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Jessica Woods

At the small but mighty Lansdowne branch, you’ll find former high school English teacher turned part-time librarian Jessica presenting Story Time, teaching knitting, and reading all the Newbery and Black-Eyed Susan Award winners. An avid Orioles and Ravens fan, she lives with her Steelers fan husband and their two boisterous rescue dogs. She is more than happy to take your advice regarding her fantasy football team.

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Paris Red

Paris Red

posted by:
May 20, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Paris RedThe excitement of the art scene in 1860s Paris is the lush setting for Maureen Gibbon’s new novel Paris Red. When we meet 17-year-old Victorine, she is wearing bright green boots to set her apart from all the other women walking down the street. It is a fashion choice that pays off, as she gains the attention of a mysterious stranger.

 

The stranger reveals that he is an important artist, and he strikes up a flirtation with both Victorine and her roommate, Nise. Victorine feels compelled to choose between her best friend, who she feels as close to as a sister, and this charming artist. But once she models for the artist, she knows her future is secured. She becomes not only his lover, but his most important muse.

 

Jealousy and financial insecurity mars their relationship, but within the confines of the artist’s cramped studio, Victorine is secure that they are creating art that will provoke and shock the outside world. So moved, she begins to paint on her own, at first timid, but then confident in her own talent.

 

The mysterious artist is none other than Edouard Manet, one of the most celebrated artists of the 19thcentury. His work is considered to have given birth to modern art. Victorine Meurent is the face in many of his celebrated works, most notably his controversial masterpiece Olympia.

 

Fans of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, books that tell the story behind legendary great art, will find this book a sensual treat.

 

Jessica

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Paper Things

Paper Things

posted by:
May 14, 2015 - 7:00am

Paper Things by Jennifer Richard JacobsonNavigating the trials of fifth grade is tough enough: tough teachers, difficulties with friends, avoiding bullies and trying to stay “cool” in front of all your peers. In Jennifer Richard Jacobson’s new novel Paper Things, 11-year-old Arianna Hazard has all these complications coupled with the fact that she and her 18-year-old brother Gage are currently homeless.

 

Ari prefers to think that their situation is temporary; Gage had promised when they left their guardian’s house that he had an apartment lined up just for them, but that was over two months ago. Ari has to spend her nights wondering whose couch they will crash on next or where she can hang up her school uniform. Ari had promised her dying mother that she would get into Carter Middle School, a school for gifted children. Unable to find quiet places to study, she’s behind on her schoolwork and hasn’t even touched her application. Instead, she’s trying to ignore the comments from her classmates that her hair is greasy and that she smells bad.

 

Can Arianna find any stability in a world where she needs to protect her cherished folder of cutouts from catalogues amidst a shelter of preteen girls? Will she gain the trust of the teachers at her school enough to earn a leadership position to get into Carter, even when she’s failing her classes? Will she and Gage get what they want most — a home of their own?

 

Parents and teachers looking for a good resource for children in difficult circumstances will find this novel to be a great teachable moment about empathy, kindness and perseverance. Two other great novels that shed light on homeless children are Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan and Almost Home by Joan Bauer; both would make great companion pieces to read along Paper Things.

Jessica

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Audrey and Bill

Audrey and Bill by Edward EpsteinThe Golden Age of Hollywood introduced us to luminary icons of the 20th century whose influence radiates to this day; perhaps none more than Audrey Hepburn. Edward Epstein’s new biography Audrey and Bill focuses on Hepburn’s brief affair with the “Golden Boy” of Hollywood, William “Bill” Holden.
 

Unlike today when we are inundated with facts about celebrities every time we turn on our TV’s, computers or phones, the publicists of the 1950s worked overtime to insure the personal lives of the studio’s stars did not invade the public consciousness. And while Audrey and Bill’s whirlwind romance that blossomed when they met on the set of the Billy Wilder classic Sabrina was well-known in Hollywood circles, it was kept largely out of the public eye.

 

Epstein sheds light on the fact that their affair, though brief, shaped many of both Audrey and Bill’s relationships and marriages moving forward in their lives. Both actors, however, never really turned out to be very happy in love despite their tremendous professional successes.

 

There’s plenty more gossip about some of the biggest names of the 20th century in this book that will not disappoint the curious: Humphrey Bogart hated both of his costars! Nancy Reagan tattled to Bill’s wife about his numerous affairs! Bill dated Grace Kelly! Audrey sang to JFK on his last birthday to take away from the intense scrutiny from the Marilyn Monroe version the year before!

 

At times, the book reads like two separate biographies, following each actor through their career missteps and triumphs, through other relationships, children and illnesses. Holden’s death in 1980 due to liver disease and Hepburn’s death in 1993 due to cancer are also chronicled.

 

Perfect beach reading for those who are fans of either star, or just interested in the Hollywood glamour of a bygone era, will find this story of Audrey and Bill a compelling look into the romantic lives of two of Hollywood’s greatest stars.

 

Jessica

 
 

Finding Jake

Finding Jake

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

Cover art for Finding Jake“Shots have been fired at the high school. Calmly report to St. Michael’s across Route 5.” When Simon Connolly gets the text message from his children’s school that there’s been a shooting, he wastes no time getting to St. Michael’s church where he’s expecting to meet his son, Jake, and daughter, Laney. As parents are taken one by one out of the church to be reunited with their children or given the horrific news, Simon waits. His wife Rachel escorts a tearful Laney outside. When he is the last person seated, his heart cannot bear the idea that his son Jake is still missing. As rumors start to spread that Jake was one of the shooters who planned and carried out the attack, Simon is desperate to find him.

 

Bryan Reardon’s new novel, Finding Jake, centers on a tragedy that has become all-too-familiar in news headlines: a school shooting that leaves 13 students dead. Simon’s perspective moves back and forth between the horror unfolding of the present day and his memories of Jake’s birth, childhood and adolescence. It is through these memories that Simon clings to one objective: to mine every detail for a clue that will lead to finding his son. However, as he adds up these details, he cannot help but wonder if he missed signs that Jake could be capable of such a terrible act. As tension mounts, any mundane or trivial memory about Jake consumes Simon and his quest to discover the truth. Compounding his grief is how the media has influenced the court of public opinion into trying and convicting Jake, leaving the entire Connolly family to bear the brunt of the community’s anger and fear.

 

There is no shortage of novels dealing with school violence: Lionel Shriver’s excellent We Need to Talk About Kevin, Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, and Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed are a few examples. Finding Jake is a sharp page-turner that, similar to these novels, will stay with the reader long after the conclusion.

Jessica

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It’s Not Personal; It’s Just Brain Science!

The Teenage Brain by Dr. Frances Jensen“What was he thinking?” is the first line of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, and anyone who has ever given birth to or even encountered a teenager at some point may very well have uttered that same question. Being a teenager is difficult, and interacting with a teenager can also be very hard. Luckily, Dr. Frances Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt are here to answer that particular query: The answer is brain science.

 

In The Teenage Brain, Jensen breaks down the tumultuous and terrifying teenage brain, a long-neglected niche in the field of brain study. While more has been learned about the human brain in the last 10 years than the whole of human history, the startling revelations of what actually happens to us in those years from 12 to 22 are just recently becoming well known. While past research has been quick to blame “hormones” for every idiotic thing teens do on a day-to-day basis, Jensen points out, it is really the teen brain’s inability to deal with those surging hormones that is the real culprit. As she explores the myriad of ways that teens are wired for impulsivity and poor decision-making skills, we get a better sense of why everything is a big deal to a teen. Minor inconveniences seem like life-and-death situations to teenagers because in their blossoming dendrites they are!

 

This book is written in such a way that doesn’t intimidate or talk-down to the reader. Chock-full of helpful information on everything from risk-taking, driving, sex, drug and alcohol use, video game addiction and the differences in the genders (and with plenty of great ammunition for winning that argument against your teen who wants to wear earbuds while studying), this is the perfect read for parents, educators and everyone who enjoys working with young people in this age range.

 

So the next time you think you’ve had it up to here with your teen, take a deep breath, remember this book and think that it isn’t personal; it’s just brain science.

Jessica

 
 

This Is the Life

This Is the Life

posted by:
April 15, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for This Is the LifeWhen do we know the people we love best? When things are easy or when life doesn't turn out as we expect? In Alex Shearer’s new novel This Is the Life, we meet two brothers who have been estranged for some time. When one of the brothers, Louis, is diagnosed with a brain tumor, they are reunited under difficult-to-navigate circumstances. Our narrator discovers Louis, whom he thought he knew, is so much more, but is the Louis in his brain a better version of the man himself?

 

Loosely based on his own life experience when his brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Shearer may be writing about himself as the brother who frequently gets frustrated with Louis’ situation, treatment and odd behavior. Shearer uses a jumping timeline to compare the Louis of the past and the Louis of the present — the stark contrast between the functioning Louis and the Louis in the hospice highlights how quickly and devastatingly cancer can render someone so helpless.

 

This is not a sentimental look at family members going through illness together, but a brutally honest account of the “little things” that no one reveals when confronted with terminal illness. Day-to-day operations such as haircuts, grocery shopping, paying bills and cleaning become almost impossible; further down-the-line tasks like writing a will and long-term hospice care are even more daunting. It's this honesty that makes the book successful. There are no punches pulled here. Each frustration and set back is out in the open. It reminds us that while those who are sick will of course receive the most attention and care, there exists a network of caregivers who may also be suffering and need resources.

 

Those who are looking for solidarity in a character navigating the hardship of caring for someone, or fans of Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing or We Are All Welcome Here by Elizabeth Berg will find a captivating story in the pages of this novel.

Jessica

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s Sister?

Cover art for Vanessa and Her SisterFew collectives of the 20th century grabbed as much attention or gathered as much talent as the prolific Bloomsbury Group. Made up of luminaries of the art, literary and academic world, their indelible stamp on the thoughts and trends of the turn of the century still resonate with fans today. Much has been written and dissected of the Group’s offerings, particularly the writing of E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. While Virginia’s remarkable career and personal struggles may consume most of the spotlight, author Priya Parmar has delved into the mind of Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, in her novel Vanessa and Her Sister.

 

Told through a series of fictional diary entries, letters and telegrams, Vanessa attempts to carve out her painting career amidst the chaos of falling in love, having children, grieving and dealing with Virginia’s violent and troubling moods. Vanessa often feels on the outside of the literary world she is forced to inhabit. While her friends are off having love affairs and traveling the world at large, she wonders if she is meant to fall behind because of her family obligations. Her creative mind will not allow her to give up on her art. As it becomes clear that Virginia’s jealousy extends beyond Vanessa’s artistic talents and moves to her family life, she grapples with the knowledge of how devious and manipulative the very people she loves most can be.

 

Rich in characterization and detail, fans of the Bloomsbury Group and of novels like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours will find this sumptuous novel a treat for the brain.

 

Jessica

 
 

Confronting Your Bullies

Cover art for Whipping Boy"Eat it, Nosey," he said again. "Only this time make sure you chew."

 

Allen Kurzweil is 10 years old, and his roommate at an elite Swiss boarding school is forcing him to eat bread soaked in hot sauce until tears are streaming down his face and then some. This incident, along with several others at the hand of Cesar Augustus Viana, causes Allen to leave the boarding school that summer after his first year. While the view of the Alps may be far behind him, the memory of Cesar, his tormentor, never dies.

 

Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully documents the adult Kurzweil’s journey to track down Cesar and confront him at last. His quest takes him back to Switzerland to look for the ghost of his past in old dormitories, to an ill-fated beauty school in Manila, through New York City law firms and to a Californian federal prison. As he unearths more of Cesar’s movements and where he might be now, Kurzweil finds himself under the weight of tons of documents convicting Cesar in a bizarre international, multi-million dollar bank fraud case.

 

Will Allen follow through on his promise to punch Cesar right in the nose if and when at last they meet? Will all of his meticulous research and a lifetime of reliving the horrors at the hands of Cesar be in vain? More importantly, has Allen’s obsession with bringing Cesar to justice and righting past wrongs turned him into what he has feared: Has he become the bully?

 

Kurzweil’s obsession for all things related to Cesar’s life make this a fascinating read. Biography and memoir fans looking for something a little unconventional will be happy with the level of detail and the thoroughness of the research.

 

Jessica

 
 

Author Interview with Wendy McClure

On Track for Treasure by Wendy McClureWendy McClureWendy McClure’s newest book, On Track for Treasure, is the second installment in the Wanderville series. She has written several books for adults and children including The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, which in 2011 won the Midwest Bookseller’s Choice Award for adult nonfiction. She is also a senior editor at the children’s book publisher Albert Whitman and Company, producing picture books, young adult novels and the popular Boxcar Children Mysteries. She grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, and now lives in Chicago with her husband. Between the Covers recently caught up with her over the holiday season.

 

Between the Covers: Wanderville ended on a very tense note! Where will we find Jack, Frances, Harold and Alexander as On Track for Treasure, the next book in the Wanderville series, begins?

Wendy McClure: They’ll be in the middle of an escape! And it won’t be just the four of them — the other kids they rescued at the end of the first book will be with them: 10 kids in all! And when trouble hits, they find it’s hard to find places where they can all hide, so they realize their best option is to hop on a freight train out of town. Then it really gets interesting!

 

BTC: One of the most compelling relationships in Wanderville is the connection between Frances and her little brother Harold. In researching the real orphan trains for writing the Wanderville series, did you find that siblings often stuck together? What was your inspiration for Frances’ determination to keep her brother close?

 

WM: When I was researching kids in the tenements of New York City, I came across a photograph showing two or three girls out on the sidewalk holding their baby siblings on their hips. The caption read “Little Mothers,” a term that described girls who had to take care of their younger brothers or sisters all day because their mothers had to work. When I saw that I knew I wanted that to be the backstory of Frances and Harold before they were in the orphanage. Frances would have pretty much raised Harold. As for the orphan trains, I imagine the circumstances of the train journeys would have compelled siblings to stick together as much as they could. But the sad reality is that they were usually encouraged to forget their old lives, including family ties. And then when the placement process began, siblings were often separated, since it was hard to find a home that could take in more than one child. Some siblings were lucky enough to be placed out together, or to at least wind up in homes in the same town, but many more were forced to be apart. In Wanderville, Frances soon realizes the danger that she and Harold are in, and that helps motivate her to escape.

 

BTC: In your book The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prarie, you connect deeply to the books you loved as a child and demonstrated how that love of reading can influence one's future. What do you hope the children who read Wanderville take away from this series?

 

WM: I hope that for kids I can capture the exhilaration of being independent — of having adventures without adults around, of creating and building things on their own. That’s a very basic but important thing. I also hope the books can nurture a curiosity about the past — not just history, but a richer sense of this different world that came before ours. That was certainly one of the things that I loved most about the Little House books.

 

BTC: What challenges do you find writing a series rather than just a stand-alone novel? What about writing children's books versus books for adults?  

 

WM: Writing a series is sort of an odd way to write a long story. It’s like painting a huge mural by starting at one end and then having to paint in only one direction without going back to change or adjust anything. Book one was already published by the time I wrote the third book. It’s fun trying to make everything work, though. As for writing for kids versus adults—it’s hard to say, because the Wanderville books are the first long-form fiction I’ve ever written, whereas my adult stuff is all nonfiction. I remember when I first started working on the books I felt this giddy sense of freedom because I got to make things up. But at the same time, having that freedom can be terrifying.

 

BTC: What are you working on next?

 

WM: I’m just finishing up the third Wanderville book, Escape to the World’s Fair, which comes out later this year. And now I’ve been going through old family photos from the early 1900s. They might help me with another Wanderville book if I get an idea for a fourth book, or I might use them in a new story. Or else I could write an essay about them. I know I’m going to write about them, but I just don’t know how yet!

Jessica

 
 

Ode to Troy McClure, Bill Clinton, Frankenstein and the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer

Cover art for You Might Remember Me

For eight seasons on Saturday Night Live, Phil Hartman’s comedic genius delighted audiences. Known as “The Glue” among his castmates, Hartman’s many impersonations and broad characters revitalized the show after one of its darkest periods. Beyond SNL, Hartman was a beloved voice on The Simpsons as well as the bombastic Bill McNeal on the critically lauded show NewsRadio. Poised to make a superstar breakout in several summer films of 1998, life was great for the comedian.

 

But in the early morning hours of May 28, 1998, police released the shocking news that Phil Hartman had been killed by his wife, Brynn, in their home while their children slept. For such a funny man to meet such a tragic end seemed unbelievable as fans, friends and costars tried to make sense of the loss to the comedy world at large. In You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, biographer Mike Thomas stresses that what a person thinks of when she or he thinks about Phil Hartman isn’t his death, but the life of a performer whose talent gave laughter to so many.

 

Chock-full of interviews with family and famous friends, the book delves into Hartman’s childhood — as one of eight children, he often had to “perform” to be noticed. It also highlights his early career as a successful graphic artist (he designed album covers for bands like Poco and America) to his breakthrough with The Groundlings. From helping Paul Reubens hone the character of Pee-Wee Herman to developing his own popular character Chick Hazard, Phil Hartman seemed an enigma: someone committed to performing without really wanting to stick to it for long. He was someone waiting for the next big thing, but only if the next big thing fit in with the lifestyle he wanted.

 

You Might Remember Me paints a picture of a man searching for an identity: one that he could never quite completely cover with wigs and prosthetic noses. It is a great read for fans of Hartman’s work and for those who enjoy biographies of complicated, delicate genius, both in the moment and ahead of its time.

 

Jessica