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Between the Covers with Jill Morrow

Cover art for NewportJill Morrow’s Newport sends us to the glamorous and wealthy Newport, Rhode Island, of the glitzy 1920s inside a spectacular mansion filled with secrets. Adrian, a debonair lawyer and former resident, has returned to handle a will and encounters the secrets of the Chapman family while dealing with his own murky history. With elements of mystery and dark humor and a cast of distinctly drawn characters, Newport succeeds in bringing the 1920s to life in a finely wrought setting. The New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams noted, “A delicious plunge into the gilded lives and mansions of another era, Newport sends you swimming through an intricate mystery involving money, tragedy, bittersweet love affairs, and voices from beyond, until you arrive at the whirlwind ending. It’s everything you need for literary escape: a ripping good read.”

Local author Jill Morrow has worked in various fields, including practicing law and singing with local bands. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Towson University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Baltimore School of Law. Meet Jill at The Ivy Bookshop on July 8 at 7 p.m. and get to know her there as she answers questions about her novel, writing and Baltimore of course!

 

BTC: What inspired you to tell a story set in the upper echelons of 1920s Newport society?

Jill Morrow: I wanted to set this story in an era where individuals were particularly vulnerable to the lure of séances and the supernatural. 1921 fit that bill. Following the end of World War I and the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, people were desperate to contact their lost loved ones, and spiritualism experienced a surge in popularity that cut across social class.

Newport appealed to me as a setting because it really had everything needed to enhance this story. There was the beauty of the ocean, the danger of the rocks, the magnificent mansions …and an iconic social class which several characters in the novel longed to join. 

 

BTC: Adrian is at the heart of the story and is a fully developed character who the reader empathizes with immediately. Was it difficult getting inside the head of a man to present an honest portrayal of his emotions and Jill Morrowdevelopment?

JM: Adrian arrived with a story to tell. He was, in fact, the first character in Newport to introduce himself to me. His story unfolded slowly, so I never quite knew where it was going. I was so immersed in each layer revealed along the way that it never struck me that I was writing from a man’s perspective. To me, it was just Adrian’s story, and I wanted to get it right.

 

BTC: How long did the novel take you to complete? Describe your writing process. Do you write every day? Where? Who do you use as a sounding board?  Are there any must-have beverages or snacks to keep you motivated?

JM: My writing process now is very different than it was when I wrote Newport. With Newport, I had yet to give myself permission to treat writing as much more than a hobby, which meant that a manuscript that would probably have taken about a year-and-a-half to write stretched into three years. Life is different now. I write nearly every weekday, although that doesn’t mean I’m always working on my current manuscript. In general, I prefer to write in the mornings, and I like to leave myself notes to help jumpstart my next writing session. I have a great office at home, but if I’m really stuck, I take myself and a legal pad away from home distractions and walk to a coffee shop. (There should be a seat with my name on it at both Towson Hot Bagel and Panera.) I’m a great believer in long walks, too. They help me think.

I was fortunate with Newport: I had talented critique-group members to use as sounding boards.

I’m a coffee person throughout the morning, but I can’t even open the door to snacks, because I am a chocolate person all of the time!

 

BTC: You really bring the Newport of the 1920s to life. How involved was your research for the novel?

JM: I research quite a bit, because I want to get not only the facts of a historical story right, but the texture of the time as well. I usually start by researching the bigger picture. What was the state of the world? Who were the world leaders? What new discoveries or products had just hit the market? How did people spend their leisure time? I research just about everything you can think of, from ground-breaking world events to which toothpaste my characters would use.

I like to research. My problem is knowing when to stop researching and start writing – a misleading statement, since I usually find myself researching each new aspect that reveals itself in a manuscript, which makes research an ongoing process throughout the writing of the story.

I should add, though, that no matter how hard I try to be accurate, no matter how often I triple-check my facts, there is always the chance that something incorrect will slip into the story. I cringe in anticipation of that.

 

BTC: I enjoyed the essays at the end of the book describing the American Spiritualist movement and The Four Hundred. Séances are important to Bennett Chapman. Why was including the spirit world necessary in the telling of this story?

JM: Newport had its roots in an incident I read about years ago. It took place in the late 1860s and involved Victoria Woodhull (who later became the first woman to run for president) and her sister, Tennessee Claflin. These two were the daughters of a con man and a fanatic spiritualist, and it would take more than a brief paragraph to do justice to their vivid lives. In 1870, Victoria and “Tennie” became the first women to open a stock brokerage firm in New York City. They were a success, but whether or not native acumen played into that was open to debate since they were backed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the country. They’d caught Cornelius’ ear at just the right time: He was a superstitious man, still mourning the loss of his beloved first wife, so the sisters began hosting séances for him to “help ease his pain.” Naturally, this arrangement proved fortuitous for all parties involved. The sisters got financial backing, while Cornelius’ broken heart was soothed not only by the séances, but by Tennie, with whom he had an affair. That story started me thinking. At what point do people who grieve become so desperate that they will believe anything? Does anything other than greed motivate the medium? What if the medium is legit, and the messages delivered from “beyond” are real? So, from the very start, the spirit world was in Newport’s DNA. But aside from the obvious plot points, there were subtle benefits to using the supernatural that I didn’t pick up myself until the book was well underway. The spirit world leveled the playing field between classes. In his desperation to hear from his late wife, Bennett Chapman allowed himself to view Catharine and Amy in ways he never would have done otherwise. And all of the characters became vulnerable where “Mrs. Chapman” was concerned, regardless of their class, backgrounds or the secrets they wanted to keep.  

 

BTC: What authors, books or ideas have influenced you? What are you reading now? Is historical fiction a favorite genre? Do you have any favorite historical fiction authors?

JM: I have always enjoyed historical fiction. I’m not sure I could point to any particular authors who have influenced me, but I tend to be drawn to novels where the history doesn’t hijack the story, but instead infuses characters and plots with a sense of time and place. 

I just finished The Other Side of Midnight by Simone St. James and am looking forward to catching up on her other titles. I enjoy Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig, and am eager to read each of their new summer titles (Tiny Little Thing and The Other Daughter).

I’m currently reading a nonfiction book called Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies.

I like looking at my nightstand and seeing a nice stack of books waiting for me. Right now that stack includes Murder at the Brightwell (Ashley Weaver) and Dark Road to Darjeeling (Deanna Raybourn).

 

BTC: You’ve had a varied career, including working as a lawyer. How did law school and your legal career influence your writing?

JM: My three years of law school were probably my least productive creative-writing years ever. Too many facts jangling in my brain, too much “real life” going on (During those years I also sang in a band, got married and had a baby.) But each life experience has value, not only adding information to my personal databank, but allowing me to understand different approaches and varied patterns of thought. For a writer, that’s invaluable, because it gives me a whole range of choices for fleshing out my characters and their lives.

 

BTC: What’s the best part about living in Baltimore? I know you sang in local bands. Is that something you still do? Do you enjoy the Baltimore music scene?

JM: Baltimore’s history is rich, varied, and not always pretty, and I’m always fascinated by the way those roots have formed the city’s modern-day personality. I’m also amazed by the fact that no matter where you go in this city, you’re likely to run into somebody you know.

I enjoyed the years I spent singing in bands – can I send a shout-out to Fortune and Mariah here? I left band work to perform in musicals, so it’s really been quite some time since I’ve been involved in the Baltimore music scene. I am woefully out of touch!

 

BTC: What can readers expect next?

JM: The novel I’m currently working on is tentatively titled The Road to You and is set in Hollywood during the years 1930-1934. 

Maureen

 
 

Awards Aplenty

Awards Aplenty

posted by:
July 1, 2015 - 7:00am

Thief of GloryCover of Ancillary SwordThe Christy Awards were awarded Monday, June 29 at a banquet in Orlando, Florida, with Sigmund Brouwer and Thief of Glory walking away with both "Book of the Year" and "Historical Romance of the Year". The Christy Awards honor and promote excellence in Christian fiction. Awards are given in several genres, including contemporary and suspense. Other winners included Mary Weber’s Storm Siren for "Young Adult" and Feast for Thieves by Marcus Brotherton which picked up the award for "First Novel". The Christy Awards are named in honor of iconic novelist Catherine Marshall’s Christy. A complete list of winners can be found on the Christy Award website.

 

Last weekend, the Locus Award winners were announced in Seattle, Washington, at a banquet emceed by Connie Willis. The Locus Awards are presented to winners of the science fiction and fantasy magazine Locus' annual readers poll. Winner of the "Science Fiction Novel of the Year" went to Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie while the "Fantasy Award" winner was The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. Like the Christys, Locus Awards are also given to best debut and best young adult. Best First Novel was The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert and Young Adult was awarded to Half a King by Joe Abercrombie. For other winners, check out the complete list.

Maureen

 
 

I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son

Cover art for I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid SonKent Russell is a 29-year-old dude and writer of articles and essays featured in prominent journals like n+1, Harper’s Magazine and GQ. His debut collection I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son unites his recent works under the banner of American masculinity. Russell profiles eclectic men who are pioneers and preservers of the notions of manliness, and also his father, a bygone beacon of swagger in the traditional sense of the word.

 

Towards the beginning of his collection, Russell remarks "I have come to fetishize opaque brutes. Adventurers, gunfighters, all the dumb rollicking killers. Dudes for whom torment and doubt are inconceivable (or at least incommunicable)." From there, he chronicles his friend’s desperate enlistment and subsequent deployment to Afghanistan; a man’s obsession with the world’s deadliest snake venoms and his agonizing process of self-immunization; a retired minor-league hockey player’s struggle to remain relevant as a ritualistic fighter on the ice; and a man’s willing exile from the first world despite an innate unwillingness to break his dependency on socialization. Woven between these essays are highly personal conversations between Russell and his father — ties of cohesion that bind the collection of essays into a book.

 

Feeling the burdens of expectation and vicarious pride, Kent Russell does what many slightly aimless, highly gifted intellectuals do: he curls further into himself. The essays in I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son are glimpses of what he sees inside while recoiling from his tirading father, or from a Black Mamba nipping at his shin, or from a bag of trash flung at him by a roving band of overweight juveniles clad in black-and-white clown makeup. Kent Russell is the brother of Karen Russell, author of the novel Swamplandia! and short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove.

Tom

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Novels That Thrill and Unsettle

Novels That Thrill and Unsettle

posted by:
June 26, 2015 - 12:00pm

Seveneves by Neal StephensonThe Water Knife by Paolo BacigalupiA Head Full of Ghosts by Paul TremblayWhat makes for a suspenseful, page-turning thriller? The kind of book that you can’t put down is often the book that can’t put you down, either — it pulls you in and shows up in your waking life as well as your dreams. Science fiction master Neal Stephenson is back with the highly anticipated Seveneves, this time speculating about the end of the world as we know it, and the cannily imagined rebuilding of our entire society. All good novels should hook the reader in its opening pages; Seveneves grabs you by the throat with its first sentence. “The Moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” Once the dust clears, it’s apparent that what’s left is “seven giant rocks where the Moon ought to have been.” This inciting action propels the novel forward, as politicians and scientists worldwide must ensure the survival of mankind. Not content to explore the immediate impact of such a catastrophic event, Stephenson then looks forward 5,000 years into the future to show how things have turned out. Need another tantalizing reason to pick up one of this summer’s most thrilling reads? The title refers not to the number of pieces of the former Moon, but to the lone seven women who must repopulate the human race. A smartly written, witty and intelligent epic that will make you think as much as it entertains, Seveneves deserves an audience beyond that of dedicated science fiction readers.

 

In The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi has seen the apocalyptic near-future of the American Southwest, and it is dry as bone. Fast-paced and as violent as any traditional crime story, the novel doesn’t need to go far to imagine what might happen if water were more precious than fossil fuels. Baciagalupi tells his story from the points of view of three diverse characters whose paths intersect. Angel Velasquez is the titular “water knife,” a gang-tattooed enforcer who ensures water rights for the Southern Nevada Water Authority at all costs. Prize-winning journalist Lucy Monroe chronicles the collapse of Phoenix, as the city is hit by relentless storms of dust and sand, and Maria Villarosa is a young Texas migrant (militias keep the desperate from crossing state borders) with dreams of moving north to greener, less harsh climes. Action packed and dialog-driven, this sci-fi tinged noir thriller of water politics, greed, corruption and survival is difficult to put down.

 

Readers looking for a more traditional horror tale should spend time with the Barrett family of Beverly, Massachusetts, in Paul Tremblay’s literary psychological thriller A Head Full of Ghosts. As the book begins, 20-something Merry has returned to the family’s former home, now dilapidated and up for sale, to meet with an author who is interested in her story. It all began when Merry was 8 years old and her sister Marjorie was entering her teens. Marjorie began acting strangely, scaring her sister with threats and terrifying stories. Her behavior became increasingly threatening and even supernatural, leading their stressed and unemployed father to consult with a Catholic priest. Are Marjorie’s issues related to her mental health, or could she have been taken over by a demon, a la The Exorcist? In a modern day twist, the family allows the whole thing to play out as a reality television show, The Possession, as a way to pay the mortgage. Tremblay writes with insight and humor, building suspense and tension through a story told by present-day Merry, 8-year-old Merry and a snarky blogger deconstructing The Possession 15 years later. Could Marjorie have been faking the whole thing?

Paula G.

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Uprooted

Uprooted

posted by:
June 26, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for UprootedAward-winning and New York Times bestselling author, Naomi Novik has a newly released Sci-Fi novel titled Uprooted. Novik was raised hearing Polish fairy tales and her latest work draws on that background. This historical fantasy has magic, monarchy and myth tied into every drama-filled page.

 

The Wood is a darkly magical and terrifying forest where even the water and pollen is caustic. Dreadful creatures emerge from the Wood to attack people from nearby villages. In one of these villages, our tale begins with Agnieska, the unremarkable daughter of a wood cutter. Her small village is ruled and protected by a wizard referred to as Dragon.

 

Every 10 years, Dragon comes to claim a 17-year-old girl that he takes with him back to his inescapable tower. The whole village is certain that Dragon will select Kasia, Agnieska’s best friend, who is exemplary in every way. Everyone is shocked when Agnieska is the one swept away to Dragon’s tower, where Agnieska learns that she is far less ordinary than she once thought herself to be.

 

Novik artfully designs a fairy tale for adults in this coming-of-age fantasy. Fans of Bridget Zinn’s Poison are sure to enjoy the historical fantasy and strong female characters of Uprooted.

 

Randalee

 
 

The Turner House

The Turner House

posted by:
June 25, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Turner HouseDetroit: in its heyday, it was the bustling host to Motown and the "Big Three" auto manufacturers. The city also served as a mecca for African Americans escaping Jim Crow and taking advantage of the jobs available in its thriving economy. Set in Detroit, Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, tells the story of husband and wife Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children while exploring their ties to their family home in Detroit.

 

Oldest sibling Cha-Cha is the Turner family patriarch by default. At 62 years old, he is both accustomed to and tired of assuming the role of leader to his younger siblings. With his father’s passing and his mother’s deteriorating health, the family’s house on Yarrow Street, once an emblem of success in Black America, is vacant and crumbling and saddled with a mortgage 10 times the home’s current value. While the Turner children jockey with their differing views of what to do with the debt-ridden property, Cha-Cha is engaging in a mid-life retrospective, evaluating his relationships with his parents, his wife and his siblings. The narrative revealing how Francis and Viola each made their way to Michigan from rural Arkansas is especially poignant. Flournoy’s writing is gentle, pointed and witty as she explores if blood ties, shared memories or something else entirely creates family bonds. Fans of Anne Tyler or J. California Cooper will lose themselves in the thoughtful story of The Turner House.

 

Lori

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A God in Ruins

A God in Ruins

posted by:
June 24, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for A God in RuinsKate Atkinson’s powerhouse novel Life After Life garnered impressive reviews in 2013, landing it on many "Best Of" lists for that year. Now she delves back into the lives of the Todd family in her soaring new novel, A God in Ruins.

 

Where Life After Life focused on the time-bending reimagining of the life of Ursula Todd, A God in Ruins’ lead character is her brother Teddy. We see Teddy come of age and go off to war, but this isn’t just a war novel. We are treated to every aspect of Teddy’s life: his marriage to girl-next-door Nancy, raising his daughter Viola and even his interactions with his grandchildren. His multiple triumphs and disappointments make it easy to root for his happiness.

 

The story isn’t chronological — rather it is told back-and-forth between different points of Teddy’s life, leaving the reader to make connections and judgements about events, waiting to see if those predictions are realized. Thanks to the richly developed characters and winning style, the novel is an engaging read. It is a wistful letter to the Todd family, and overall, to what it means to be a part of a family and part of our collective humanity.

 

Atkinson has said that she doesn’t view this novel as a sequel, rather as a companion piece to her previous bestseller. Those who enjoyed Life After Life will be glad to dive into A God in Ruins to catch up with the characters they loved. Both of these novels are also an excellent fit for those who have just finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and are looking for a similar great read.

Jessica

 
 

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park

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

Cover art for Jurassic ParkThe theatrical release of Jurassic World brings a chance to go back 65 million years to a bygone age when dinosaurs walked the earth. Ever since Sir Richard Owen discovered the first dinosaur in 1828, humans have wondered what it would be like to live alongside these ancient creatures. As science became more widespread, the scenarios that made this possible became more and more far-fetched, from cavemen to entire worlds at the center of the planet. That all changed 25 years ago when Michael Crichton gave us Jurassic Park, backing dinosaur fantasies with hard science and showing us what living with dinosaurs would really be like — terrifying! The book went on to spawn one of the definitive movies of the ’90s, a thriller with unforgettable and horrifying monsters. Almost all of the science was dropped in favor of one of the great Jeff Goldblum roles. Three more sequels were released in the theaters, and one more in book form. So Jurassic Park was huge, but how was it as a book?

 

Every book shifts drastically from page to screen, and Jurassic Park more than most. The book was a morality play on the dangers of unexamined science and karmic retribution, with dinosaurs used as metaphor, the sugar to help the medicine go down.. Characters who expressed scientific views Crichton didn't like were eaten by dinosaurs in very messy ways. A quarter of a century on, many of those views have become outdated. At the time, the warm-blooded vs. cold-blooded debate was barely common knowledge, and the idea that many dinosaurs would have feathers was barely crossing paleontologist desks, much less the public consciousness.

 

Fortunately, the book has dinosaurs, and it has dinosaurs in far greater quantities than any of the movies. In a movie, a Tyrannosaurus Rex costs millions of dollars. In literature, a Tyrannosaurus Rex costs 16 letters. The result is dozens more dinosaur encounters in a wider range of species. Jurassic Park is the definitive adult dinosaur novel.

 

Matt

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The Daughter

The Daughter

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

Cover art for The DaughterJane Shemilt has created a taut psychological thriller that explores the deepest desperation of a heartbroken mother in The Daughter. Jenny has a better-than-average life. She’s a general practitioner, wife and mother of 17-year-old twin sons and a 15-year-old-daughter. Her husband is a neurosurgeon whose star seems to be on the ascendancy. Her children are on the university track, her sons play sports and her daughter has landed the lead in the school play. Every peg is in its place, every role is in its compartment — until Jenny’s daughter Naomi goes to school and doesn’t come home.  

 

This gripping chronicle of a crumbling family alternates between the time of the disappearance and one year after. Jenny is filled with self-recrimination, endless uncertainty and fear. As the events in the wake of the disappearance unfold in flashbacks, we are introduced to a mother who refuses to passively accept what her family, friends and the police tell her. Through the tumult of her emotions she sifts through every piece of potential evidence and every possible witness she can unearth. Was it a crime of opportunity, or was someone seeking revenge? If so, was it personal or professional? Did Naomi leave of her own free will, or was she taken? As Jenny delves ever deeper into her own actions and those of her family, she will discover tragic truths and an unimaginable outcome. The perfect image she had of her family never truly existed.

 

First-time author Shemilt is also a full-time physician. The Daughter was shortlisted for the Janklow and Nesbit award and the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. Fans of Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret and Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will appreciate this journey to self-revelation.  

 

Leanne

 
 

Saint Anything

Saint Anything

posted by:
June 19, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Saint AnythingPerennial teen favorite Sarah Dessen’s latest novel, Saint Anything, is sure to capture the hearts of readers. Sydney has grown up in the shadow of her older brother Peyton, who has always been more popular and attractive — not to mention her parents’ favorite. Now she’s in his shadow for a completely different reason, as he’s just been sentenced to jail time for paralyzing a young boy during a drunk driving accident. As Peyton heads off to jail, Sydney’s family reels in the aftermath.

 

Sydney feels an immense amount of guilt because neither her parents nor Peyton seem to care about the boy he hurt. This is one of the things that pushes her to transfer from her elite private school to a large public school where no one will know her or her brother. What she doesn’t expect is to find a friend in Layla and her loud, boisterous, fun family. Layla’s family owns Seaside Pizza, where she and Sydney spend time after school, eating pizza and lollipops. Sydney also finds herself intrigued by Layla’s older brother Mac. Layla and her family make Sydney feel like she’s no longer in her brother’s shadow.

 

Saint Anything is a wonderful addition to Dessen’s novels. Longtime fans will count Sydney among their favorite heroines, while those new to Dessen will enjoy the well-drawn characters. Dessen is frequently called a romance writer, but her novels are much more than romance. While Saint Anything does have romance, it's also about family, forgiveness and finding oneself.

 

Laura