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A Hammer and a Nail

A Hammer and a Nail

posted by:
March 13, 2013 - 8:05am

Building Our HouseWhile most picture books tell a story, few cover the expanse of time of Building Our House, written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean. Based on Bean’s own childhood experiences, the book details, step-by-step, the process his family embarked upon to build their home in the countryside. There are no shortcuts here – this is not a book about moving where boxes are suddenly unpacked and the finished home unveiled in a final two-page spread. Instead, the toil and trouble of moving and living in a temporary shelter is detailed. Similarly, the arduous progression of leveling the earth, creating a foundation, constructing a framework, and finishing the outside of the structure are all included. It is all worth it, of course, and the helping hands described bring a smile to the reader.

 

This is a joyful, fast-paced book, celebrating immediate and external family and the community at large. The subtle passing and order of the seasons is an added learning benefit for readers. The excitement of the large machinery, warm feelings of being able to pitch in (even as a small boy) and the sense of accomplishment at the finished product, is all palpable. An author’s note at the end describes his memories of the eighteen-month process. It also outlines how he received recollection assistance from his family and their photos of the worksite as it went from empty site to the family’s new home. Construction-, tool-, and machinery-loving kids will enjoy Building Our House, and demand many rereads as they find additional objects and activities in each illustration.

Todd

 
 

A New Beginning for Old Friends

The Boxcar Children BeginningFor over seven decades, generations of young readers have delighted in the stories of Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny, known collectively as The Boxcar Children. But before four orphans found their way from an abandoned boxcar to a new life with their loving grandfather, they had another life and adventures yet untold. In The Boxcar Children Beginning: The Aldens of Meadow Fair Farm, Newbery Medal-winning author Patricia MacLachlan offers a new beginning to a classic series.

 

The Alden family of Meadow Fair Farm is not wealthy, but they have always managed. What they lack in economy they balance with the support of strong family ties and good humor. Readers will be charmed by the gentle tone and tranquil setting of the farm life and the new friends encountered as the Alden children enjoy their last season at home before embarking on a more challenging journey. MacLachlan possesses an uncanny gift for mirroring the voice of Gertrude Chandler Warner. Her narration and characterizations strongly reflect the simple, straightforward and unassuming style of the original. Those who have read any of the nineteen volumes of The Boxcar Children will be struck by the similarity of style between the two authors.

 

Her ability to engage young readers without overwhelming them is particularly evident in this story. The Boxcar Children Beginning prequel serves as a wonderful introduction to the rich and bountiful series, while neatly avoiding the hazard of saddening young readers when it comes to the reason for their leaving the farm. The transition from life on the farm to life in the boxcar is made all the smoother by MacLachlan’s inclusion of a continuation teaser, borrowed from the original first volume. This prequel is recommended both for younger readers who have yet to enjoy the beloved series, and for current fans curious about the children’s life before the boxcar.

Meghan

 
 

A Tangled Web

A Tangled Web

posted by:
March 12, 2013 - 8:05am

PeanutChanging schools can be a stressful experience, especially when you are in high school. There are so many things to navigate—teachers, classes, building, and students—not to mention the social cliques. New sophomore Sadie Wildhack welcomes the chance to reinvent herself, and maybe this time be a part of the popular crowd in Ayun Halliday’s graphic novel Peanut, illustrated by Paul Hoppe.

 

Somehow Sadie has decided that having a peanut allergy will give her special attention, and increased social status. She orders a medic alert bracelet online, and writes her required introductory essay on the perils of having a life-threatening condition. Sure enough, Sadie’s “peanut allergy” is enough of an icebreaker to earn her some new friends, a spot at a lunchroom table, and even a boyfriend. Christopher Suzuki, “Zoo”, christens her “Peanut”, writing her adorable, origami-folded notes since he avoids communicating through modern technology.

 

But faking a peanut allergy requires much more vigilance than Sadie bargained for, especially since her mom is not in on the ruse. Author Halliday has created a likable, angsty protagonist whom teens can readily identify with, even as they shake their heads at the problems her deception creates. And Zoo is the understanding, thoughtful, cute and attentive boyfriend girls wish they had. Halliday perfectly captures teen banter, as well as the dialogue of the adults that populate this graphic novel.  Paul Hoppe’s line illustrations evoke not only the nuances of the characters, but also the classrooms, cafeteria, and locker-lined hallways of a high school that could be any high school. Hoppe’s art is rendered in grayscale, with the notable exception of Sadie’s shirt (and a single rose provided by Zoo), always a bright red hue. Peanut is highly recommended for teen readers and adults who remember the struggle to both fit in and stand out.

Paula G.

 
 

Finishing School for Spies

Finishing School for Spies

posted by:
March 12, 2013 - 7:35am

Etiquette & EspionageSophronia Temminnick, the heroine of Gail Carriger’s new teen steampunk novel, Etiquette & Espionage, loves to climb trees, take machines apart, spy on her family, and worst of all has never learned a proper curtsy. Her mother believes that a stint in finishing school will transform Sophronia into a lady, so she sends her to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. However as Sophronia soon finds out, Mademoiselle Geraldine’s is not an average finishing school—students are taught how to dress, dance, and curtsy, but much more effort is given to the study of espionage.

 

Sophronia discovers that she was recruited secretly to the school because of her less than lady-like behavior. She quickly proves her merit during the journey to the academy, when she fights off a group of bandits trying to steal a mysterious prototype from the carriage. Upon arriving at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, Sophronia begins lessons in everything from intelligence gathering and fundamental espionage to dance and dress. While she enjoys the espionage classes most, she does come to recognize the importance of the more typical finishing school classes as well. She puts her new knowledge to the test almost immediately, as she and her new group of friends investigate what happened to the mysterious prototype that bandits tried to steal during her journey to school.

 

Gail Carriger’s witty novel is one that teens and adults alike are sure to enjoy. Etiquette & Espionage is a fun addition to Carriger’s other steampunk novels. Readers can look forward to more of Sophronia’s finishing school adventures in the sequel, Curtsies & Conspiracies, which is set to be released in the fall of this year.

Laura

 
 

Time, the Final Frontier

Time, the Final Frontier

posted by:
March 11, 2013 - 8:10am

Man in the Empty SuitIf you had the chance to change an event in your life, would you? What if that change meant uncertainty, loneliness, and possibly death? The time traveler in Sean Ferrell’s new novel, Man in the Empty Suit, becomes intimately acquainted with the chaotic, frightening, and liberating repercussions of seizing your destiny and altering your fate.

 

Ever since he discovered his ability, the time traveler has been jaunting along in time with no discernible mission other than exploring the ages for his own amusement. The only true continuity in his life comes from the party he attends each year on his birthday, where he mingles with all his other selves from other years. There is the Inventor, who first travels through time and initially sets up the party, the other Youngsters, who are younger than his current self, and the Elders, who are older and more knowing. He is surrounded by himself, and each year the party progresses in exactly the same way with each version playing the same role and saying the same lines as before to avoid breaking continuity with each other and altering the proscribed timeline. But the year he turns 39, events do not proceed as usual. Due to a single missed action, versions start ending up dead, memories the Elders have are disconnected from the current reality, and a mysterious woman named Lily appears at the party for the first time. It is the time traveler’s job to set things right, but will he choose to return events to their original path or to forge a new destiny for himself?

 

This gripping, surreal story is full of emotional tension and psychological drama. Fans of time travel fiction, science fiction, and Stephen King’s 11/22/63 will find this unusual and offbeat novel a compelling and thought-provoking read.

 

Rachael

 
 

Hair of the Dog

Hair of the Dog

posted by:
March 11, 2013 - 7:45am

The Good HouseAnn Leary introduces us to a delightful, if not slightly tragic, character in her novel The Good House. Hildy Good lives in a historic community on Boston’s North Shore, where she works as a rather successful independent real estate broker. She is the descendant of famed Massachusetts witch Sarah Good, and is often reputed to having psychic abilities.  Hildy vehemently denies this, however. The abilities she possesses lie only in her ability to read body language and facial cues, and she can often get her friends and relatives to reveal secrets best kept hidden.

  

But Hildy harbors her own secret. Recently, her daughters staged an intervention and forced her to confront her drinking. Hildy agrees to spend a month in Hazelden, if only to appease her children. But Hildy believes that drinking is hard liquor, and not the occasional bottle of wine. Hildy soon becomes adept at abstaining at social occasions, opting to secretly sip from the nectar while at home. All the while, Hildy is still working hard to sell properties and attract new clients. She becomes involved in the lives of some of the quirky residents of the town and soon secrets are revealed to her about their complicated lives. But it could be very worrisome to reveal your secrets to the town alcoholic. The Good House is an incredible novel told from Hildy’s point of view. She narrates her tale, and is a somewhat unreliable narrator because her perspective is often skewed by drink.  The audio version of the book is read by the talented actress Mary Beth Hurt, and she provides a striking voice for Hildy that makes the audio a joy to listen to. The Good House is a wonderful character study and will be enjoyed by individual readers and book groups alike.

 

Doug

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The Precious Ordinary

The Precious Ordinary

posted by:
March 8, 2013 - 8:01am

BenedictionArtist Grant Wood’s work evokes the essence of the Midwestern United States, especially as depicted in his iconic painting American Gothic. Wood’s equivalent in the literary world must surely be Kent Haruf, who conjures up the same quiet and steadfast spirit in his novels of small town living. In his newest book, Benediction, Haruf once again uses the fictional setting of rural Holt, Colorado.

 

Old “Dad” Lewis is dying. A fixture in Holt, he has owned the downtown hardware store since he was a young man, and has been married to Mary for just as long. Mary and Dad notify their middle-aged daughter Lorraine of her father’s terminal illness, and Lorraine returns to her childhood home to help and support her mother as they care for Dad in his final weeks. As Dad deteriorates, Lorraine and Mary must figure out a new footing for their own relationship as well as determine how Dad’s death will figure on their future. The descriptions of the matter-of-fact yet tender care Mary provides for Dad as he becomes increasingly incapacitated are a beautiful testament to the deep love between the couple.

 

Haruf has two themes running through Benediction. Not surprisingly, one involves Dad’s reflections on his past, with an emphasis on choices made by Dad in pivotal circumstances. Dad ruminates on wayward son Frank who broke contact with his parents years ago; the widow of a former hardware store employee discovered by Dad to be embezzling funds; and Dad’s own hardscrabble parents who never met their grandchildren. At the same time, Haruf highlights different kinds of love found in daily life, including platonic love between friends, erotic love stemming from passion, and unconditional love between man and God. As a disgraced preacher in the story explains, it is the ordinary life of good people which is most precious and Haruf illustrates this tenet perfectly with his spare prose.

Lori

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Writers Behaving Badly

Writers Behaving Badly

posted by:
March 7, 2013 - 8:01am

Literary RoguesWe often think that modern rock stars and actors have the market cornered when it comes to bad behavior, but the list of authors who achieved notoriety is long and distinguished. Andrew Shaffer reveals their stories in Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors. From the Marquis de Sade to James Frey, Shaffer brings us true stories of the vices, scandals, and exploits of well-known authors from Western literature.

 

At the height of his addiction, Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, took 8,000 drops (80 teaspoons worth!) of laudanum a day. Lord Byron was known to drink wine from his ancestors’ skulls to help ease his depression. He also had a love affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Although she began as a teetotaler, Dorothy Parker eventually became an alcoholic. She smoked three packs of Chesterfield cigarettes a day and used tuberose perfume to mask the smell of the scotch that she habitually drank. When she was warned that her behavior would send her to an early grave, Parker replied, “Promises, promises!” While entertaining friends, Joan Vollmer, common-law wife of William S. Burroughs, challenged him to prove his marksmanship by shooting a highball glass off the top of her head. Both were drunk. Burroughs obliged but missed, killing her instantly. In 1969, Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado, on the Freak Power Party ticket, a high-profile stunt that Thompson hoped would gain attention for his “freak power” message.

 

Shaffer brings us all of the outrageous details and salacious gossip in this compilation of the bad boys and bad girls of literature. Chapters are separated by literary period, and discuss the authors from that era. Readers will be struck by the interconnectedness of these great authors’ lives. Infused with Shaffer’s dark humor, Literary Rogues amuses, saddens, and sometimes shocks.

Beth

 
 

Connect the Dots

Connect the Dots

posted by:
March 6, 2013 - 9:05am

Navigating EarlyNewbery Medal winner Clare Vanderpool returns with a coming-of-age tale sprinkled with magic and adventure in Navigating Early, set at the end of World War II. Jack Baker’s mother has suddenly died, and his military dad uproots him from Kansas to an all-boys boarding school in Maine. While feeling like a fish out of the very water so prevalent on this campus, Jack does befriend Early Auden, an unusual boy who seems to have his run of the school. Early is an orphan whose brother was a superstar at the school but whom everyone (except Early) believes to have died in the war.

 

As the two get to know one another, it is clear that while Early may be quirky, even obsessive; he definitely has a gift for numbers. He sees colors in numbers and fashions a story about the number Pi. Early shares his story of Pi with Jack, and Jack agrees to accompany Early on his quest for his missing brother and a legendary great black bear along the Appalachian Trail. Early’s Pi story is filled with pirates, volcanoes, and extraordinary escapades. Oddly, the boys’ journey parallels Pi’s story, as they encounter similar characters and excitement along the Trail. The two travel by land and sea all while overcoming obstacles and learning more about other and themselves.  

 

As they complete this mission together and navigate dangerous paths, each realizes the power of his personal connections and that sometimes what you are looking for isn’t always what you find. Vanderpool masterfully weaves the story of the boys’ quest with the tale of Pi into a quickly moving narrative with beautiful language and mystical overtones. This stunning novel is homage to the power of stories, the importance of personal journeys, and the power of our individual constellations.

Maureen

 
 

It Only Takes a Spark

It Only Takes a Spark

posted by:
March 6, 2013 - 8:35am

The Golden RectangleThe Number DevilLight a fire under your young mathematician! In The Golden Rectangle, author Gillian Neimark tells the tale of a 10-year-old girl from Puddleville, Georgia, who wants to grow up to be a horse rustler (although she’s not sure exactly what that is). Unfortunately, her destiny may lie elsewhere. After finding a mysterious key in her secret hayloft hideout, Lucy Moon is visited by Square Man, a 4-inch, square–shaped wizard intent on removing all curved lines from the world. Square Man tries to convince Lucy that an evil wizard named Dr. Pi is trying to make spirals out of all of the rectangles in the world. Lucy is skeptical and uses what turns out to be her magic key to land in the closet of Flor Bernoulli, herself a magical 10-year-old in New York. The girls embark on a whimsical adventure as they try to prevent Square Man from “squaring” the earth. The story is light and fun while introducing the reader to the concept of the Golden Rectangle (a mathematical term referring to a rectangle with a specific ratio of dimensions which is considered to be the most aesthetically pleasing of all rectangles. It has some other nifty properties as well). This is a sequel to The Secret Spiral, by the same author.

 

The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, takes a more direct approach in teaching mathematical concepts. Robert, the main character, hates math. The Number Devil takes over his dreams to teach him mathematical concepts in his sleep, one concept a night for twelve nights. Using everyday language and very few technical terms, The Number Devil brings clarity to topics such as infinite numbers, prime numbers, and Fibonacci numbers. Using pictures, diagrams and clear examples, the Number Devil helps Robert understand the topics and shows shortcuts to quickly showcase the principles. Even readers with a mild case of arithmophobia will learn to appreciate math after reading these titles.

Diane

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