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Between the Covers / Shhhh... we're reading.   Photo of reading after bedtime
Lori Hench

As a child, Lori Hench fell in love with Beverly Cleary's books and has had her nose in a book ever since. Now an adult, she finds saying "but I have to read this for work" is a wonderful excuse for avoiding housework and other distasteful chores. When she's not reading, she works at the Randallstown Branch and enjoys recommending literary fiction, memoirs, and current nonfiction. She admits to still liking children's books and, in a pinch, will read absolutely anything.

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To Kill a Carolina Parakeet

To Kill a Carolina Parakeet

posted by:
July 30, 2012 - 8:50am

The CoveAuthor Ron Rash hails from the hills of North Carolina and is the chair of Appalachian studies at Western Carolina University so it is no surprise that his novels are steeped in the culture of the Smoky Mountains. Rash’s star is on the rise; an earlier book, Serena, is being made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and his latest book, The Cove, made the NYT bestsellers list. 

 

In The Cove, Laurel Shelton and her brother Hank live in a gloomy cove outside rural Mars Hill, North Carolina. Their homestead is considered cursed after the untimely deaths of their parents and Laurel, born with a purple birthmark covering her shoulder, is marked as a witch and shunned by the superstitious townspeople. Laurel hopes Hank takes a wife, as a sister-in-law will ease her loneliness. Instead, Laurel finds an injured mute flutist named Walter in the woods and as the Sheltons shelter Walter, a relationship blossoms between the two. At the same time, the Mars Hill residents are infected by the prevailing anti-German sentiment generated by WWI and the hysteria threatens to spill over into the cove even as Laurel begins to suspect Walter of harboring a dangerous secret.

 

Rash’s intimate knowledge of the Appalachian people shines through in this book and he often weaves fact and fiction together. Mars Hill and its college are real, as were the Vaterland cruise ship and the beautiful but hunted to extinction Carolina parakeet. The narrative is rich with colloquial speech, the main characters are well-developed with Laurel especially written well, and the story unfolds in Southern Gothic tradition as a stonecutter quoting Gray’s Elegy says “the paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Readers who appreciate books set in the mountains of the American south might also enjoy author Sharyn McCrumb.

 

Lori

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Of Roots and Stones

House of StoneHey America, Your Roots Are ShowingPulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid, a Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, was an Oklahoman of Lebanese descent. In 2006, faced with a crumbling marriage stateside, Shadid focused on restoring his great-grandfather’s abandoned home in the village of Marjayoun, Lebanon. His book, House of Stone, is as much of a lesson on the political and cultural history of the Ottoman empire as seen from Marjayoun as it is a chronicle of an American trying to conduct the frustrating business of home improvement with local contractors while recreating his “bayt.” A nuanced Arabic word roughly meaning home, a bayt is the place of one’s roots. Mr. Shadid’s poignant story merging his family’s past and present was published posthumously; he died of an asthma attack this past February while attempting to leave Syria on horseback. Surprisingly, especially in light of the beautifully detailed architectural descriptions of the home, the book does not include photographs.

 

Also dealing with family history but on a far lighter note is Megan Smolenyak’s Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing.  Smolenyak is a professional genealogist and chief family historian at Ancestry.com. Her clients have included the U.S. Army (finding primary next-of-kin for soldiers,) the FBI (civil rights cold case crime-solving,) the BBC (tracing family members of sailors who died on the USS Monitor), and even her own curiosity, as she sketches the family tree of Michelle Obama.  These assignments and more are covered in her latest book as she utilizes the traditional paper trail and oral interviews, supplemented by DNA testing, to solve family mysteries. Entertaining but always respectful toward her subjects, Smolenyak finds an unlikely link between Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond, and debunks the myth that immigrants’ surnames were mangled at Ellis Island by uncaring clerks. Hey America, Your Roots are Showing is an enjoyable look at genealogical detective work.

 

Lori

 
 

Pretty or Not?

Pretty or Not?

posted by:
July 3, 2012 - 1:49pm

The ListIt’s a given: high school, angst, and a painful self-consciousness go hand in hand for everyone except the “in-crowd,” right? Or maybe not. Siobhan Vivian takes a probing look at high school students in her new novel, The List, and explores the impact of being one of the infamous eight girls named on a cruel, anonymously authored cataloging of the prettiest and ugliest in each grade.

 

Being listed as the prettiest would seem to guarantee a charmed life for a high school girl and initially, ninth grader Abby revels in the extra attention garnered due to her appearance. Senior Margo feels somewhat entitled to be in the prettiest category, as was her older sister a few years back. Sophomore Lauren is surprised by her inclusion especially as this is her first year of public school, having been homeschooled previously. Struggling with a blooming eating disorder, junior Bridget rationalizes that making the prettiest list means her weight loss was—and is-- necessary.

 

On the flip side, receiving the label of ugliest should be devastating and for eleventh grade Sarah, always a nonconformist, the list pushes her to an extreme. Jennifer, hiding a secret, decides to celebrate her notoriety as a 4-time “winner” while beautiful queen-bee Candace is certain that her name was placed on this side of the sophomore list in error. Freshman varsity athlete Danielle just hopes her new boyfriend isn’t bothered by her being tagged as “Dan the man.”

 

Taking place in the week leading up to the homecoming dance, each girl has the opportunity to look at friendships and family in a new light; each must also decide if she embraces the label thrust upon her or forge her own identity independent of The List. Fans of realistic fiction will enjoy this title which reminds us to look inside not only others but ourselves, too.

Lori

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Double Trouble

Double Trouble

posted by:
June 29, 2012 - 8:30am

Gone, GirlCanadaEagerly anticipated by readers, Pulitzer prize winner Richard Ford and best-selling suspense writer Gillian Flynn have each released a new book in time for summer reading. Flynn’s Gone Girl is a dually narrated tale of a marriage gone wrong with a thriller's edge. Ford’s latest novel, Canada, is a coming of age tale from a master wordsmith.

 

In Gone Girl, we are introduced to couple Nick and Amy. Once darling newlywed writers living a charmed life in New York City, they’ve relocated to Nick’s decidedly less urbane Missouri hometown after the rise of the internet leads to the demise of their magazine employers. Nick buys a neighborhood bar with his twin sister Margo while unemployed Amy chafes at the constraints of a small town lifestyle. Amy disappears and naturally, husband Nick becomes the prime suspect. The couple takes turns telling the story; Nick’s present tense accounts alternate with the backstory provided by Amy’s journal entries. Fans of Gillian Flynn know she does not write for the gentle reader, as her style is taut with sharp edges, raw language, and keen observations into the darker, hidden bits of the human psyche.

 

In Canada, Richard Ford also introduces a set of twins, Dell and Berner, brother and sister respectively. Author of the lauded Bascombe trilogy, Ford’s prose is clear and direct without being spare and complements both the prairie setting and plot-driven story recounted by Dell.  The Montana twins’ parents uncharacteristically rob a bank and end up in jail; Berner runs off, leaving Dell to be smuggled over to an unsavory family friend in Saskatchewan. Dell’s journey becomes more than a trip across the border as he comes to terms with his parents’ actions, loss of family, and a new, unasked-for life on a rough fringe of society.

 

Lori

 
 

The Left and Right Hands

The Left and Right Hands

posted by:
June 18, 2012 - 8:30am

The Book Of JonasFifteen-year-old Younas is brought to Pittsburgh after the Muslim village in which he lives is destroyed and his family killed by American troops.  Rechristened Jonas, he asks a relief worker why her organization is helping him. She responds:

 

"...our country sometimes has a habit of making a mess with its left hand and cleaning it up with its right. We are the right hand."

 

Author Stephen Dau explores these themes of duality and contradiction in his thoughtful debut novel, The Book of Jonas.

 

As in Chris Cleave’s bestselling Little Bee, Dau tells the story of a young immigrant leaving behind unspeakable horrors in a homeland at odds with the comfortable English-speaking country of destination. The author allows the story to unfold using alternating narrators, offering sharp commentary on Western customs and culture as viewed by the immigrant Jonas. His fate is entwined with that of MIA Christopher Henderson, an American soldier party to the offensive on his village, and Jonas is gently pressured to recount his past by both his US court-ordered counselor and Christopher’s mother who is desperate for any news of her son. Jonas reflects that the truth of a matter and what the law requires don’t necessarily coincide and he attempts to adapt to his new country while struggling to reconcile the nature of his relationship with the soldier. Dau dangles the questions of who is the savior and who is the saved and wonders about the imprecision of memory and words to convey the truth of an experience in this compelling and beautifully written book.  

 

Lori

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A Summer Hit Parade

A Summer Hit Parade

posted by:
June 1, 2012 - 1:01am

The Red HouseBroken HarborHeading Out to WonderfulThe upcoming reading forecast looks promising as several bestselling authors release new titles. Mark Haddon, Tana French, and Robert Goolrick each have a new book coming to BCPL in June or July. Get ahead of your summer reading and put one or more of these on reserve now.

 

Mark Haddon made a splash several years ago with his story, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which he told from the point of view of a boy with autism.  Haddon is known for his keen depictions of internal dialogue which bodes well for his newest book, The Red House. Posh Mark invites his sister Angela and her brood to spend a week with his new wife and stepdaughter at an English country house in a belated attempt at family bonding. Told in each of the eight different vacationers’ voices, Haddon illustrates how little of ourselves we reveal even to those who would claim to know us best.

 

Irish author Tana French writes suspense fiction with an edgy psychological angle. Her debut In the Woods won mystery’s Edgar award and introduced her crime-solving Dublin police department. Her fourth title, Broken Harbor, features murder squad Detective Sergeant Mick Kennedy. He is investigating the grisly deaths of a squeaky-clean suburban father and children as the mother’s life hangs by a thread in intensive care. Solving this crime requires Kennedy to revisit the tragic events of his own childhood…but will he be able to maintain the requisite objectivity to find the killer?

 

Robert Goolrick’s taut and twisty tale of obsession and passion (no, it is NOT a Fifty Shades of Grey read-alike,) The Reliable Wife made him a book club circuit darling. In his next book, Heading Out to Wonderful, he once again excels at setting a vivid scene, this time in small town Virginia. Outsider Charlie Beale arrives to settle down in the hamlet of Brownsburg but an entanglement with the lovely wife of the wealthiest man in town escalates into a fervor with far-reaching consequences.

Lori

 
 

Rise of the Third Reich

Rise of the Third Reich

posted by:
May 24, 2012 - 6:01am

HitlerlandWhy? How? Who hasn’t posed these questions when learning about Adolph Hitler, Nazism’s demonic agendas, and the passivity of world powers like the United States in the face of Germany’s aggressive militancy? In Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, author Andrew Nagorski provides insight into the ascension of  Hitler through  first person accounts of American reporters, foreign service officials, and other prominent US citizens living and working abroad.

 

Comparisons between Hitlerland and Erik Larson’s bestselling In the Garden of Beasts are inevitable as both books concern themselves with Hitler and his National Socialists’ power grab in the period leading up to World War II.  While Larson’s book focuses primarily on viewing history through the eyes of the US Ambassador William Dodd and his soon-to-be infamous daughter Martha, Nagorski documents his story with varied voices such as author Sinclair Lewis and his journalist wife Dorothy Thompson, historian William Shirer, reporter Edgar Mowrer and diplomat Truman Smith.  The cast of characters named in Larson’s book, such as self-avowed half-American Hitler confidante Putzi Hanfstaengl, reappears in Hitlerland but Nagorski fleshes out their stories and places them into the bigger picture. Nagorski excels at explaining the back story of Nazi Germany, looking at the humiliating German defeat in WWI, the conditions imposed under the Treaty of Versailles, the deterioration of the Germany economy, and the decline of moral standards a la Cabaret. He also details the casually anti-Semitic attitudes of the times both in Europe and in the United States.   The book’s timeline is a rather straightforward chronology which contributes to an ease of understanding the events in context and the cumulative effect of primary source material conveys the horror building in the fatherland. Hitlerland is an excellent choice for history buffs and neophytes alike.

Lori

 
 

A Grown-up Ghost Story

A Grown-up Ghost Story

posted by:
May 7, 2012 - 1:00am

The Haunting of Maddy ClareSometimes, nothing beats a good spooky story; the kind of tale that might make you turn the light on in a dark hallway before you go upstairs, or maybe double check that your doors are locked before you head off to bed. Simone St. James’ The Haunting of Maddy Clare is a ghost story with a romantic twist. Struggling to make ends meet, quiet Sarah Piper accepts an unusual assignment through her temp agency in post WWI London. Her job? Assist war-scarred ghost hunters Alistair Gellis and sidekick Matthew Ryder who are investigating the spirit of a servant girl who committed suicide in a countryside barn.  It just so happens that this particular spirit despises men, necessitating Sarah’s involvement in both communicating with Maddy Clare and solving the mystery of her death.

 

St. James’ writing style is lovely in this, her debut novel, and her choice of words and phrasing easily evoke the early twentieth century as narrated by Sarah.  The author is as skilled in describing rural England or some stylish period women’s wear as she is relaying the frightening atmosphere in the haunted barn or the suspicion of the chilly villagers. Unlike last summer’s supernatural-themed hit, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, this story is often creepy and sinister and has more in common with 2009’s Booker shortlisted The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.  A page-turner to the end, pick up The Haunting of Maddy Clare knowing this one will be difficult to put down.

Lori

 
 

“Family, dogs, land, woods…

“Family, dogs, land, woods…

posted by:
April 27, 2012 - 1:10am

The World As We Know Itrivers, fish, fire, words.”  These are the choices of author Joseph Monninger when asked to describe his life in eight words.  These same words all figure prominently in Monninger’s newest novel The World as We Know It.  The story opens as brothers Ed and Allard Keer, young teens living along the Baker River in New Hampshire, rescue Sarah Patrick after she has fallen through the ice in the river; Sarah, in turn, saves Allard as he nearly drowns underneath the ice during the same rescue.  The trio becomes inseparable and the family theme is evident as Monninger explores the sibling, friendship, and romantic aspects of their relationships.

 

This quiet book is beautifully written.  Its style is reminiscent of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety or Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River for both the almost reverent approach to nature writing as well as the keen examination of close relationships. The landscape descriptions are evocative and nature becomes not just the backdrop for the story but an omnipresent fourth character exerting its influence over the brothers and Sarah.  An environmentalist bent is evident but not at all strident as arctic ice melt, homing pigeons, fly fishing, and animal cruelty are touched upon.  Just as an accident on the river serves to bring the three children together, another clash with nature acts as the catalyst to break them apart as adults.  The second part of the book deals with the aftermath of tragedy and the process of grieving and its impact on longstanding familial and romantic ties.  A lovely piece of fiction, The World as We Know It is an insightful, interesting story and would serve as an excellent book club selection. 

Lori

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A Thousand Words

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little RockA naked Vietnamese girl crying and running, JFK saluting at his father’s funeral, an anguished scream over a prostrate body at Kent State; these iconic photos capture moments which illustrate the turbulence of the mid-twentieth century. Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick explores another seminal photograph taken on September 4, 1957 as black Elizabeth Eckford attempts to enter, and integrate, Little Rock, Arkansas’ heretofore all white Central High. In this instantly recognizable image, petite Elizabeth, dressed in crisp white with a binder clutched to her chest, is followed by fellow student, white Hazel Bryan. Hazel is rigid with anger, mouth open, teeth bared.

 

Elizabeth was part of the Little Rock Nine; she was one of nine black teens carefully chosen to integrate the high school as a result of Brown v. Board of Education.  Margolick relates the backstory of the girls in the picture but he also writes of the women those girls became and the ripple effect of the photograph and events surrounding it on the pair.  As adults, Hazel reaches out to Elizabeth to apologize for her actions memorialized on film and the two woman forge a tentative friendship. Each finds her life forever impacted by the photograph, despite Hazel’s assertion that “life is more than a moment.”

 

Margolick’s writing style allows history and the women’s stories to take center stage in this book. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth’s recollections are particularly poignant; in one, she relates thinking the National Guard had been called out to protect her as she walked to school rather than to barr her entrance as they’d been ordered to do.  Elizabeth and Hazel goes beyond the confines of a picture to bring a personal look at two woman, the civil rights struggle and the fragility of forgiveness and reconciliation. For additional reading in a similar vein, try Norma Watkins’ memoir The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure.

 

Lori