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Between the Covers / Shhhh... we're reading.   Photo of reading after bedtime
Tom Schley

Tom finds reading to be cathartic, and is grateful that books are his primary means of escape. He enjoys contemporary literary fiction and short stories, and the occasional sci-fi/fantasy or graphic novel when he wants to decompress. When Tom isn't hard at work at the Parkville branch, he's most likely playing video games with his girlfriend and two cats, or scarfing down some delicious pizza piled high with veggies, or getting more tattoos and making his mother crazy.

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Promiscuous Days

Promiscuous Days

posted by:
October 14, 2014 - 7:00am

FlingsPromising young voices in modern literary fiction are hard to come by, which makes Justin Taylor a man who deserves more recognition. In his newest collection Flings: Stories, Taylor confronts the awkward truths of adult life in stories centered around people who share a collective desire to be genuinely good, despite their misguided tendencies.

 

Both the titular story “Flings” and its continuation “After Ellen” follow people who are ensnared in the directionless, bleak traps of uncertainty that riddle our mid-20s. As friends, they live hollow lives in which they careen through dead-end jobs and relationships while waiting for what they perceive to be their real adult lives to begin. In the meantime, they’re left celebrating their miseries with compassion in their own beautifully tragic ways.

 

The more light-hearted "Sungold” stars Brian, a 30-something manager and bookkeeper at an organic pizza place. After nearly suffering heatstroke while wearing a questionably shaped purple mushroom costume in front of the restaurant, he gets busted cooking the books by a girl who happens to be there looking for a job. Her name is Appolinaria Pavlovna Sungold (seriously), and she knows what's up; she promises her silence in exchange for regular shift hours and a percentage of Brian's stolen funds. Brian hires her on the spot as both an act of self-preservation and an act of defiance towards the store owner, who only hires attractive college girls who enjoy fashioning the collars of their tie-dyed uniforms into deep, dangerous Vs.

 

Taylor’s prose is brilliant, humorous and unwavering. His characters are marvels; both uniquely individual and equally empathetic, and united by their searches for things to fill the voids in their lives.

Tom

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Heroes Needed, Never Deserved

Heroes Needed, Never Deserved

posted by:
October 6, 2014 - 8:34am

Cover art for The Luck UgliesIn years past, whenever the tiny fishing village of Drowning was in dire straits, unlikely heroes would skulk from its darkest corners to lend their dexterous yet reluctant hands. These mysterious "Luck Uglies" used to be revered among the villagers as masters of skullduggery and subterfuge, but after an order from "The Great" Earl Longchance, the former peoples' champions became fugitives overnight. In The Luck Uglies, much time has elapsed since the Uglies' presence in Drowning; so much so, that they're presently regarded as little more than tall tales.
 

Riley and her best friends Folly and Quinn read all about the fabled Luck Uglies in a book they pilfer from a poet in town. The book is filled with all sorts of hearsay about Drowning and its surrounding territories, including the foreboding forest known as "Beyond the Shale" and the bogs known as, well, "The Bogs." The Bogs are said to be inhabited by a nasty group of creatures known as Bog Noblins — think hobgoblins, but way meaner and even way uglier. Bog Noblins haven't been seen around Drowning since even before the Uglies disappeared. Imagine everyone's surprise when one emerges from The Bogs and trundles into town!
 

The adventurous trio has so many questions. Where'd the Bog Noblin come from? Wait, we know that: The Bogs. But why, after all this time, did it suddenly show up? And have the nights seemed darker lately? And why have the rooks and ravens recently taken to roosting at the Dead Fish Inn? And wait, wasn't that gargoyle atop a different building yesterday?
 

Paul Durham's The Luck Uglies is the first book in a planned series with great potential. With a vibrant, fanciful world teeming with creatures to discover and adventures to be had, Riley, Folly and Quinn are given chances to become true heroes — not the kind that have to hide in the sewers to avoid the Earl.

Tom

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Seeds of the Big Apple

Seeds of the Big Apple

posted by:
September 15, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for Marine ParkSpending childhood nested in the same neighborhood can have a profound effect on how one grows up and views the rest of the world. When stories of the past share a consistent backdrop, memories become more cohesive and captivating, as they have in Mark Chiusano's debut collection, Marine Park. Nearly all of his stories take place in the neighborhood surrounding the run-down, isolated Marine Park in New York City.
 

Half of Chiusano's tales follow two brothers: Jamison, who narrates the duo's adventures, and his younger brother Lorris. Jamison seems like the fictional embodiment of Chiusano in his youth; he dredges up old emotions with such elegance that it feels autobiographical. Throughout their endeavors, Lorris overcomes rooted introversion to develop a social life more vigorous than his older brother’s. All Jamison feels he’s capable of doing is watching with brotherly pride and envy.
 

Chiusano's other stories volley between humorous and serious motifs. The amusing "Vincent and Aurora" is the recounting of a retired mobster who agrees to help with one last job to combat the stagnation of aging. "Shatter the Trees and Blow Them Away" laments the woes of unrequited love between two scientists working in a secret military base during World War II. "For You" is the wondrous second-person account of a man's visit to an unfamiliar bar and his conversations with strangers about wait-staff gratuity and lifelong dreams.
 

Short story and fiction enthusiasts of all varieties will find something to enjoy in Marine Park. Lorris and Jamison are both highly relatable, and Chiusano's more imaginative offerings are entertaining and just as finely crafted.

Tom

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Fleeting and Ever Out of Reach

Fleeting and Ever Out of Reach

posted by:
August 25, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for We Are Not OurselvesMatthew Thomas is a New Jersey high school English teacher who has spent the past decade writing his first novel We Are Not Ourselves. A labor of love well worth the effort, his debut is being heralded as the next major American novel.
 

The story begins in the early 1950s with Eileen Tumulty, the American daughter of two Irish immigrants. Eileen’s hard-working, barroom-preaching father is trying his damnedest to provide while shunning racetrack bookies. Her mother, reeling from a miscarriage, spends her days drinking herself into a quiet stupor to quell the pain. Eileen is left without anything to call her own, and vows to become empowered and successful as she grows up. We Are Not Ourselves is Eileen’s story as she searches for the American Dream in New York City.
 

After college, Eileen takes a well-paying job in a city hospital and marries Ed Leary. Ed is a scientist and professor at a community college whose dedication to academic integrity keeps him in the classroom and out of the Dean's office, where Eileen wishes he would be. After months of failed conception, Eileen and Ed are graced with Connell, who grows up pudgy and struggles with body image issues amongst his classmates. Against Ed’s wishes, Eileen decides to move the family out of their comfortable apartment in Jackson Heights and into a large, dilapidated house in the upper-middle class suburbs. She hopes that tasking Connell and Ed with evening home improvements will help bring the family closer, but Connell is preoccupied with developing renown at his new school and Ed is seemingly inundated with his studies. While Eileen achieves her childhood goal of working domesticity, the Learys are not nearly as cohesive as she wishes. Her efforts to bring them together only cause more tension, which, when combined with the everyday tribulations they experience in their personal lives, stress everyone into a state of crisis.
 

Thomas asks in We Are Not Ourselves if it still counts as the American Dream when it comes with so many hitches and broken promises, and he does so through an incredibly well-developed cast of characters and with beautiful, insightful prose. Contemporary fiction enthusiasts and readers who enjoy deep characterization should not miss this wonderful debut.

Tom

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2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

posted by:
August 11, 2014 - 8:00am

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajama'sIt’s way past midnight on Christmas Eve and the streets of Philadelphia are littered with the lonely, the unlucky, the unloved. They’re all departing from their sacred mecca hidden amongst the Fishtown warehouses: A run-down jazz club called The Cat’s Pajamas, where the tumultuous house band keeps things hopping, even when they aren’t on stage. Amongst the waylaid wanderers are Madeline, a bright and plucky nine-year-old who refuses to let the world win; Sarina and Ben, who are together conflicted as they pick up where they left off after an estranged high school prom years ago; and club owner Jack Lorca, whose prodigal teenage son, Alex, is instrumental in the night’s electric excitement.

 

Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas recounts the 24 hours prior, affectionately referred to as “Christmas Eve eve” by Madeline. Readers are treated to intertwining stories of determination in the events leading up to the most memorable night at The Cat’s Pajamas since the house drum kit was set on fire during the band’s performance. By its lonesome, the club is just a sad, dilapidated building, but on nights when the Cubanistas are playing and the city’s detritus flocks through the doors, The Cat’s Pajamas is resurrected to its former glories of jazz’s heyday—it’s part symbiotic relationship, part yuletide miracle.

 

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas features stories in which the hostilities of city life are conquered by the solidarity of people who have been destroyed by the very place they inhabit. Stories in which good-natured, wounded people stay afloat by looking out for one another, rather than wallowing and commiserating. It’s a great read for those who enjoy literary fiction or heartening stories of blossom.

Tom

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Swish

Swish

posted by:
August 7, 2014 - 8:00am

Ride Around ShiningWhite chauffer; black NBA star; white girlfriend; black posse; white antagonist; black disposition. There’s a theme present in Chris Leslie-Hynan’s intelligent, unsettling and highly entertaining debut novel Ride Around Shining. Leslie-Hynan complicates things between his main characters to the point where each regretted action will have readers rubbernecking as etherealized commentaries on class, race, and modern-day social hierarchy veil the wreckage. Readers who enjoy literary fiction or complex relationships between main characters should definitely check this one out.

 

Ride Around Shining follows Jess; a young-ish, over-educated, middle-middle class white guy; who revels unknowingly in the twisted gratification of subservience; so much so, that he makes a living delivering carryout in his adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, where he frequently transports Thai food to budding Trail Blazers small forward and regular customer Calyph West. With his ongoing display of pragmatic indifference and a couple of lies behind his driving chops, Jess manages to establish himself as Calyph’s personal driver.

 

Initially, Jess is content with the mask of aloofness he dons whenever he is summoned to get the baller and his girlfriend Antonia to their various destinations, but as he spends his days shuttling the mixed-race couple around the city, he begins behaving erratically in a subconscious bid for their attention. At a house party celebrating Calyph’s contract extension, Jess aids the machinations of fate and inflicts his employer with a knee injury that benches him for the entire upcoming season.  Motivated by a discomforting mixture of guilt and manic desire, Jess vies to stick with Calyph during his recovery, though it becomes apparent to everyone that Jess has a lot more going on under the hood than Calyph’s car does.

Tom

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A Reverie of What Might Have Been

Cover art for The Opposite of LonelinessMarina Keegan was an aspiring essayist, playwright and author of short fiction whose talents were burgeoning before she was killed in a car crash in 2012. She was most renowned for her essay “The Opposite of Loneliness,” which was featured in Yale’s 2012 commencement activities. Through the efforts of her family and friends, Keegan’s works have been assembled as a book, also titled The Opposite of Loneliness, a collection which deserves as much celebration as Keegan herself.

 

Keegan’s fiction is grounded and believable, populated with disarming characters yearning to divulge their intimacies to readers. In “Cold Pastoral,” a girl laments the death of a boyfriend she only recently began dating, and is racked with guilt as she witnesses his ex suffering more than she is. “Challenger Deep,” which portrays a small crew trapped in an unpowered submarine stuck at the bottom of an oceanic trench, is Keegan’s most unsettling, imaginative and beautiful tale.    

 

Keegan’s essays gleam with scholarly poise as she acknowledges the complexities of approaching adulthood with a teenage candor. “Against the Grain” is a reflection on growing up with Celiac’s disease, and the embarrassing safety extremes her mother went to out of love. “Song for the Special” is a gentle reminder of humanity’s diminutive existence in the vast universe we inhabit.

 

What makes The Opposite of Loneliness so wondrous is not its posthumous publication; each piece is brimming with a nearly unattainable blend of worldly presence and youthful hyperbole. It’s so depressing that Keegan’s talents were stifled at such a young age. This collection resonates in reverie of the marvels that would have been.

Tom

 
 

Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

To Rise Again at a Decent HourJoshua Ferris’ third novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is the most interesting story in which the narrator and protagonist is a dentist. It’s the chronicle of Dr. Paul C. O’Rourke, who offers oral care at his practice in New York City. Perhaps as a result of excelling in dentistry, Paul’s social life is nonexistent; he is a middle-aged, single atheist with no children, no pets and no contacts in his smartphone. The extent of his online presence is a scattering of posts on various baseball forums. His idea of “getting out” is staying in and watching the Red Sox game while simultaneously recording it on VHS.

 

Paul is seemingly content with his complacency, until his office manager discovers someone has made an official website for their practice—complete with staff bios and photos—without their consent. Days later, Paul and his staff are befuddled as someone creates multiple social media accounts in Paul’s name and begins proselytizing. This peculiar case of identity theft is more than slander; the culprit possesses intimate knowledge of Paul, and gradually reveals his secrets through a series of anonymous emails. Annoyed by the harassment, Paul responds to the emails in an attempt to discern the thief’s identity and motive.

 

What he discovers leads him to a series of introspective questions so existential that he begins to wonder who he really is. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour portrays a man who possesses no true self-identity, and insists on blaming the past and lying to himself to cope with his shortcomings. Ferris develops O’Rourke’s personality through an ongoing series of fantastic soliloquies disguised as the ramblings of an emotionally distraught dentist. Paul finds the unsettling truth to be that an identity thief posting on a faux-Facebook actually knows him better than he thinks he knows himself, and as he meanders between the past and present wondering how he has arrived at this point in his life, a beautifully reconciling narrative forms in his wake.

Tom

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Jeremy P. Bushnell’s The Weirdness

The WeirdnessTeacher, blog and forum editor, roleplaying game designer and writer Jeremy P. Bushnell’s debut novel The Weirdness is the perfect amalgamation of his mediums of creativity. Only someone who has spent their life marinating in nerd culture would be able to devise a plot and cast as imaginative and unique as Bushnell has in The Weirdness.

 

Billy Ridgeway is growing too complacent with his life; all he has to show for himself as a self-proclaimed “writer” is a couple of short stories and a novel vomited forth at the tail end of a post-college-dropout bender of forced artistry. While his former peers are paying mortgages and spawning children, he’s stalled making sandwiches for eight hours a day at a Greek deli.

 

Of course, this all changes one morning when Billy awakens to a suave-looking dude he doesn’t know sitting on his couch. Introducing himself as “Lucifer Morningstar,” the dude offers Billy some coffee, and with it an only slightly nefarious proposal that would launch his writing career. In a rare bout of good judgment, Billy declines and tries to go about his day; unfortunately for him, Lucifer is a supernaturally persistent guy, and he’s about to make things weird—like, warlocks and sex-wolves and plots to take over the world weird.

 

Bushnell’s novel is a swirl of contemporary geek humor and sci-fi, blended with a unique, refreshing writing style. He uses unconventional means—absurd similes, unexpected question marks, hypothetical maybes—to create an amusing feeling of doubt and disbelief in his narrative voice, which allows his characters to act with as much hyperbole as the reader wants to perceive. The Weirdness has to be read to be believed, and should not be missed by anyone who enjoys contemporary, surreal fiction.

Tom

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A Tragic, Beautiful Reckoning

A Tragic, Beautiful Reckoning

posted by:
July 8, 2014 - 9:38am

Cover art for The Girls from Carona del MarWe all have friends from yesteryear with whom we pine for the perfect, golden memories of whatever chapter of our lives we consider to be “the good old days.” Rufi Thorpe’s debut novel The Girls from Corona del Mar follows two best friends, Mia and Lorrie Ann, as their journeys take them from their California hometown to the far corners of the world and back again, testing their bond along the way.

 

Mia is convinced that her friend Lorrie Ann is her counterbalance in the universe. Beautiful, soft-spoken and otherwise perfect in every manner, she can do no wrong in her kindred spirit’s eyes. Lorrie Ann’s only flaw seems to be her terrible luck; despite being an elementally good person, she suffers three distinct, life-altering tragedies that leave her reeling and unsure of her purpose in life. Mia feels powerless, remorseful and guilty, as if her best friend was being punished for her own shortcomings.

 

As the two grow older, their lives become disparate; Mia marries and moves to Turkey to develop her career while Lorrie Ann is swallowed up by the world. After years of sporadic contact, Mia is shocked when her best friend turns up in Istanbul, battered and in need of help. What transpires after the two are reunited challenges the temper of their time-forged companionship.

 

The Girls from Corona del Mar is a tragic, beautiful reckoning of the worst catastrophes life can muster, and illustrates just how powerful and enduring friendship can be, despite the fragility of youth. Anyone who has lost a best friend to time or distance will sympathize as Mia and Lorrie Ann’s story progresses. Rufi Thorpe has written a wonderful debut that will be enjoyed by fans of literary fiction or women’s literature.

Tom

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