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Grant Park

posted by: April 19, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Grant ParkOn March 28, 1968 in Memphis, shop windows broke and mace-triggered tears flowed when African American sanitation workers marched to protest dangerous and inhumane working conditions; within days, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel kicked off a period of riots and mourning nationwide. Forty years later, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. So, we’re all good now, right? In his newest novel Grant Park, Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Pitts Jr. looks at the complicated dance of race relations as played out by two aging Chicago journalists whose lives intersected in 1968.

 

On the eve of the 2008 election, African American syndicated columnist Malcolm Toussaint, a man showered with professional accolades and prizes, enjoying the trappings of the upper middle class, has written a final piece in which he declares he is “sick and tired of white folks’ bullshit.” And, everyone knows Malcolm is tired of white folks because despite his white editor, Bob Carson, telling him this column cannot run, Malcolm sneaks onto the office computers and inserts it into the Chicago Post’s front page. Fall-out is swift; Malcolm is now jobless and the newspaper management team also fires Bob. An angry Bob sets out to find Malcolm, who has disappeared. Instead of hiding from everyone’s wrath, Malcolm’s been abducted by a Frick and Frack pair of suicidal white supremacists who intend to strap Malcolm to the front of their explosive-filled van like a hood ornament and blow them all to kingdom come at Grant Park as the first black POTUS makes his election night speech.

 

Pitts jumps from Malcolm’s and Bob’s pivotal experiences in the civil rights movement as it moved away from King’s nonviolent preaching to finding both men on the cusp of retirement, their discouraged, sometimes jaded, voices reflecting frustration born of lack of progress. Often farcically funny, Pitts manages to humanize the worst of us while pointing out that we, black and white, have no choice but to work together for change. Meet Leonard Pitts Jr. as he reads from Grant Park and discusses race relations in America today at the Towson Branch on April 23 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the BC Reads: Rise Up! month of events.


 
 

Alligator Candy

posted by: April 15, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Alligator CandyDavid Kushner’s early childhood was near idyllic. Born in 1968 to observant Jewish parents with liberal ideals, Kushner and his two older brothers Jon and Andy had license to roam free in their Tampa suburb. Days were filled with bike rides, games and exploration of the natural world that surrounded both their home and school. But one October afternoon, Jon took a solo ride to the 7-Eleven to buy Snappy Gator Gum for David and himself. He never returned. Alligator Candy: A Memoir is the story of the tragedy that affected not only the Kushner family, but the entire community.

 

David, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, a journalism professor at Princeton and an author of several nonfiction titles, tells this deeply personal story with candor and generosity. What does he remember about the last time he saw his brother alive, and can he trust that memory? Would Jon be alive today if almost-5-year-old David hadn’t asked for that gum? The rest of his life from that point forward, was marked by having a brother who had been abducted and murdered. Childhood was no longer safe; his bogeyman was real. Actually, he had two bogeymen — the men who had confessed to treating his brother in a way that was far worse than anything he’d heard from his old edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

 

How does a family move on? Kushner credits his parents for allowing him and his older brother the freedom to move beyond the fear, to continue to have as normal a childhood as possible. He acknowledges his Jewish faith, but most importantly the community that came forward to support his family from the moment Jon went missing. As he got older, he knew his memories of his brother’s murder were incomplete, and much of what he thought he knew was based on a combination of overheard conversations, conjecture and rumors. And although he craved answers to what was a mystery to him, he didn’t want to subject his parents to painful recollections.

 

At 13, he went to the library to request microfilm of The Tampa Tribune from October 1973. What he read satisfied his need for more information, but also led to further questions. One fact remained: He was becoming a man, a bar mitzvah, while Jon would forever remain a boy. Kushner talks about other famous cases involving missing and brutalized children, explaining how laws have come into being as a result. An existing legal loophole allowed for a parole hearing for one of Jon’s killers, compelling David and Andy to testify. The thought of this man possibly getting out into the world was stupefying. The family found justice and some solace in knowing the mastermind of the crime had been executed under the death penalty.

 

Alligator Candy is a memoir that marks a lifetime of remembering, searching and gathering. The processing will always continue. Kushner's evocative prose took me back to my own early '70s childhood, with just the right period details and nostalgia. Despite its difficult topic, Alligator Candy is compulsively readable and highly recommended.


 
 

The Girl with Ghost Eyes

posted by: April 14, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Girl with Ghost EyesImmigrating to a new country is hard enough, but when your (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal) ghosts travel with you, you need someone who will protect and ward your community from those with malevolent intentions. In The Girl with Ghost Eyes, author M. H. Boroson mixes fantasy, martial arts and Chinese culture to create a thought-provoking tale with a resilient heroine.

 

Xian Li-lin is a priestess and exorcist of the Maoshan tradition of Daoism living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1898. After a fellow exorcist attacks her, Li-lin plots to confront her enemy in order to restore honor to herself and to her father, the only family she has left after the death of her husband. She cannot afford to lose any more face since she is already considered something of an outcast due to her widowhood status, and she’s cursed with yin eyes —  the ability to see the spirit world. In her quest, she has to navigate not only the power struggles of the rival tongs of male-dominated Chinatown, but also the avenues of the spirit world, home to demons and monsters of all shapes. Unbeknownst to Li-lin and her allies, there is a horrifying plot to unleash a monstrous abomination that exists only to destroy everything in its path. Li-lin will have to challenge both the world of spirits and of men if she is to stop the monster.

 

The Girl with Ghost Eyes is refreshing because not one character is a stereotype or a caricature. Boroson treats the culture and history from which he draws his fictional Chinatown with respect and honesty, keeping the depictions of Chinese and Chinese immigrants’ culture and Maoshan tradition as close to reality as possible. Li-lin is a fantastic reluctant hero struggling through an almost impossible task simply because no one else will. She’s not the only person who can succeed in stopping the plotters, but she is the only person who keeps trying to do so.

 

This book reads like a detective noir crossed with the best kung fu movies, with lots of action and characters that are well-rounded, conflicted and complex. Li-lin will resonate with fans of Garth Nix’s Sabriel. This is also the first book in her series, promising lots of future ghost adventures to come.

 


 
 

The High Mountains of Portugal

posted by: April 11, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The High Mountains of PortugalYann Martel hit superstardom in 2001 when Life of Pi was published. Soon thereafter, in 2002, won The Man Booker Prize. In this year’s The High Mountains of Portugal, Martel seeks the surreal in order to make better sense of the sorrows of life.

 

The High Mountains of Portugal is actually three loosely interrelated novellas, the longest of which is the first: “Homeless.” Set in Portugal, 1904, “Homeless” stars Tomas, a man who has lost his child, his lover and his father over a fairly short time. For obvious reasons, he feels betrayed by the world and by God, so betrayed in fact, that he has decided to walk backward for the rest of his life. This causes his uncle great consternation when he tries to show Tomas how to drive one of those new-fangled automobiles. It’s all fun and games until Tomas runs into his greatest tragedy and finds exactly what he thought he was looking for.

 

In part two, “Homeward,” Eusebio is a pathologist, and his town is in the shadows of the mountains of Portugal. Over the dying hours of the last day of 1938, Eusebio has a deep conversation with his wife regarding how Agatha Christie’s novels relate to the mysteries of the Bible. And then things take a turn for the weird. Magical realism sneaks into the office in the guise of a dead man and his wife. What Eusebio finds within and what he does thereafter must be read to be believed.

 

Finally, in “Home,” Peter, a member of the Canadian Senate, has a breakdown. His wife is sick. His son is going through a bitter divorce. What better time to quit and run to his ancestral home in the mountains of Portugal with an ape named Odo?

 

How do all of these things fit together? What is Yann Martel trying to say? What’s with all the animals? How are humans to deal with such grief? It is not until the very end, until the final story ties all of the stories together, that the ultimate epiphany is realized by the reader.

 

Readers who enjoyed Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil will derive even greater enjoyment from this journey through humility, hubris and the examination of what it might mean to be human.


 
 

The Hateful Eight

posted by: April 7, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Hateful EightTwo words. Quentin. Tarantino. He is an Oscar Award-winning screenwriter responsible for writing and directing hit movies, such as Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. His most recent project is The Hateful Eight. The film version premiered in late 2015, but readers can get their hands on the 165-page screenplay clothed in book form. If you have not seen the movie, then read the screenplay first, or vice or versa to compare the two mediums and see how they differ.

 

The Hateful Eight takes place post-Civil War in the middle of a winter storm in Wyoming. A bounty hunter by the name of John Ruth travels in a stagecoach to a town called Red Rock, handcuffed to his prisoner, Daisy Domergue. John Ruth wants two things. One, he wants to deliver Daisy to the Red Rock sheriff so that she can hang for her crimes. Two, he wants to collect the $10,000 fee for turning her in. However, sabotage may be looming around the corner. On his way to Red Rock, he spots a familiar face. It is Major Warren, the bounty hunter, sitting on three dead frozen bodies in the middle of a snowy road. John Ruth's stagecoach driver, O.B., pulls over. Major Warren wants a ride to Red Rock to turn in the three dead men he uses as a seat cushion. Skeptically, John Ruth obliges. O.B. takes off in the stagecoach and they come across another loner stuck in the snow storm, Chris Mannix, who claims to be the new sheriff in Red Rock. Chris adds that he needs to be present in Red Rock if the bounty hunters expect to be paid for their services. Although John Ruth finds Chris' sheriff story fabricated, he allows Chris inside his stagecoach just in case he is speaking the truth. Due to harsh weather conditions, the stagecoach detours at a very convenient place called Minnie's Haberdashery that provides food and drinks. What is odd is that Minnie, the owner, is nowhere to be found. A man called “Bob” welcomes them and mentions that he is looking after the place until Minnie gets back from her "trip." John Ruth and the others quickly discover that there are four suspicious looking strangers inside Minnie’s Haberdashery and most of them provide stories that they are heading to Red Rock when the weather settles down. Despite what they say, John Ruth believes that one or all of the strangers are there to sabotage his plan to get Daisy to Red Rock to hang. Who inside Minnie's Haberdashery aren't who they say they are? Who will make it to Red Rock when the weather clears? You'll find the answers to these questions inside Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.

 

For those who are not familiar with Quentin Tarantino's work, I want to inform readers that The Hateful Eight contains profanity, violence and gore. With that said, Quentin Tarantino's screenplay was easy to follow and I had no problem visualizing the story. The Hateful Eight has a nice mixture of mystery, western, drama and comedy.


 
 

The Man Who Spoke Snakish

posted by: April 6, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Man Who Spoke SnakishThe Man Who Spoke Snakish is a bildungsroman legend coming out of the often overlooked Baltic country of Estonia. It is set during an awkward and mysterious period of time in Medieval Europe — late in the age of Vikings but early in the times of Christian colonization. Author Andrus Kivirähk describes the conflicts of peace — when people are forced to navigate societies in which different languages, beliefs and ways of living intermingle and cross-pollinate. The book's narrator, Leemet, is a member of a society that has learned the tongue of serpents, and with this, gained the power to communicate and control other animal species. But that society's way of life is threatened from within as its people change their ways. Their assimilation to an agrarian lifestyle means that they are renouncing the ways of their forest home and forgetting the ancient language. Will Leemet be able to pass his knowledge of Snakish down to the next generation?

 

While it does resemble Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear in some respects, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is not a story with any qualms about historical accuracy. It stands out for its wry use of anachronistic language and the ease with which it can be imagined by modern readers. In fact, many of the characters seem like stereotypes from a modern neighborhood — the hippies living on the edge of town, modish young people obsessed with the latest fads and ultraconservative religious fanatics. While the appellation “barbarian” hovers throughout the text, it never alights to describe a particular culture or character. Instead, there is an unrelenting, Darwinian conviction that change is inevitable, unrelenting and often times totally irrational. In the end, is Leemet more of a Grendel or a Beowulf?

Liz

Liz

 
 

The Red Rising Trilogy

posted by: April 4, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Morning StarPierce Brown is a prodigious young author who first hit the shelves in 2013 with Red Rising, book one in a trilogy that includes the titles Golden Son and now the newly released Morning Star. The Red Rising Trilogy is a science fiction epic set after human expansion has moved past an exhausted Earth and a tightly ruled government of Colors has been instated. Those in power have designated themselves the Golds, or the ruling class, and split the people remaining into Colors to match their station — Silvers handling money, Blues working in technology, Pinks in pleasure and the lowly Reds who work the ground itself.

 

Darrow is a Red who lives and works in the underground mining community on Mars. Although only 17, he’s already married and at the peak of his career as a Helldiver, a role requiring incredible speed and dexterity to control a hazardous drill to mine resources deep in the crust of the planet. His main concerns are his starving family and living his simple life to the fullest, but when a personal tragedy strikes him to his core he finds himself unwillingly hurtled into the world of Golds, a deadly Academy and a revolution the span of which he only barely understands. As his absorption into Gold society extends from months to years and his contact with the rebel leaders who put him there fades away, Darrow faces the difficult reality of encountering the Golds as the flawed but human individuals they are. Despite his losses, despite the suffering of his people, Darrow comes to understand the Golds and their society, to befriend them, even — to his mingled delight and horror — to fall in love.

 

As he excels in every test he’s given and accomplishes every seemingly impossible challenge the Golds set him, his conundrum comes to a head. Will he be able to take the reins of the revolution against people he’s starting to consider his friends? Will he be able to survive their ruthlessness, even if he does fight? Morning Star brings the conclusion of the delectable tension Red Rising and Golden Son have built up, an intense drama to truly be swept away by.


 
 

Hair

posted by: April 1, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for HairHair: A Human History proves the rule that even the most mundane topics become fascinating in the hands of an author who is passionate about their subject matter. A former professor of pathology and dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and a once-director of skin biology at Johnson & Johnson, Kurt Stenn has particular expertise as a follicle man. His enthusiasm for the subject matter translates to the page in this engaging microhistory.

 

Hair offers what the author refers to as a “panoramic view” of the natural fiber, including whiskers, pubic hair and mammalian fur. Stenn provides readers with a modicum of simple science and lots of cocktail party-worthy facts and anecdotes worth sharing. He begins with a description of the follicle growth cycle, spending time on causes of extreme hair loss and explaining male pattern baldness. Hair follicles don’t disappear; they become smaller and smaller until they’re microscopic. Who knew that bald men really do have hair?

 

The author shares the reason that Abraham Lincoln grew his famous beard, and explores how tonsorial choices reflected both beauty and power throughout history. Did you know that the iconic barber pole is a vestige of the time before the 18th century when barbers performed bloodletting? Barbers of the time doubled as surgeons, since hair and body care were seen as one and the same.

 

Hair touches on the history of hair styling, chemical processing and even hair removal. Stenn takes a look at depictions of hair in art, and at artists that make a statement by including actual human hair in their work. He points out the sentimental and spiritual value of a lock of hair, and describes the once-common custom of wearing jewelry made from a deceased loved one’s hair — a memento mori. Dozens of illustrations add to the book’s appeal. At just 169 pages (plus a glossary and extensive notes), Hair is a fascinating, worthwhile read.


 
 

A Doubter’s Almanac

posted by: April 1, 2016 - 7:00am

A Doubter's AlmanacA Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin audaciously challenges readers from the very beginning. Protagonist Milo Andret is a mathematical genius, a young man with an uncanny sense of direction and intrinsic awareness of geographical place. He visualizes complex problems and, to him, obvious solutions. His adult life becomes absorbed by the complex world of academic mathematical theory, in particular, topology.

 

What is topology, you might ask? And why would you spend your time on a novel that spans decades and devotes over 500 pages to a literary novel that seemingly centers on math? Credit the supple talent of novelist Canin for crafting a rich, relatable saga with universal themes of self-discovery, fulfillment, love, loss and the importance of family.

 

Although his path seemed obvious, Milo was never a good student, as he was prone to boredom. Five years after completing his undergraduate degree (he spent the interim working as an auto mechanic), he applies to graduate school at UC Berkeley. A latecomer to the field, it’s not long before Milo discovers the theorem that will define his career, the elusive young woman who will slip through his grasp and haunt him for the rest of his life, and the poet/mathematician who not only becomes his nemesis but represents the path not taken.

 

But like the real life mathematician John Nash, portrayed in the book and movie A Beautiful Mind, Milo’s brilliance comes at a price. His brain never quiets, and he lacks the coping mechanisms to relax and simply be happy — he’s constantly striving. He loves the company of women, but lacks interpersonal skills that allow for connection beyond the bedroom. Self-medication helps; Maker’s Mark bourbon bottles literally pile up. Milo reaches the zenith of his professional life early and manages to make a number of enemies along the way. He marries to escape, and his career falters as his frustration mounts.

 

Canin makes a smart choice by giving the narration to Milo’s son. Hans is brilliant in his own way but damaged by a childhood dominated by a mercurial, distant father and a loving, devoted yet unfulfilled mother. His sister, also a prodigy, is scarred by their father’s failure to recognize her. Hans makes a fortune by using his own mathematical skills in the financial markets. Wildly successful, he also self-medicates from his time as a young teen — first with the recreational drug MDA, later with cocaine. Hans and his wife keep their own children far from their grandfather.

 

Canin is a master storyteller, creating interesting, flawed characters that struggle to feel comfortable in their own skin; characters that long to connect in meaningful ways and leave their mark on the world. A Doubter’s Almanac draws you deeply into the lives of the Andrets in ways that stay with you long after you’ve finished this smart, intensely moving novel. This is literary fiction at its best, challenging and rewarding. A Doubter’s Almanac is the best novel I’ve read this year, deserving of the many accolades that are sure to come its way.


 
 

The Last Days of Magic

posted by: March 30, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Last Days of MagicA war is raging over magic’s presence in the world. Exorcists and priests are pursuing witches and demons, purging them from the world until there is only one place left where the connection to magic remains strong — Ireland. In Mark Tompkins’s debut novel The Last Days of Magic, human and fairy politics collide as the war over magic comes to Ireland’s shores, and it's not always obvious who can be trusted — on either side.

 

Tompkins’s worldbuilding is detailed and well-researched, blending mythology, mysticism and historical fact together to craft a historical fantasy retelling of the 1390s. His cast includes people straight out of history, from Richard II to Saints Patrick and Brigid, and out of mythology, such as the Morrigna and the Sidhe. And Tompkins threads these together with facts and speculations from Vatican history, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and witch trials.

 

You might think that having all of these elements in play would lead to a convoluted or overworked plot, but Tompkins balances the historical and the fantastical to create characters that are flawed and intriguing and a plot filled with political intrigue. It leaves the reader wondering where historical fact actually ends and the myths begin. Fans of Morgan Llywelyn or Juliet Marillier might want to check this book out.

 


 
 

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