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The Last Days of Night

posted by: October 3, 2016 - 12:00pm

Cover art for The Last Days of NightAs far as patent disputes go, this was a doozy. Graham Moore’s excellent new historical legal thriller, The Last Days of Night, plops us right into the hotbed of technological innovation that was in situ in late 19th century America. Readers are rewarded with the wonders of invention, dubious plots, a smidgen of romance and a peek into the wiring of the greatest minds of the day set amid Gilded Age New York.

 

So who really invented the light bulb? Neophyte attorney Paul Cravath finds himself embroiled in the legal wrangling between the inventor Thomas Edison and industrialist George Westinghouse. Cravath is hired to defend Westinghouse against a patent lawsuit filed by Edison. Edison says he holds the right to electrify a country still aglow with gas lamps. There is also the dilemma of alternating current (Westinghouse) versus direct current (Edison), with the winner transforming the world. Cravath is over his head and knows it in this highly readable retelling of the War of the Electric Currents that actually took place between 1888 and 1896.

 

Moore, author of The Sherlockian and the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game, actually recreates the time period from 1888 to 1890. Along the way, we are introduced to familiar names, like J.P. Morgan, Alexander Bell and Viktor Tesla, as well as the birth and controversy of the modern electric chair. Cravath’s love interest, the singer Agnes Huntington, develops into a surprising multi-hued personality that adds the merest trifle of melodrama.

 
With a calibrated dose of legal and technical jargon, Moore’s fast-moving narrative is certain to carry broad appeal for readers wanting to get inside the heads of brilliant and visionary giants. For those wanting the real story, try the excellent Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, George Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World by historian Jill Jonnes. A film adaption of The Last Days of Night is also in the works, starring actor Eddie Redmayne as Paul Cravath.


 
 

The Humorless Ladies of Border Control

posted by: September 29, 2016 - 12:00pm

Cover art for The Humorless Ladies of Border ControlYou don’t have to delve particularly deeply into musician Franz Nicolay’s solo discography before you start to notice a couple of trends. First, Nicolay likes telling stories, and he’s good at telling them. Second, he has a deep and abiding passion for words. The lyrics of the eponymous track of 2012’s “Do the Struggle” (one of the songs that he references early in The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar) reads more like a Kerouacian beat poem than a folk-punk song. By the same token, the finished product of The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar can hardly be described as predictable.

 

More of a travel memoir than anything else, Nicolay takes great pains to avoid talking about his own music in the book, even going so far as to proclaim early on: “I’ll describe [the shows] once, then you can mentally copy and paste this into the hole I gloss over toward the end of each day.” Instead, he delivers exactly what the title of the book promises, a tour of the punk underground. There’s so little narcissism in this book that it could have just as easily been written by one of the oft-referenced communist revolutionaries rather than a Brooklyn-based songwriter. Throughout the book, Nicolay’s focus is squarely on the countryside, the cities and the people of Eastern Europe. Just as often as he references himself, he also shares the spotlight with his travelling companions and famous authors — from his ethnomusicologist/wife Maria to Dostoyevsky to the Marquis de Custine, a 19th-century French aristocrat who seems particularly close to Nicolay’s heart.

 

But amidst the (surprising) conversations with young Russian and Ukrainian punks about underground American punk bands like RVIVR or Bridge and Tunnel, and the monotonous nightly shows in unfinished basements, Nicolay and his wife find themselves passing back through Ukraine only months after Vladimir Putin’s invasion and occupation. What follows are not only some of the most touching first-hand accounts of the effects the occupation had on the people of Ukraine, but also some incredibly moving moments of self-discovery for Nicolay himself. This book doesn’t so much progress slowly as it takes its time getting to its destination, and the reader is never left wishing Nicolay would pick up the pace; he’s too good of a storyteller for that. Like his music, The Humorless Ladies of Border Control ultimately draws its strength from Nicolay’s words and rhythm. Even standing on their own merits, the facts of his adventure are almost as epic and expansive as the appendices in the back of the book. As far as travelogues go, I’ve never read better. Nicolay’s music can be found here, RVIVR and Bridge and Tunnel here and here.


 
 

The Leaving

posted by: September 28, 2016 - 12:00pm

Cover art for The LeavingOn the front cover of The Leaving by Tara Altebrando, a quote from a bestselling author is highlighted: “You will not sleep, check your phone, or even breathe once you begin reading…” Skeptical at first, I felt those were pretty high standards to be placed directly in clear view of the reader. However, after finishing the book in less than five hours, I can say with confidence that this one that will have you hooked from the first page.

 

A tragedy occurs in a Florida beach community, and the town never fully recovers. Six kindergarten children go missing and, 11 years later, five return with no memory of where they have been. Now 16 years of age, mystery surrounds the return of the teens, and many in town question the motives behind this “miracle.”

 

Altebrando takes the readers into a kaleidoscope of interpreting memory loss through visual cues and a creative use of text. Different points of view guide us through the agonizing process of recovering memories. The words come to life and will take the reader into the minds of the main characters. As the story unfolds, you realize that the town is connected in more ways than you imagined, and that many questions are unanswered.

 

In the end, what stands out the most are the who and why, which will be gnawing at you throughout the story. If you are looking for a fast-paced teen fiction that will constantly have you on edge, go straight to the BCPL catalog and request this today. The only regret I have after reading this book is that it doesn’t have a sequel.

 


 
 

Stiletto

posted by: September 27, 2016 - 12:00pm

Cover art for StilettoSpies. Monsters. Super powers. And…bureaucratic humor? In Stiletto, Daniel O’Malley delivers a riveting novel that covers all of the above and more. A follow up to his smash hit The Rook, this novel delves deeper into the world of the Rookery, a covert agency in the English government that employs individuals with unusual abilities to protect their country from threats internal and external.

 

In this book, the Rookery is looking to make nice with an age old foe. But how do you join two groups, when both have been raised since time immemorial to despise the other? Old wounds are re-opened and loyalties are tested when these organizations are forced to confront very real threats to themselves, their colleagues and to England itself.

 

While modern fantasy/espionage/horror/office humor is a pretty niche sub-genre, Daniel O’Malley does a great job of making this book accessible to all audiences. Funny and insightful one moment, terrifying and tense the next, O’Malley seamlessly blends genres to keep the reader engaged from start to finish. He also does a great job of mining his premise for unexpected humor — at one point they discuss how a Gorgon was driven from England not by an armed assault, but by a series of increasingly withering tax audits.

 

A great read for fans of urban fantasy, this book has humor, heart and a few good scares in store for its readers. If you enjoy this book, you could also check out The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, another series about English spies defending crown and country from the supernatural while dealing with bureaucratic red tape. Urban fantasy fans might also enjoy Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files; the first book in that series is Storm Front. It follows a modern day private investigator who also happens to be a wizard, mixing dry humor with thrilling action and some terrifying moments.

 


 
 

The Tao of Bill Murray

posted by: September 26, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Tao of Bill MurrayLet’s be honest, you don’t need to know anything other than the title to decide if you want to read The Tao of Bill Murray: Real-Life Stories of Joy, Enlightenment and Party Crashing by Gavin Edwards.

 

Murray is, of course, the comedian who starred in such classics as Ghostbusters and Caddyshack, and later in critically acclaimed roles in Lost in Translation and Olive Kitteridge. If you’re even the most casual Bill Murray fan, you’ve probably heard a Bill Murray story. Someone sneaks up behind you on the street and covers your eyes…you turn around, and it’s Bill Murray. Or Bill Murray steals your sunglasses at a winery, or shows up at your party and washes the dishes before disappearing into the night. Basically, Bill Murray shows up randomly, does something random and often ends the encounter by whispering in your ear, “No one will ever believe you.”

 

This book collects these Bill Murray stories, from strangers, from acquaintances, from Bill Murray himself. The first section is a brief history of his upbringing, passions and start in the film business. Next, in “The Ten Principles of Bill,” amusing Bill Murray anecdotes are divided into sections according to which life principle they illustrate (“Invite yourself to the party.” “Surprise is golden. Randomness is lobster.”). Finally, the “Films of Bill Murray” is a chronological listing of his films and, of course, another opportunity to provide more fun stories.

 

Some of the anecdotes come with an implied “Don’t Try This at Home” warning. We can all strive to be more fun-loving like Bill Murray…but we can never BE Bill Murray. Sure, some of the antics would be amusing no matter who was behind them. Others — like hitting a stranger with a snowball, or walking into a stranger’s house and sitting down to breakfast — would be decidedly less charming if you are not an international film star.

 

Though this is a lighthearted read, Edwards also retells stories that paint Murray as impetuous, chronically late and difficult to work with. It’s a good reminder that even an epic folk hero like Bill Murray has his imperfections.


 
 

Siracusa

posted by: September 22, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for SiracusaDelia Ephron is best-known for her humorous writing and for lighthearted screenplays like You’ve Got Mail and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But her latest novel, Siracusa, displays a decidedly more cynical view of relationships.

 

Siracusa begins with Lizzie, who thinks a vacation in Italy is just what she and her husband David need to revive their flagging writing careers and their dwindling passion for one another. They’re joined on the trip by another couple — Finn, Lizzie’s fun-loving old flame from college, and his uptight wife Taylor. Dragged along for the fun is Snow, Finn and Taylor’s sullen preteen daughter. If bringing an old boyfriend and his family along for a vacation sounds like a bad idea to you, you’d be right. In fact, few vacation disasters can rival the nightmarish results when this group makes its way to the ancient island of Siracusa.

 

Each main character takes a turn recounting the trip’s gradual descent into tragedy.  Without exception, all of them are breathtakingly self-involved or delusional (or both). Thus none of them can see what the reader sees — the huge disaster heading straight for them.

 

Like The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, Siracusa presents readers with difficult to like protagonists who never tell the whole truth. The crumbling city of Siracusa provides an excellent symbolic backdrop for Ephron’s well-written blend of dark domestic drama and deadly suspense.


 
 

Modern Lovers

posted by: September 21, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Modern LoversEmma Straub has a certain knack for writing. Her latest novel, Modern Lovers, doesn’t disappoint. It is fun and engrossing while also offering hefty portions of wit and insight.

 

Two families living side by side in New York City’s Ditmas Park are spending the summer sorting out their tangled relationships. For Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe, it hardly seems like two decades since they graduated from Oberlin — letting go their rock star aspirations and announcing the end of their band. Now, however, movie producers want to make a biopic about the fourth member of their band who went on to become an icon of their era before joining the 27 Club. The movie can’t be made unless the remaining members sign off on the rights to their lives and the use of a song Elizabeth wrote, which made Lydia a superstar. The prospect has unearthed a lot of buried secrets and strained relationships.

 

Zoe and Elizabeth have remained best friends. Elizabeth followed Zoe to New York, and when Elizabeth married Andrew, they moved next door to Zoe. The best friends’ kids have even grown up together. Now, however, Zoe’s wife wonders if Elizabeth being so close wasn’t really her just being in the way. Elizabeth no longer knows if it was wise to marry someone she met when she was so young, and Andrew is acting bizarre. To complicate things further, their kids are caught up in a summer romance of their own.

 

Straub has imagined a wonderful cast of characters. Though she isn’t shy about showing off their flaws, it is hard not to end up liking them, warts and all, and become totally swept up in their lives. I couldn’t put down this story about love and friendship in our modern age.

 

Fans will also enjoy her previous book, The Vacationers, and One Day by David Nicholls.


 
 

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