: How excited were you to receive such glowing recommendations for your novel from the likes of Jodi Picoult, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Sarah Pekannen? As a debut novelist, what was it like navigating the book world with publishing icon Amy Einhorn, and more importantly, can you clarify the rules of the literary drinking game that you and she created during the course of finalizing this novel?
JLT: I’m so grateful to those authors for taking the time to read a new writer’s book and then give a blurb for it. They’re wonderful. I was beyond excited to see those blurbs and honestly, I’m not sure it’s sunken in still. It’s surreal to think that these authors whose work I’ve admired for years have actually read my book, and that they liked it. I have a writer friend who emails me from time to time and her entire message will be, “JODI PICOULT!” or “CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE!” or any of the other names. When I read those emails, I think, “Oh, that’s right! It did happen!”

 

I loved working with Amy Einhorn (my same writer friend used to write those emails, too: “AMY EINHORN!”). In Amy’s first editor letter, which listed the various changes she thought I should make, she said the book should be “a five-hanky read” and that although it had made her sniffle a little, it hadn’t made her cry. When I set out to do my revisions, I put sticky notes all over the wall of our home office, to make it easier to organize the plot, and to my daughter’s horror, I added a few sticky notes at various intervals around the room with the notation, “MAKE AMY CRY!” After that, any time Amy emailed to say a certain revised scene had made her cry, I’d announce to my family, “Amy cried!” and we’d all cheer. A few times, I made the announcement at dinner, and we all raised our glasses to the fact that I’d made Amy cry. When I confessed this sordid family practice to Amy, she and I started joking that we’d invented a (terrible) new drinking game.  

 

 

BTC: I’m sure our readers would love to hear what you’re working on next. Can you share any details?
JLT: Sure. Briefly, my next book is about estranged families, step parenting and the dreadful practice of “rehoming,” where people who no longer want their adopted children advertise them online and then hand them over to people who have merely responded to an Internet ad rather than going through the rigorous process of being qualified to adopt.  It is completely different from Five Days Left, but as I expect every book I write will do, it explores different forms of “family” and how families survivel, or don’t survive, challenging situations.

 

Maureen

 
 

A Star-Spangled Celebration

Cover art for What So Proudly We HailedCover art for Star-Spangled BannerSeptember 13-14 marks the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key writing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Author Marc Leepson takes us deeper into Key’s life and world in What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life. As Leepson explains, “Virtually every American knows the name Francis Scott Key. But they know just one thing about him. There was a lot more to the man than just that he wrote 'The Star-Spangled Banner' under dramatic circumstances." Leepson shares more about Key’s life, his family and his relatively unknown influence on our country’s history. Watch a video of Leepson’s recent talk at the National Archives on BCPL’s Tumblr.

 

Marc Ferris’ Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem takes a different approach, following the history of the song itself. When it was first published as a broadside, the song was actually titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Key’s words were intended to match the already well-known tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a song that Ferris refers to as “a bawdy, boozy ballad.” It was instantly popular in Baltimore. Later, when Congress named it our national anthem in 1931, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was one of several contenders for the honor. It was selected over other popular choices like “America the Beautiful,” “Yankee Doodle” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” This rich history of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a fascinating read.

 

Baltimore will be celebrating this important anniversary with a host of exciting events September 10-16. The full schedule of events is available here.
 

Beth

 
 

The Mountaintop School for Dogs

The Mountaintop School for Dogs

posted by:
September 2, 2014 - 8:00am

The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second ChancesA hound who has gone mute because he was chained outside with no shelter. A Lab-pit mix who is afraid of sticks. A Rottweiler who was dumped from a moving car and chased it as it sped away. A deaf dog who was given up by her owners when a new baby arrived. A Scottie who was left behind in an abandoned apartment when the owners were evicted. A young woman who has left behind a troubled past and is determined to start anew. These are the colorful characters who make up Ellen Cooney’s The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances.

 

When Evie sees an online ad for becoming a dog trainer, she sees it as an opportunity to reinvent herself. She heads to The Sanctuary, an isolated mountaintop shelter where dedicated volunteers take on the most tragic cases of dog neglect and abuse; there the animals are trained for potential adoption, or in some cases, trained for jobs at the shelter itself. It is readily apparent that the dogs are not the only damaged ones: Staff members, like the authoritarian innkeeper Mrs. Auberchon and the gentle teenager Giant George, suffer from problems in their pasts.

 

The narration of the novel switches from omniscience to Evie’s point-of-view, where the reader is treated to her extensive notes and new glossary for training terms. Items on her list include words like “Patience. Working on it” to “Real. You cannot be fake with dogs.” As Evie makes mistakes and processes them through her glossary, we root for her to come into her own as both a trainer and a person.

 

At the heart of this story is the idea that we humans are not so different from the dogs we love: We all want to be praised for a job well-done, we all want to belong to a pack and we all want to be loved. Dog-lovers who barked for fiction like A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron or nonfiction titles like Jim Gorant’s The Lost Dogs or Oogy by Larry Levin will find The Mountaintop School for Dogs a wonderful warm “tail” of redemption and perseverance.

Jessica

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A Cold Day in Hades

Skin GameEverything changed for Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, when he sold his services to Mab, Queen of the Fairies, to save his daughter. He's been not quite dead, trapped in Fairy politics and sent on a wide variety of suicide missions. That was the easy part. Nicodemus, Knight of the Blackened Denarius and one of the cruelest enemies Dresden has ever faced is back in town, planning a major heist. And Harry's stuck working for him.

 

By turns Skin Game by Jim Butcher is a ripping heist novel, a hilariously goofy urban fantasy, with enough touching moments to give real weight. Butcher has won the ability to write gripping, fun and magical crime novels, and he's fought for that ability in this very series. It's not recommended to start with Skin Game if you're going to read the Dresden Files series because too much of the book is dependent on things that have come before. I don't recommend beginning at the first book either, because Butcher didn't really find his footing until the third. Start with the third book, Grave Peril, because the Dresden Files are a journey. Characters grow, wrestle with themselves, face up to things they don't want to deal with. There's a whole lot Dresden doesn't want to deal with, from dragging his friends into danger to stronger and stronger deals with dangerous and inhuman powers. Life has a tendency to get a whole lot bigger than the people living in the Dresdenverse.

 

If this were a movie, it would be a summer tent pole, a certified blockbuster. It has huge, explosive action, romance, comedy, true love, and cute animals. There are double and triple crosses and rivalries that zoom along. It would be better than anything you're going to see in the theater this year. But it gets even better if you haven't read the rest of the Dresden Files, because now you have an entire book series that's better than anything you're going to see in the theater, and it's still building up to even bigger things.

Matt

 
 

Pandas and Tigers and Wolves, Oh My!

Pandas and Tigers and Wolves, Oh My!

posted by:
August 28, 2014 - 8:00am

The Hybrid TigerFrom panda parents to tiger moms and wolf dads, prescription parenthood has gained a toehold in our culture. And it’s little wonder. In a world of increasingly global competition, it’s understandable that today’s parents question whether the way they were raised is an effective model for the next generation.

 

Some authors have sought to capitalize on this cultural anxiety, confirming fears of parental inadequacy and boldly prescribing a veritable menagerie of methods for ensuring the success of our children. Perhaps the most controversial of these is Amy Chua, who’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which outlined what she termed “Chinese parenting,” caused a stir across the country.

 

Now, in The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American Kids, Quanyu Huang presents a gentler, less abrasive analysis of the differences between Chinese and American parenting.

 

As a product of Chinese education and culture himself as well as the parent of a child raised in America, Huang presents a uniquely balanced perspective on the subject. Acknowledging the undeniable academic success of Asian and Asian-American children, he also draws attention to the post-academic success of many adult products of the American experience, who seem to “catch up” in the college years. Instead of ascribing to an either/or model, Huang advocates “co-core synergy education;” a compromise between the Asian style of parenting and the American.

 

Huang’s premise is an interesting one and bears reflection. If The Hybrid Tiger has one flaw, it is that the text occasionally suffers in its execution, feeling at times a little awkward. Huang’s samples of questions from Chinese/American parents feel a little forced and seem to function as a platform for his own interpretation of what these parents should be asking rather than as actual examples of questions he’s encountered from either set. Nevertheless, the overall message is a unifying and commonsensical one emphasizing parental involvement in academic discipline without sacrificing socialization and creativity.

 

Readers who enjoy The Hybrid Tiger may also enjoy The Dolphin Way: A Parent's Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy and Motivated Kids–Without Turning into a Tiger by Shimi Kang.

Meghan

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Return from the Dead

Return from the Dead

posted by:
August 27, 2014 - 8:00am

The Lazarus CurseTessa Harris’ fourth entry in the Dr. Thomas Silkstone mysteries examines the ethics of scientific research and the tenuous laws governing slavery in Georgian England.

 

It is 1783, and for most doctors in England, bloodletting is still the preferred treatment. Philadelphia-born Thomas Silkstone is a gifted anatomist and physician whose modern treatments prove controversial. Considered a rebel and an upstart, he is welcomed by some and vilified by others. Highly respected by more progressive scientists, Thomas has been chosen by the president of the Royal College to identify and catalog almost 200 different species of Caribbean plants which may contain unusual life-saving properties. The scientists involved in the expedition have died during the voyage and their notes have disappeared. This greatly complicates Thomas’ daunting task.

 

Examining the exotic plants introduces a whole new world to Thomas; at once fascinating and repellant. The Caribbean is the home of some of the most brutal slave plantations on earth. Called upon to treat a slave-owning planter visiting London, Thomas discovers a dark world of fear, exploitation and magic. Has an ancient ritual brought about the mistresses’ mysterious illness, or is there a medical explanation? Is it possible to bring the dead back to life, or is it mere trickery and deceit? As Thomas ponders these questions, he discovers that the eminent anatomist Hubert Izzard is suddenly obtaining an abundance of fresh corpses to dissect. In Georgian England, no person of decent family would turn over their loved one’s body for dissection. Then, Thomas learns that all of these corpses are the bodies of African slaves. Suspecting foul play, Thomas is determined to unearth the truth and achieve justice for the most vulnerable victims of all.

 

Tessa Harris has created a thoroughly researched work which brings to light a little-known aspect of English history and law. This complex tale of ambition and greed is capped by an unexpected ending. The Lazarus Curse is sure to please fans of Imogene Robertson’s Gabriel Crowther and Alex Grecian’s Dr. Bernard Kingsley.

Leanne