Between the Covers / Shhhh... we're reading.   Photo of reading after bedtime
Megan Crews

Megan was at first skeptical that books with no pictures could possibly be very good. However, once given a chance, they proved to be addictive. Though her original love of picture books has not faded, she now reads anything and everything that grabs her eye without discrimination. Working as a librarian at the Catonsville Branch offers great opportunity to check out way more books than she can finish.

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Megan

The Bear and the Nightingale

posted by: March 27, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Bear and the NightingaleKatherine Arden’s enchanting debut novel buries readers in the freezing winter of medieval Russia, a place still steeped in myth and fairy tale. The Bear and the Nightingale is an atmospheric debut that brings to life 14th century Russian history, makes it relatable to readers and fills it with magic.

 

Vasya grows up in the northern wilderness, the daughter of the wealthy lord of a remote village. The family’s wealth doesn’t spare Vasya’s mother, who dies giving birth to her, or the children from spending long winter evenings huddled together around the giant kitchen stove as their nurse spins folktales about demons and sprites.

 

Their kind but distracted father lets the children, especially Vasya, grow untamed. She may be a little unusual, but she is also brave, intelligent and kind. She tells no one, not even her brother, that she actually sees and speaks with the sprites in the house and the horses in the stable.

 

When her wild behavior starts to scare off potential suitors, her father is finally convinced he needs to remarry in an effort to tame his youngest daughter.

 

His new wife, a deeply devout woman, forbids the villagers from honoring the old traditions by leaving out dishes of food for sprites in the house or barns. Vasya realizes it isn’t because her stepmother doesn’t believe they exist, but because she sees them too that she is determined to rid the village of these old customs. However, by starving the spirits that have kept them safe and prosperous for years, the village allows an ancient evil to creep back into their midst.

 

Because she can see what is happening, it's up to Vasya to save herself, her family and her village from demons straight from her nurse's stories.

 

The Bear and the Nightingale is perfect for a cold winter night. The compelling plot and lyrical writing will hold readers under its spell, unable to put down the book or go to bed at a decent hour. Vasya is an unforgettable heroine who Arden has crafted so carefully, she seems like a real person. While readers are supplied with proper villains, their evil is complex and nuanced.

 

Readers who enjoy books by Neil Gaiman or Naomi Novik’s Uprooted will enjoy this title.


 
 

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

posted by: February 23, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Secret Horses of Briar HillLike most avid readers, there are a handful of books from childhood that I became completely lost inside. I still love Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden, and reading it always brings me right back to my childhood, as well as that lonely old mansion in the English countryside. Megan Shepherd’s debut novel The Secret Horses of Briar Hill is sure to spark this same feeling in readers young and old. A blend of history and fantasy, it sucks readers into another world filled with mysterious characters and magical creatures.

 

Emmaline is one of many at the makeshift hospital for children with tuberculosis, but she is the only one able to see the winged horses in the mirrors of the once great house. Against the nuns’ strict orders, she sneaks out to play in the walled garden whenever she can. One morning, she discovers a horse from the mirror world hidden there. The horse, Foxfire, has a broken wing, which prevents him from returning to his own world. Letters from The Horse Lord begin to appear in the garden’s ancient sundial, and explain that Foxfire isn’t just wounded, but is being hunted by a sinister Black Horse. This creature hunts at night and is repelled by colorful objects. In order to save her new friend, Emmaline must find colorful objects to surround him. This is hard to do in the drab, gray hospital where all color seems to have been washed from the world.

 

This deeply moving story will have readers on the edge of their seats and will stay with them long after they have discovered all the secrets hidden in the pages.


 
 

The Fall Guy

posted by: December 15, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover Art for The Fall GuyJames Lasdun’s new novel The Fall Guy is a deliciously taut psychological thriller. As the story opens, three friends are on their way to spend a peaceful summer in the country, but readers soon realize there is something malevolent lurking beneath the trio’s careful manners.

 

Matthew, an unemployed chef, jumps at the chance to stay with his cousin Charlie, a wealthy banker, at his idyllic retreat in the mountains of New York. It will be a chance to get away from the city and figure out what’s next for him. It’s also an opportunity to spend the summer with Charlie’s wife Chloe, who he admits he is very fond of. His fondness actually seems a little more like infatuation, but not even Charlie seems to mind that Matthew covets his wife. After all, Chloe is perfect. Who wouldn’t idolize her a little bit?

 

As the days blaze on, and the characters spend more time with one another over elaborately prepared dinners and too much wine, the smooth veneers start to crack. The real jealousies and tensions show through. Secrets from the cousins’ past are brought to light that make readers wonder if they understood these characters at all or have any clue what they are actually doing this summer. Is Matthew just a nice guy trying to figure his life out after all? Is Charlie spending his days working on a new business deal in the city? Does Chloe know about Matthew’s mild obsession with her, or is she being secretive for another reason altogether? And, ultimately, how long can this go on before it boils over?

 

Lasdun weaves in the clues so deftly they are hard to recognize until chapters later. The writing is clever and quietly unnerving. Lasdun creates a unique kind of suspense which sets him apart from contemporaries.

 

Fans of smart, suspenseful stories like The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith are sure to love this book.


 
 

Flying Eye Books

posted by: December 7, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Smart About SharksCover art for One Day on Our Blue Planet…in the Antarctic Call me superficial, but I love a really pretty book. This is especially true for children’s books. What better way to lure young readers in than an eye-catching cover or page after page of cool illustrations? Of course, in order to truly live up to my exacting standards, it must have some substance too. I've recently become obsessed with Flying Eye Books, an imprint of Nobrow Press because they never disappoint me. They are always stylishly composed and fun to read.

 

Smart About Sharks by Owen Davey is an amazing example of nonfiction for children. It presents readers with weird and fascinating facts as well as lots of practical information on things like shark anatomy, social habits and even some of the mythology surrounding this mysterious predator. The author includes a section on species endangerment and simple ways to keep their habitats safe. However, the illustrations really steal the spotlight. Each page is like a print I would hang in my house, featuring underwater scenes and infographics that are as useful as they are nice to look at. They are especially useful for helping young readers make sense of all the information. My favorite panel shows a kayaker paddling at the top of the page with an assortment of sharks in the water beneath, all drawn to scale. It is a great way to begin to imagine how many differences there can be in one species.

 

One Day on Our Blue Planet…in the Antarctic is a picture book that introduces kids to a day in the life of a penguin named Adélie, also the name of a common species of penguin living on the Antarctic coast. Through her adventures, author Ella Bailey teaches us about the other animals in Adélie's habitat, like seals, whales, squids and krill. The sentences are simple and sparse, but children will discover a ton of information about life in Antarctica through the illustrations. While they are stylistically simple, there is so much cool stuff happening on each page, it's sure to pique young readers’ interest. The end pages also feature each of the species making an appearance along with its name.

 

These two stylish books are great for kids interested in the natural world, and they are sure to prompt further investigation. Both are part of a series, so be sure to check out other works from these authors.


 
 

A Gentleman in Moscow

posted by: November 23, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover Art for A Gentleman in MoscowFans of Amor Towles first novel, Rules of Civility, have patiently waited for another work, and A Gentleman in Moscow is worth the long wait. Yet again, this gifted writer breathes life into a lavish era long since passed. He introduces a cast of characters that are sure to charm readers, none more so than Count Alexander Rostov.

 

The story opens shortly after the Russian Revolution. The Count is being tried for writing a popular counter-revolutionary poem, but thanks to some high-ranking friends in the party, his life is spared. Instead, he is declared a “Former Person” — given a life sentence of house arrest. This is interesting, since the Count resides at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol, one of the city’s most elegant hotels, just steps away from the Kremlin. Though he must give up his stately suite and take up residence in a tiny room on the top floor, he is not a man defined by rooms.

 

From inside his beloved hotel, he observes the upheaval that sweeps through Russia in the years after the revolution. Over the next three decades, the country he loves disappears and is replaced by something unrecognizable.

 

Despite these changes in society, he never loses sight of who he is. His bygone code of ethics is in large part what makes him so delightful as a character. While this may sound stuffy, Towles infuses the characters, including the Metropol itself, with too much effervescent charm to ever be considered tedious.

 

A rich cast of intriguing characters pass through the hotel, some of them becoming part of the Count’s life in the most unexpected ways. Despite his imprisonment, his life is no less full than it may have been if he were a gentleman of leisure living freely abroad. In fact, his imprisonment may arguably take him on a more emotionally rewarding journey.

 

Towles somehow keeps life inside the hotel from ever becoming monotonous for readers. This could be in large part because of the humor provided by the stories narrator, balanced perfectly with moments of insight that will leave readers mulling the words over long after they finish the book. Towles also weaves in history, literature, ballet, architecture, and not least of all the importance of food and wine pairing without ever seeming pedantic.

 

This work will appeal to fans of Russian classics as well as readers who enjoy the sly wit and charm of Jane Austen or Edith Wharton.


 
 

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.


 
 

Lily and the Octopus

posted by: September 15, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Lily and the OctopusSteven Rowley’s new book, Lily and the Octopus, is a dog book you must read. Even if you don’t like dogs — or if you love them so much you can’t bear to read another book about one — you must read this book. At its core, this is really a story about love, loss...and fighting an evil octopus.

 

Ted and Lily are sitting on the couch discussing cute boys like they do every Thursday when Ted notices the giant octopus on Lily’s small, furry head. Thus begins the epic battle between Ted and this sarcastic, sadistic sea creature that is trying to take his beloved dachshund from him.

 

Through flashbacks, we get to experience Lily choosing Ted 12 years before and how she changed his life. We also learn more about Ted’s recent breakup and his life before Lily. Rowley deftly weaves this background information into the narrative so that, with each flashback, these people become more real and more relatable to us.

 

There is a perfect balance to this story. Readers will crack up laughing and ugly cry in the same chapter. In either instance, the emotions in this book never feel fake or forced, and that is probably because it is largely based on the author’s own experience. Just before writing this book, Rowley lost his beloved doggy companion of 12 years, and he has distilled that experience on paper with honesty and understanding.

 

Mild spoiler alert: In case you haven't already guessed, the octopus is not actually an octopus, which means the plot veers into magical realism from time to time. While the octopus is actually a tumor, and Lily (probably) can’t really play board games, Ted’s imaginative perception of the situation is pitch perfect and captures what it feels like to fight for someone you love.

 

I read and listened to Lily and the Octopus because I couldn’t put it down, not even while driving or doing dishes, and I highly recommend listening to this one. Michael Urie does such an amazing job narrating all the characters, it really brought the story to life just a little bit more.


 
 

Britt-Marie Was Here

posted by: August 29, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Britt-Marie Was HereFredrik Backman’s new novel Britt-Marie Was Here is a heartwarming story about second chances and unexpected friendships. Backman is revisiting a character we briefly encountered in his previous book, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. Readers may remember Britt-Marie as the annoying “Nag Bag,” but his new novel gives us the chance to get to know her a little better.

 

On the surface, Britt-Marie seems impossible to like. What she calls helpful and constructive criticism, the rest of the world considers passive aggressive snarking. It seems like Britt-Marie has an obsessive compulsive need to clean everything around her. This, along with her rigid adherence to schedule and her preferred way of doing things, drives everyone around her insane.

 

Then, at the age of 63, she does something uncharacteristic. Realizing that more of her life is behind her than ahead of her, she leaves her loveless marriage and life as homemaker. Due to the economic crisis in Sweden, the only job available to someone with virtually no work experience is in the wilting town of Borg as the community center’s caretaker.

 

Borg has lost most of its jobs and all of its hope. It “is a community built along a road. That's really the kindest possible thing one can say about it.” The citizens only seem to come alive when watching, playing or talking about football (or soccer, as it is known here in America). Like most people, they are not enamored with Britt-Marie upon meeting her.

 

But, because there simply isn’t anyone else, Britt-Marie finds herself coaching the town’s rag-tag youth team. The kids are loud, muddy and frequently irrational, but a bond is soon formed between Britt-Marie and the team. Though she knows absolutely nothing about soccer, she is superb at removing stains from uniforms. Through the team, others in town begin to take a second look at this nag bag and find that, perhaps, they were wrong about her after all.

 

Backman has a unique style and an unrivaled talent for creating characters we cannot imagine ever sympathizing with, then slowly revealing the wonderful people hidden beneath prickly exteriors. Readers who enjoy quirky characters and stories with all the feels will fall in love with this writer.

 


 
 

The Wild Robot

posted by: July 25, 2016 - 7:00am

The Wild RobotThe Wild Robot is Peter Brown’s first work for middle-grade readers, and this notable picture book author and illustrator has given us a delightful story that is sure to become a classic.

 

A hurricane rages offshore, and somewhere at sea a vessel containing hundreds of identical crates sinks. Its cargo is mostly lost beneath the waves. A handful of crates are destroyed by waves smashing them into the rocky island cliff. One solitary crate is washed up onto the cliff’s edge so forcefully it breaks apart, and miraculously the robot inside is unharmed.

 

A curious gang of sea otters activates the ROZZUM unit 7134, and a robot called Roz wakes for the first time to finds herself marooned on an island.

 

Now, Roz must struggle to survive in this wild place. Unsurprisingly, the animals are terrified of this strange monster in their midst. They avoid her and attack her until she hides away. She certainly isn’t programmed for survival, but she is programmed to learn. Disguised as a rock, Roz observes the world around her. She sits patiently and watches tadpoles turning to frogs, mushrooms magically appearing, foxes hunting hares, ocean waves crashing against the coast. She begins to learn the languages of the creatures on the island.

 

By accident, Roz finds herself caring for a tiny gosling. As she becomes this little bird’s mother, she finds a place in the animal community. She must rely on older geese to help teach her how to take care of her gosling, and the beavers to build her a suitable house for the two of them. The animals on the island learn that Roz is kind and happy to help her neighbors, and a new kind of community is formed.

 

This peace can’t last though. Like the other animals, Roz is subject to the changing seasons. She has to find a way to endure conditions robots weren’t built for. Also, the manufacturers who created Roz are searching for every last robot they lost.

 

This wonderful book has everything readers could ask for — an action-packed plot as well as heartwarming characters readers won’t soon forget. While Brown does offer up a very accessible book for young readers, there are also some weighty themes such as motherhood, environmental concerns and the question of what it is to be human, making it a great book for families to share.

 

If you enjoy this title, be sure to check out Pax by Sara Pennypacker.


 
 

Jane Steele

posted by: June 20, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Jane SteeleJane Eyre is not the most charming of classic literary heroines. Readers who love her are die-hard fans, and readers who don’t are baffled that she has fans at all. Lindsay Faye’s new book Jane Steele breathes fresh life into this complex classic character. While Faye’s heroine loves Bronte’s classic novel, and even faces some similar experiences as the original Jane, her response to these circumstances makes her a heroine modern readers will swoon for, regardless of how they feel about her namesake. While Faye may borrow a few plot points from Bronte, this is not a retelling of Jane Eyre.

 

Jane Steele is orphaned and left in the care of an aunt who seems to despise her. Jane is sent to a horrendous boarding school where girls are starved and humiliated. While Eyre accepted these trials as part of her lot, Steele takes matters into her own hands. She begins her story by telling us, “Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important." This Jane is a kind of vigilante, righting the wrongs of society.

 

After abruptly leaving Lowan Bridge School, then surviving and even thriving on some of London’s less savory streets, she finds a governess position at a large estate owned by Mr. Charles Thornfield. At Highgate House, she finds an intriguing cast of characters. Thornfield, recently returned to England after years serving in the Punjab, seems to be harboring secrets. His entire household, including his charming young ward, are all Sikhs, and in this exotic and strange new household Jane feels more at home than she ever has before.

 

This newfound happiness is jeopardized when she finds herself falling in love with her employer, even as she tries to hide her own unsavory past. And, can she say for certain she will never murder again?

 

This homicidal heroine, and her confessional style narrative will captivate readers. Fans should also check out The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell, Tracy Chevalier’s Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre and Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights by Alison Case.

 


 
 

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