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Sarah Jane Miller

Sarah Jane Miller is a librarian at the Rosedale branch, where she coordinates community outreach with a focus on teens. She enjoys reading poetry, memoirs and literary fiction, as well as finding new music and films. When not at the library, Sarah Jane can be found running, hiking, writing, and cooking Paleo.

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Between the Covers with Dwayne Alexander Smith

Forty AcresThe horrors of U.S. slavery will never be forgotten, but can reviving them in modern times truly right past wrongs?

 

In Dwayne Alexander Smith’s debut novel Forty Acres: A Thriller, up-and-coming lawyer Martin Grey faces more than sudden fame when he lands a high-profile case against legal superstar Damon Darrell. Martin is willingly lured into Damon’s exclusive circle of successful African-American men who then invite him on a weekend getaway. However, this seemingly innocent trip turns into a dangerous moral journey when Martin finds himself on a secret plantation staffed entirely by white slaves, where he is now master.

 

Between the Covers: How did the idea of the reversed plantation develop? Did it evolve over time or hit you all at once?

Dwayne Alexander Smith: Forty Acres started out as a time travel story, believe it or not. An African-American astronaut has an accident in space, which causes his ship to crash back to earth. Somehow he has gone back in time and finds himself in the Antebellum South. Unable to speak because of an injury, he is captured by slavers and put to work on a plantation. I loved this idea but I couldn’t sell my people on it as a screenplay. I really wanted to write a story about American slavery, so I kept toying with the idea. After several other versions of the story, it struck me that a story about blacks keeping white slaves would be very powerful, if I could make it believable. I worked hard to figure out how such a conspiracy would be pulled off if it were real.

 

BTC: This book is exceptional not only for the controversial concept behind the Forty Acres plantation but for its page-turning suspense as well. What about the thriller genre made you choose it to tell this unique story?

DAS: I don’t think there’s any other way to tell this story. The core concept, because it’s centered around a conspiracy, just lends itself to the thriller genre. I’ve seen a few reviews where the reader wished that the story wasn’t couched in a thriller. I guess they would prefer a more straightforward approach. They feel the themes tackled in the story should be taken more seriously. I get it but I feel that the plot is too fantastic to be delivered straight. Working it into a thriller gives the reader more license to suspend disbelief and just go with it.

 

BTC: There are various representations of African-American masculinity portrayed in this book. How did you go about developing such diverse personalities and their differing views on race and history?Dwayne Alexander Smith

DAS: My approach to character is very calculated. I start out with very basic questions. What are his dreams? What is he afraid of? How would he react if a gun was pointed at him? I have a whole list of question. Another thing I do is create a detailed past. I figure out all the major events in a character’s life from birth to starting point of the story. Where did he grow up? How many brothers and sisters? How did he do in school? What major injuries did he suffer as a kid? These details never make it into the story but they inform the character’s behavior. A black man who grew up in a Bronx ghetto is going to have a different attitude toward the world than a black man who grew up in an upper middle class household.

 

BTC: How challenging was it for you to reveal humanity at its worst and best through your characters? Did any parts of the creation process keep you up at night?

DAS: There are some pretty disturbing scenes in Forty Acres that were not easy to write. I was constantly tempted to soften those moments but I had to keep reminding myself that everything that occurs in my story is a reflection of what actually took place on plantations during the slavery era in the United States. Ultimately, I felt it was important that these scenes be impactful to establish the past horrors that motivate my story’s antagonists and also to establish very high stakes for my protagonist. Martin puts everything on the line at the end of the story, the reason for his sacrifice has to be believable.

 

BTC: What research went into recreating the horrific realities of American slavery in modern times?

DAS: I tried to make Forty Acres as real as possible. I tried to figure out how a conspiracy like Forty Acres would be perpetrated if it were real. A lot of research went into where to locate the compound. There are not many places in the United States where you can hide a secret slave compound. There’s also the problem of hiding the slaves. You can’t have them picking cotton, so I had to come up with an alternative that still reflected what went on hundreds of years ago. I think that the type of slave labor I decided to use is not only historically accurate but also enlightening to the reader. I don’t want to say what it is, to avoid spoilers, but I’ve found that a lot of people are unaware that slaves were used for this sort of labor in the United States.

 

BTC: Since Forty Acres: A Thriller is receiving great praise from readers and critics alike, can we anticipate more books?

DAS: Yes. I’m working on another thriller called White Widow that involves a very unique serial killer. I also have a plot ready to go for a sequel to Forty Acres, if the book takes off.

 

BTC: If you were stranded on an island with an immortal DVD player, what one film would you want? What single book?

DAS: That is a tough question. Approaching it practically, I’d want a movie that is very re-watchable, not just a great movie. I can watch musicals over and over. My favorite musical is West Side Story, so I’d have to go with that. Same approach to what book I would choose. My choice might be surprising, but I never get tired of reading The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I can crack that book open on any page and find a laugh. Just the type of book you would need if stranded on an island.

Sarah Jane

 
 

Tales of Modern Ennui

Tales of Modern Ennui

posted by:
July 24, 2014 - 8:00am

Cover art for Problems with PeopleEver find yourself in an ordinary day and yet you feel an unnerving disconnect with others for no obvious reason? David Guterson’s Problems with People: Stories is a collage of individuals who find themselves in such unhinging, if oddly indistinguishable, moments. Reading these 10 tales will make you feel like you are observing a stranger walking into a cold drift of social ineptitude. In “Paradise,” a divorcee, unsure of the future, finds himself in the passenger seat of a Honda Element driven by a silver-haired beauty he met via match.com. A well-meaning man, along with his unshakable cancer-ridden sister, is locked inside a game reserve in South Africa in “Pilanesberg.”

 

Each story unapologetically illuminates the oscillating and retracting nature of boundaries. These unpredictable lines, which divide cultures and perspectives, often inflict devastating detachment through innocent dealings. In “Krassavitseh,” questions of race and history are raised as a man takes his inquisitive elderly father on a Jewish Tour of Berlin. A benign American in Nepal encounters Maoists blocking roads and an intelligent child with impeccable shoe-cleaning skills in “Politics.” In the poignant story “Hush,” dog walker Vivian Lee finds an unlikely friendship with a stubborn client and his Rottweiler named Bill.

 

Don’t look for coddling or satisfaction in this collection. The inability to fulfill emotional obligations radiates off the pages. Guterson’s direct prose evokes the feelings of isolation and displacement in contemporary life, but still leaves a faint trace of hope.
 

Sarah Jane

 
 

Between the Cover’s 1,000th Post

The Rosie ProjectDon’t know what to read? Our librarians have been devouring books at rapid rates to answer this very question. Want to know what’s the newest, steamiest romance? The next literary breakout novel? There’s a post for that.

 

Since the blog’s conception, readers have been discovering great titles by learning from experts who write daily about the books they love for a variety of tastes. Not only are readers using posts to find up-and-coming titles, they are stumbling upon past gems they may have missed. To celebrate this milestone, we wanted to know what the most popular titles were out of our hundreds of posts. The results? The top three were Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, John Grisham’s Sycamore Row, and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

 

Along the way to this 1,000th post, we’ve expanded the ways we can satisfy you hungry readers. Now you can add your insights and observations in comments, get the story behind the story with exclusive author interviews and chat up The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion with us during our Facebook Book Club Chat on June 11 at 7 p.m.

 

As always, keep checking in with Between the Covers to keep your finger on the pulse…

Sarah Jane

 
 

Heartland Reunion

Heartland Reunion

posted by:
June 4, 2014 - 8:00am

Cover art for Shotgun LovesongsUp-and-coming novelist Nickolas Butler brings us Shotgun Lovesongs, an all-American tale of male friendship in Little Wing, Wisconsin. Although Hank, Ronny, Lee and Kip grew up together in the small rural town, they have grown into their own complex lives in strikingly different ways.

 

Hank stayed in the town to have a family and run his father’s farm, where it’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet. Ronny became a battered rodeo star who lost his career to crippling alcoholism. Singer-songwriter Lee took his show on the road and is now a famous yet humble millionaire rock star. Lastly, there’s Kip, the Bluetooth-wearing stock-market trader, who has come home to revitalize the tallest structure in town, the beloved old feed mill. The four friends are drawn together again by Kip’s impending wedding.

 

Told in alternating perspectives, the novel achieves its tension and ultimate heart from the honest portrayal of conflict and comradery between these soul-searching men.  Various masculine takes on marriage, love, loyalty and healing are all examined in this surprisingly rustic landscape.  Readers who enjoy character-driven plots and fulfilling endings will find themselves satisfied with and surprised by this debut novel.

 

Also, keep an eye out for Nickolas Butler’s highly anticipated forthcoming short story collection, The Chainsaw Soiree.

Sarah Jane

 
 

In Memory of Maya Angelou

Today, the world lost Maya Angelou. Yet we will never lose the irreplaceable voice she used to shape our world to make it a more compassionate and stronger place.

 

She is most widely known for her first memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in which she reveals the hardships she endured being both an African-American and a girl in the Jim Crow South. In her memoirs, she expresses such complicated themes as race, identity and womanhood in an honest style that illuminates the human condition. In her last book, Mom & Me & Mom, Angelou investigated the loving yet complex relationship she had with her robust mother, an exceptional person in her own right.

 

Along with telling her own story, Angelou used her unique voice in other transformative ways. She was a poet. Her stimulating poetry is gathered in The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. She was a singer, a dancer, an educator and her voice continues to reach far beyond the literary realm. Angelou was a vigorous civil rights advocate, working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Multiple presidents honored her linguistic power by having her speak as the heart of the nation. In her words and throughout her life, Angelou proved "one isn't necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest." She embodied these virtues and instilled them in others, to the benefit of us all.

Sarah Jane

 
 

Misfortune by the Seconds

Misfortune by the Seconds

posted by:
February 5, 2014 - 7:55am

Cover art for PerfectLives will never be the same again in Rachel Joyce’s Perfect when, in the summer of 1972, two 11-year-old boys convince themselves that the British government is adding two seconds to that year. Byron, a heartfelt husky lad, admires his lone friend, James, for his intelligence and diligent approach to life.  When James informs him of this addition to time, Byron has no reason to doubt him.

 

However, when Byron witnesses a shocking incident within these extra seconds, the repercussions prove costly for everyone surrounding him, especially his captivating mother, Diana. Although she delights in nature, theater and small kindnesses, Byron’s thoughtful observations detect a deeper sadness under his mother’s delicate repose. Her husband expects her to dress in the refined styles of the ‘50s and lavishes gifts upon her, like a brand new Jaguar, for the sole purpose of instilling envy in the community.

 

Fast-forward two decades and we encounter Jim, a man living in a dilapidated trailer who is plagued by obsessive compulsive tendencies. Although he is well-meaning, his stuttering and fear of disasters keep him from developing any real relationships with others. As these alternating stories escalate, the two seconds become more mysterious and questionable, yet are vital to these seemingly unrelated plots in this latest work by the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

Sarah Jane

 
 

New Multicultural Picture Books

Cover art for Old Mikamba Had a FarmCover art for OFf to MarketCover art for The Race for the Chinese ZodiacCheck out Old Mikamba Had a Farm by Rachel Isadora, a fresh rendition of the classic nursery song set in majestic Africa. The illustrations radiate in vibrant collages through the use of pencil shading, newspaper clippings, textile designs and watercolor. With all new animal sounds, you can find out along with your child what noises warthogs, springboks and dassies make. Perfect for preschool through second grade, this bright picture book’s melody and theme are familiar enough to have children singing along while introducing lesser known animals to help broaden both their vocabulary and global cultural awareness. The glossary of animals in the back is a fun and informative feature, too.

 

Off to Market, written by Elizabeth Dale and illustrated by Erika Pal, tells the story of a drive to market on Joe’s bus. While driving through a Ugandan town, Joe picks up a variety of community members such as women with baskets of fruit, a woman with two goats and an elderly nun. However, trouble begins when Joe’s generosity causes him to overload the bus with passengers. It’s up to the little boy Keb to save the day with heart, smarts and kindness.

 

In The Race for the Chinese Zodiac, Gabrielle Wang introduces the 12 animals who raced across a river in order to have a year named for them by the Jade Emperor. From the courageous tiger to the wise snake, each animal is exquisitely illustrated by Sally Rippin, who used Chinese painting techniques. This fanciful retelling shows the character traits each beast embodies as they brave the waters to claim a cherished spot. The descriptions of each zodiac animal, their years and their attributes make this an easy yet delightful way to introduce children to the Chinese zodiac.

Sarah Jane

 
 

Lurid Epistles and a Doubtful Diary

RusticationCharles Palliser, in Rustication, unravels a late 19th century mystery through the uneasy journal entries penned by Richard Shenstone, a 17-year-old opium addict who struggles daily with carnal appetites. Richard, after an abrupt suspension from college, seeks out residency in the drearily neglected English mansion where his mother and older sister reside after the death of their debt-ridden father. However, to much surprise, his early homecoming is unpleasantly received. Not only does he feel unwelcomed, he is refused any information regarding the sudden death in the family or their lack of funds.

 

Coinciding with his arrival, livestock vivisection begins and vulgar letters are sent to several neighbors which accuse, damn and threaten their recipients. Richard soon crosses paths with peculiar characters that become cagier with every encounter, from vicious socialites to a brutish dogfighter. At the center of much gossip is an earl’s nephew who is both an eligible bachelor and next in line to receive his uncle’s fortune.

 

Alone in his attempts to make sense of the town’s secrets, Richard feverishly recounts his daily thoughts and conversations. However, his fickle opiate love affair interrupts his stream of recollections. As the crimes increase and worsen, he finds himself as the prime suspect and is determined to discover the identity of the true murderer.

 

Readers will recognize this marshy bleak town from Palliser’s other Victorian novel, The Quincunx, but will find themselves intrigued as the jarring plot peels away like sour onionskin.

Sarah Jane

 
 

An Unlikely Friendship

Under One Roof: Lessons I Learned from a Tough Old Woman in a Little Old HouseUnder One Roof: Lessons I Learned from a Tough Old Woman in a Little Old House by Barry Martin is a truly one-of-a-kind story. When Martin, head of a construction project, first hears of the octogenarian Edith Wilson Macefield, all he knows is that she’s feisty, fiery and will not give up her modest home to the developers constructing the shopping mall around her…not even for a million dollars. As he does with every one of his sites, he makes rounds in the neighborhood to apologize for the noise and to tell the residents to contact him with any concerns.

 

He could not have anticipated the call he soon receives from Edith asking him to drive her to a hair appointment. After a while, he finds himself walking over to visit her while she’s putting out seeds for the birds, watching Lawrence of Arabia and reciting poetry. Soon, he’s drawn into the fascinating details of her life, which contains multitudes of tales that could fill five lifetimes. From being a 14-year-old spy for the British in Nazi Germany to memories of receiving a clarinet from her cousin, the American swing musician Benny Goodman, Martin is pulled into the hidden yet wondrous existence of the resolute elderly woman.

 

Martin’s firsthand account of his tender companionship with this small but mighty force of a woman undoubtedly makes this a touching read. All at once, he is concerned, bewildered and very much intrigued by Edith, who stands her ground. When social services start calling, she reveals her wish to pass away on her couch, the very same place her own mother passed. Without denying Edith her independence, Martin begins to assist her as her physical strength declines so that she can die the way she’s always lived—on Edith’s terms.

 

This biography verges on indescribable in the way humor, compassion and sadness are simultaneously intertwined to recount the infallibility of the human spirit and pricelessness of human kindness.

Sarah Jane

 
 

Canine Poetics

Canine Poetics

posted by:
October 30, 2013 - 7:00am

Dog SongsAcclaimed poet Mary Oliver, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, celebrates the dogs she has loved with words of tender care on each page of Dog Songs. Pet owners and animal lovers alike will find a kindred spirit in the voice of Oliver, who has immortalized her wooly confidantes with compassion and humor in a tone reminiscent of the veterinarian memoirist, James Herriot.

 

Oliver is known for her elegant treatment of the natural world but Dog Songs reveals a rare and intimately domestic side to the poet’s heart. She invites us into her home and introduces us to the cherished pets of her past and present like the unforgettable souls of Bear, Luke, Benjamin and Percy. Whether on a long walk, down at the surf or curled on a couch, each dog’s personality radiates with bliss and, at times, secretive wisdom.

 

However, we are not spared the pain that unavoidably comes with loving a life outside your own. While grieving in the poem “Her Grave,” Oliver addresses her lost friend by asking “How strong was her dark body!/ How apt is her grave place./ How beautiful is her unshakeable sleep./ Finally,/ the slick mountains of love break/ over us.” Too often the death of a pet is portrayed as an unimaginable horror but Oliver offers a holistic alternative where heartbreak and light might linger. Although devastated, she holds onto the love she has shared with her fallen friend and stands in awe of the animal who has brought her such joy, warmth and spiritual fullness.

 

Lifelong fans of Oliver, acclaimed for Why I Wake Early, Red Bird and Thirst, will find this both a gratifying and surprising addition to her life’s work. The narrative tone of these portraits, accompanied with gentle line drawings, make this collection appealing to non-poetry readers as well.

Sarah Jane