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Librarians

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

 
 

Fiction Award Nominees

Fiction Award Nominees

posted by:
May 21, 2012 - 5:01am

Lost Memory of SkinThe Forgotten WaltzSwamplandia!The nominees for the inaugural Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction were recently announced.  This award recognizes books written for adults that were published in the U.S. in the previous year.   The three finalists deal with varied and unique topics, but each has a strong emotional current running throughout.

 

In Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks turns a magnifying glass toward the outcasts of society.  A “community” of convicted sex offenders has sprung up on a causeway at the edge of the city limits in South Florida.  These men are caught in the grey area of the legal system; they cannot reside within 2500 feet of any gathering place for children but they must live within the city according to the conditions of their parole.  Never one to shy away from the morally complex, Banks presents these men sympathetically and challenges the reader to reexamine his/her own moral code.  Lost Memory of Skin was a 2012 Pen/Faulkner Award finalist. 

 

Sparsely written and often surprising, The Forgotten Waltz is a novel set in Ireland that deals with the emotional taboo of extramarital affairs.  A chance meeting leads Gina and Sean into a passionate affair that takes years to arrive at a crescendo. Booker Prize winner Anne Enright takes an unapologetic look at love, marriage, infidelity and secrets.  Enright’s writing is non-linear and poetic.  Musical metaphors abound in the witty dance that is The Forgotten Waltz, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize.

 

Swamplandia! by debut author Karen Russell is the story of Ava Bigtree, a thirteen-year-old alligator wrestler at her family’s animal park in the Florida Everglades.  The struggle to save the park after the death of her mother rests squarely on Ava’s shoulders, as the other members of the family withdraw to battle their own personal demons.  Whimsical, beautiful language anchors this magical tale to a place somewhere between imagination and reality.  Swamplandia! was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Sam

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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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A Ray of Hope

A Ray of Hope

posted by:
May 18, 2012 - 5:01am

The Testament of Jessie LambBiological terrorism, precarious scientific boundaries, and the personal cost of saving the human race intersect in Jane Rogers' heartfelt dystopian novel, The Testament of Jessie Lamb.  Set in Manchester, England somewhere in the near future, Maternal Death Syndrome is a reality; the ubiquitous rogue virus is killing pregnant women around the world.

 

Trying to be a normal teenager in these times is impossible for 16-year-old Jessie Lamb, whose  "testament" or diary opens the story.  Idealistic, determined and enlightened by her scientist father, Jessie wants only to live on the planet in a less greedy, destructive way.  She and her activist friends ponder whether the virus is really payoff for human-engendered ills, like global warming and the oil shortage.  When she learns from her father that a new vaccine enables young women (called "sleeping beauties") to give birth to healthy children she decides to volunteer. Unfortunately for Jessie, it also means entering into a coma and never waking up, something her father will not allow.

 

Rogers' writing, evocative and straight forward, raises the specters of medical research, self-sacrifice and the fine line between being delusional, a naive martyr, or courageous heroine.  Alternating between her journal entries and events leading up to her decision, Jessie's voice is authentic and poignant. Rogers take the time to develop complicated characters in Jessie and her father.

Long-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Rogers' first foray into science fiction recently earned her the UK's Arthur C. Clarke award.  Like Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go or Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Rogers' work is a compelling read for literary dystopia fans.  Teen fiction readers will also find plenty to like here.

Cynthia

 
 

The Pioneer Woman Does It All

Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My FrontierCharlie the Ranch DogBlack Heels to Tractor Wheels

Ree Drummond is a successful blogger, Food Network star, and author.  Her down-home comfort foods have really struck a chord with readers and cooks from all walks of life. Drummond’s success began with her blog The Pioneer Woman, which has a legion of followers, receiving 24 million hits monthly.  The blog covers her family life on an Oklahoma cattle ranch, her efforts to homeschool her children, and of course, cooking.  The recipes are delicious and easy to follow, and readers love that Drummond illustrates them with step-by-step photos.

 

It seemed like a natural transition for Drummond to publish cookbooks.  Her most recent, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from My Frontier, is filled with tasty recipes color photos, and Drummond’s anecdotes and comments.  You’ll want to try the recipes for yourself when you see her homemade glazed doughnuts, cowgirl quiche, and “Knock You Naked” brownies!  The book quickly became a bestseller, and there are now more than 480,000 copies in print.

Drummond recently started filming the second season of her Food Network show “The Pioneer Woman”.  Like her blog, the show features her life on the ranch, her family, and her favorite recipes.  Viewers will also be interested to know that she has published a picture book called Charlie the Ranch Dog that features her family’s beloved basset hound.

 

It’s not all about the recipes, though.  To learn more about Drummond’s life, try her memoir Black Heels to Tractor Wheels: A Love Story, which tells the story of how she met her husband Ladd Drummond who she affectionately calls Marlboro Man in the book and her blog.  Ree originally planned to go on to law school, but everything changed when she met Ladd.  She shocked her family by marrying him and moving to the ranch. The rest, as they say, is history.

Beth

 
 

Baseball's Odd Couple

Driving Mr. YogiFor Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry spring training is a renewal of their friendship. Every spring former Yankees’ pitching superstar Guidry drives to the Tampa airport and picks up former Yankees’ catcher and Hall of Famer Berra. The two go the ballpark, watch games, eat dinner together, and trade stories.  Every day for the next month follows the same pattern. Driving Mr. Yogi is the story of the bond between two men who on the surface appear to share only baseball in common.   The catcher from a poor Italian neighborhood in St. Louis and the pitcher from Cajun swamp country were born a quarter of a century apart, and yet today Guidry calls Berra his best friend.  New York Times reporter Harvey Araton first shared this story last year in an article in the paper and expands on it in this humorous and thoughtful narrative. 

 

It all began in 1999, when Berra was reunited with the Yankees following a 14 year self-exile that began when he was fired by George Steinbrenner.  The rift between the two men led Berra to cut all ties with the Bronx Bombers. The Boss finally offered an apology and Berra went back to spring training where Guidry befriended him. Berra had been a clubhouse mentor during Guidry’s playing days and Ron knew the young players would benefit from Berra’s impressive knowledge of the game and its history. Sure enough, Berra’s casual batting tip changed Nick Swisher's season, and the new ballplayers savored the anecdotes about famous old-timers such as Ted Williams and Don Larsen.    

This is a story of baseball and the rituals of spring training, but it is also a funny and affectionate story of friendship that transcends generations. And yes, it is the Yankees, but even the most ardent Orioles fan will appreciate this engaging story of two likeable sportsmen!

Maureen

 
 

Edith Wharton Meets Page Six

Edith Wharton Meets Page Six

posted by:
May 15, 2012 - 5:01am

GossipIn Gossip, Beth Gutcheon tackles the wily world of female friendships developed over four decades. The main players meet at Miss Pratt’s School in the 1960s where Lovie Walker is the poor scholarship student from Maine struggling to fit in.  Avis Metcalf is the daughter of distant yet wealthy New York parents, and Dinah Wainwright is loud, proud, and confident.  Lovie remains friendly with both following graduation, but Dinah is resentful of Avis due to a perceived insult.   

 

Lovie is the owner of a swanky dress shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and floats on the edge of the high society circle in which Dinah and Avis are entrenched.   Lovie also embarks on what becomes a decades-long relationship with an older, married man who loves her but refuses to leave his wife.  Dinah and Avis both marry and have children. Dinah's marriage produces two sons but falls apart following her husband’s infidelity while Avis slowly distances herself from her alcoholic husband.  The ladies continue working, lunching, and shopping and deal with the passage of time.  Things come to a head when Dinah’s son (and Lovie’s godson) Nick falls in love with Avis's daughter Grace.  Dinah, still angry at Avis, tries to usurp her role in Grace’s life and put a wedge between mother and daughter. 

 

Lovie serves as an engaging narrator and many of the novel’s most important incidents are revealed to her second-hand.   She hears things through another friend or listens to chatter in a doctor’s office, at a restaurant, and especially in her shop.  This is the gossip of the novel’s title and the gossip that ends up controlling all of these ladies’ lives as confidences are broken or secrets are not shared.  Years pass, complications ensue, and beloved characters die. Gutcheon is an expert at conveying the passage of time and weaving significant cultural events into the fabric of the story while still maintaining her strong characters.   These ladies and their tragedies and triumphs will stay with you long after you finish the last page.    

Maureen

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Three Wise Men?

Three Wise Men?

posted by:
May 14, 2012 - 9:05am

Unholy NightMost people know the biblical tale of the birth of Jesus, including the visitation of the baby by three wise men.  Very little is known about these men, not even their names.  Seth Grahame-Smith has taken these undeveloped characters and given them life in Unholy Night.  Warning: history is toyed with and turned upside-down by Grahame-Smith’s wickedly twisted mind.  This is not your typical bible story. 

 

The leader of the trio is Balthazar, an infamous thief and murderer, who finds himself in King Herod’s dungeon with two other criminals awaiting execution.  The three men execute a daring escape disguised as holy men, and as they run for their lives they encounter a young couple with a newborn baby in a stable in Bethlehem.   Soon discovering that they share a mutual enemy in Herod, an unlikely pact is formed and the group sets off across the desert toward Egypt.  Along the way they meet Roman soldiers and zombies, magic and miracles, friends and betrayers.   Other historical figures surface throughout, such as John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate, but it is on Balthazar and his hidden past that the story focuses.

 

Grahame-Smith is the best-selling author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and both the novel and the screenplay Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  He has also written Tim Burton’s new film Dark Shadows.  The audiobook version is masterfully read by Peter Berkrot, winner of an AudioFile Earphones Award.   

Sam

 
 

Spiritual, But Not Religious

Christianity After ReligionBaltimore-born Diana Butler Bass has written extensively about the state of matters of faith in America over the past thirty years. Now, in Christianity after Religion: the End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, she argues that we are once again in a spiritual upheaval in the United States. This, she posits, is yet another in the line of spiritual “awakenings” that has gripped people of faith during times of change, such as today - the early 21st century.

 

Bass discusses some of the religious changes that have taken hold in the United States: the falling away of many from the faiths of their parents and ancestors; the loss of membership among large Christian denominations, such as Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant groups; and the current rise in self-made spirituality. A surprising piece of information is how megachurches, which grew out of the most recent spiritual awakening of the 1970s, have largely plateaued in popularity over the past decade. Testimonies, analyzed polls, and quotes from religious scholars and leaders comparing the beliefs of Americans over the decades are interspersed throughout, lending considerable validity to her arguments.

 

The current awakening the author describes is the way in which Christianity is evolving beyond traditional religious structures. Our global connectedness and increased access to communication has allowed individuals to choose spiritual elements from many religious backgrounds, such as prayer, yoga, meditation, and joyful traditions to create their own connection with a higher power. These faiths are also instilled with valuable information coming from the secular world, such as environmental and social considerations. This is a provocative and eye-opening work from one of today’s top religion writers.

Todd

 
 

May Lead to Whiplash

May Lead to Whiplash

posted by:
May 11, 2012 - 3:01am

Defending JacobDefending Jacob by William Landay should come with the warning label, “May lead to whiplash.” With Landay at the wheel, readers of this terrific new legal thriller should prepare for breathtaking turns and shocking twists. In less sure hands, a story with this many surprises could easily fall apart. Landay is a master storyteller and is able to balance all of the twists while maintaining taut, suspenseful pacing.

 

It would be a shame to reveal too much of the story. The bare bones: Andy Barber is a successful, respected prosecuting attorney. He lives with his wife and son in an affluent Boston suburb. A 14-year-old boy is discovered in a local park; he has been fatally stabbed. Andy takes on the case, only to be blindsided when his son, Jacob is accused of the murder. Landay has an uncanny ability to elicit empathy for Andy and his family. The Barbers could easily be people we know. They could be our neighbors. They could be us.

 

Defending Jacob is not Landay’s first book but it is his first major blockbuster title, landing on many bestseller lists. Landay’s other titles include The Strangler and Mission Flats, which won the Dagger Award for best debut crime novel. Before trying his hand at writing novels, Landay was a district attorney. His legal experience shows in Defending Jacob. He portrays legal maneuvers and courtroom scenes like only an insider could.

 

Beyond its strength as a legal thriller, Defending Jacob is also a deeply touching portrait of parenting, married life and unconditional love. Landay forces us to consider how we might react if we were faced the truly unspeakable. Try the audiobook version, a truly excellent narration performed by Grover Gardner.

Zeke

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