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Bottom of the Heap

Bottom of the Heap

posted by:
July 12, 2013 - 7:15am

The Painted GirlsWhat does the future hold for three young girls when their father dies expectantly? Well if the year is 1878 and you are living an impoverished neighborhood on the lower slope of Montmartre in Paris, the answer would be despair. These are the circumstances framing the setting of The Painted Girls, the newest novel by Cathy Marie Buchanan. In this story we meet the van Goethem sisters and follow their struggles as they put their childhood behind them and are forced to earn a wage to prevent being thrown penniless into the streets. The main role of caregiver is taken on by Antoinette, the eldest sister, filling in for their mother who is more interested in drinking absinthe than raising the children. Middle sister Marie abandons her education to join the Paris Opera with her youngest sister Charlotte. Training for the ballet pays seventeen francs a week, though it is still barely enough to put food on the table. Once she is discovered by Edgar Degas, Marie starts on a journey that will culminate in one of the artist’s most famous creations, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.

 

This is an absorbing story based on the lives of individuals during this period of history. The author’s attention to detail paints the dire circumstances the girls find themselves in as well as the dark and seedy elements that threaten to engulf them. By observing how the sisters grow throughout the story and the importance of their love for each other, Buchanan creates a remarkable novel, as captivating as it is enlightening.

 

Jeanne

 
 

Gothic Historic Revision

The AccursedLeave it to Joyce Carol Oates to pull together several unusual elements, well-known historical figures, a dash of the paranormal and tremendous historical detail. In her new novel, The Accursed, we meet the Slade family, who seem to be suffering the effects of a terrible curse. The daughter Annabel falls under the spell of a smooth-talking Southern gentleman named Axson Mayte, who may be more than he appears to be. Annabel’s brother Josiah will go to great lengths to protect his sister from harm. Wilhelmina Burr, their cousin, is plagued by visions of serpents while away at school. While the Slade family suffers, Woodrow Wilson, the current president of Princeton University, struggles to keep his post from a keen usurper bent on knocking him from his pedestal. But there are other figures lurking around Princeton as well. Grover Cleveland, suffering terribly from the death of his child, sees visions of her in dark hallways. Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, is convinced that the shadowy figure he spies leaving in a carriage with a man is his wife. Murder and mysterious deaths are plaguing New Jersey. There is talk of the legend of the “Jersey Devil,” but most residents remain convinced it is only a story to frighten children. But as 1905 becomes 1906 and the strange events continue, more questions are raised as to the validity of the curse.

 

Joyce Carol Oates is a literary writer with a tremendous love for language, so The Accursed is not a quick read. The plot often meanders and you discover much about the characters living in the area. Many of the historical figures are not looked upon kindly and readers will see an unfavorable side to many of them. Oates creates a sinister atmospheric tone that runs through the novel, and her very detailed text offers footnotes as the narrator/historian weaves the tale. The use of diary entries and letters help to round out the novel and make it a very thoughtful read. 

 

Doug

 
 

To Catch a Thief

To Catch a Thief

posted by:
March 29, 2013 - 6:01am

The Bughouse AffairTravel to San Francisco, 1894 to meet a pair of delightful detectives in The Bughouse Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini. This first in a new historical mystery series by two Grand Master Award winners (who just happen to be married), introduces partners Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon. Sabina is a former Pinkerton operative and John honed his skills in the Secret Service. The two combined forces to establish a successful agency in the quickly developing city of San Francisco. Sabina is widowed and dedicated to her job, and John is a bachelor hoping for a more personal relationship with his lovely partner.

 

The two are working on separate cases while also following press reports of the resurrection of Sherlock Holmes, who has miraculously returned to life and picked San Francisco as his new base of operations. Sabina’s case involves the hunt for a slippery lady pickpocket who finds her marks at a large amusement park and other crowded venues. Quincannon is on the trail of a burglar who is targeting the homes of wealthy residents. He finds himself traveling to seedy bars and parlors in the disreputable Barbary Coast while tracking his elusive thief. Eventually, the two realize their cases are connected and the criminals have stepped up their game to include murder. The detecting duo find themselves working feverishly to capture these lawbreakers before additional crimes can be committed, all while dealing with the Sherlock Holmes pretender who has become a surprising rival.

 

Muller and Pronzini have both entertained readers with their memorable characters Sharon McCone and The Nameless Detective respectively. With this series, this talented couple offers two intrepid detectives in an intriguing historical setting. Readers will be anxious to follow the next case these two embark upon and curious about whether the romantic sparks will continue to fly.   

Maureen

 
 

The Nature of Harm

The Nature of Harm

posted by:
March 15, 2013 - 7:03am

The House GirlLawyer Lina Sparrow instantly knew she was staring at a drawing that transcended time. The young African American man at its center stood in a Virginia field with his hands at his side, waiting. More than 150 years may have passed, but Lina knew that the charcoal put to paper that day said as much about the subject as it did about the artist who created it. In Tara Conklin's shifting, stirring debut, The House Girl, two worlds coalesce, as the winds of past sins expose the fight for freedom and family identity that reach from present day deep into America's past.

 

In the plush law offices of Manhattan’s prestigious Clifton & Harp, first year litigation associate, Lina Sparrow, has just been handed the class action case of a lifetime involving historic reparations for slavery.  In locating a slave's descendant to act as lead plaintiff, she stumbles upon the story of artist Lu Anne Bell and her house girl, Josephine, who sometimes painted alongside her mistress. Josephine was seventeen in 1852 when she escaped from the failing Bell tobacco plantation. Now Mrs. Bell’s paintings are highly regarded for their sensitive portrayal of her husband's slaves, but recent speculation has questioned their authenticity. Lina, herself the daughter of artists, delves deeper into the searing plight of Josephine. In doing so, she begins to question her personal life and her own sense of place.

 

Conklin, a lawyer by training, exploits the double narrative as the means to weave together a historic time period with the legal perspective of twenty-first century restitution. As the prose expands, uncovered correspondences lay bare the horror of slavery. Readers of The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini  will enjoy this moving connection to the troubled past.

Cynthia

 
 

Cold War Intrigue

Cold War Intrigue

posted by:
February 15, 2013 - 7:01am

Young PhilbyWidely regarded as one of the best spy writers alive, Robert Littell is often compared to John LeCarre and Alan Furst. In his new novel Young Philby, readers are treated to an absorbing fictional biography of the notorious double agent. Anyone interested in spies and Cold War history will certainly know the name Hadrian Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, one of the most fascinating figures in the history of modern espionage. He was a high ranking British double agent and one of the members of the infamous Cambridge Three. While spying for the Russians, Philby managed to have a successful career in both the British and American intelligence agencies. He caused incalculable damage with the secrets he shared.

 

Littell explores Kim Philby’s life story as a young man, including his early attraction to communism. Littell also tells of the Soviets tapping Philby, and details the methods they used to make him look attractive to the British Secret Service. Littell’s narrative is particularly compelling because he tells his subject’s story through the lens of a various people who knew him throughout his life. We get to know “Philby the man” through his lovers and his father, and “Philby the spy” through the eyes of his Soviet handlers. But even with the distinctly different views into this notorious spy, Kim Philby remains an enigma. As with Littell’s other novels, Young Philby manages to be both a well-researched historical novel as well as a riveting read.

Zeke

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Web of Lives

Web of Lives

posted by:
February 11, 2013 - 8:15am

Beautiful RuinsSome reading experiences are meant to be savored. Jess Walter creates one in Beautiful Ruins, which begins in 1962 at Hotel Adequate View on the Italian coastline. Pasquale Tursi, who runs the hotel, is captivated by the blond woman who arrives at his hotel. She turns out to be a dying American actress, and thus begins a novel that sweeps over decades and contains a cast of captivating characters, all “beautiful ruins” in their own right. In the present day we meet Michael Dean, a film producer who has recently returned to favor with the popularity of a reality television show, and his long suffering assistant Claire Silver, who is in the process of discovering another line of work. Next comes Shane Wheeler who wants to make a pitch to Michael Dean with a screenplay about the Donner party. Other characters include a would-be novelist, a failed musician and a famous film actor. These lives are woven together in an unusual style that includes chapters of novels, film treatments and even a play.

 

The characters Jess Walter creates are completely realized and finely detailed. The story captures the imagination and you can’t help but care for this motley crew as they try to create something that matters, only to find themselves failing and falling and further affecting all the other lives around them.  Although the characters seem separated at the beginning of the novel, the stories begin to intertwine and blend, leading to an incredible crescendo. Thoroughly discussable, this novel is perfect for book groups. Beautiful Ruins will pull you in, capture your heart and will make you reflect on your own life choices.

Doug

 
 

The Wild Blue Yonder

The Wild Blue Yonder

posted by:
February 4, 2013 - 8:01am

 

The Aviator's WifeFrom the time he became the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1927, Charles Lindbergh has been a source of national fascination. In her new book, The Aviator’s Wife, historical novelist Melanie Benjamin turns the spotlight on the woman behind the man. Anne Morrow Lindbergh is a fascinating persona in her own right, the first American woman to earn a first class glider pilot’s license, in order to become her husband’s co-pilot and navigator. Told in the first person, the novel begins with the couple’s brief, whirlwind courtship—romantic to Anne but perfunctory to Charles.

 

Anne is immediately smitten, and although he is less than attentive to her emotional needs, Charles’ prowess in the bedroom keeps her interest. She respects his keen intellect and career ambitions, while all the while wishing he was less distant. The Aviator’s Wife follows the couple through the highs and lows of their complicated marriage. Benjamin chronicles in detail perhaps their greatest tragedy, the infamous kidnapping of their firstborn, Charlie. She captures Anne’s paralyzing grief at the loss of her beloved son, and her sense of hope and helplessness as investigators attempted to find the boy.

 

Love, determination, convention, and duty ultimately fueled their marriage for 45 years. Although first and foremost a wife and mother of five more children, Anne managed to carve her own identity as a writer and feminist. Benjamin also illustrates Anne’s affair with her physician, sparked when she was hospitalized for gallbladder surgery. Charles never visited his lonely, ailing wife during this difficult time. And although Anne found her own respite, she is shocked and saddened to learn of her husband’s own indiscretions over the years. Well-written and engrossing, this historical novel proves to be an enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

Paula G.

 
 

Edwardian Fiction Abounds

Edwardian Fiction Abounds

posted by:
February 1, 2013 - 7:01am

 

Habits of the HouseSummerset AbbeyAshendenIn addition to being one of BBC’s most popular series of all time, Downton Abbey has inspired a new publishing trend. This winter and spring, publishers will release a crop of new books set in Edwardian England. One of the most anticipated of these novels has been Fay Weldon’s trilogy-starter Habits of the House. At the turn of the 20th century, the Earl of Dilberne’s estate is in dire financial straits. He plans to save the family fortune by marrying his son Arthur off to a Chicago heiress named Minnie O'Brien, but both Arthur and Minnie have secrets that might jeopardize the engagement. Weldon, who wrote the pilot episode of the original Upstairs, Downstairs, brings the time period and its social conventions to life effortlessly.

 

T. J. Brown’s Summerset Abbey is a story about three young women in an upper-class household. Rowena and Victoria were raised along with Prudence, their late governess’s daughter. Rowena and Victoria’s father is the second son of an Earl, but class never mattered in their bohemian household. The three girls have been like sisters throughout their lives. When Rowena and Victoria’s father dies, the girls must move to their uncle’s home, Summerset Abbey, which is run much more traditionally. All three are forced to confront class for the first time when Prudence must become Rowena and Victoria’s maid. Romance and drama abound in this story, but a shocking family secret jeopardizes the girls’ bond. Summerset Abbey is the first novel in a captivating new trilogy.

 

In these stories, place is often as important as the characters. Elizabeth Wilhide’s debut novel Ashenden follows an English country house through its various inhabitants over 240 years of its history. The house becomes the main character in the upstairs and downstairs dramas that play out in it. Wildhide’s extensive knowledge of architecture and design give Ashenden a unique twist all its own.

Beth

 
 

Independent Woman

Independent Woman

posted by:
January 31, 2013 - 7:45am

A Change of FortuneLady Eliza Sumner is a determined woman bent on recovering her fortune, her family name, and her dignity in A Change of Fortune by Jen Turano. Some slight obstacles include a lack of money, family, friends, and a loss of faith. After her father’s death, Eliza’s inheritance was stolen by his trusted manager and his wife, Eliza’s former governess. The despicable duo has fled to America where they are masquerading as British aristocracy. Eliza, with little more than enough money to pay for her way across the pond, arrives in New York with the intent of recovering her wealth and returning to London in a blaze of glory. She takes a post as governess to a wealthy family and begins plotting.

 

When Eliza’s employer presses her into attending a dinner party, a disguised Eliza (complete with padding and eyeglasses) meets the fabulous Beckett brothers – Zayne and Hamilton. Hamilton is an eligible widower who blames himself for his wife’s death and is devoted to his two children. Because of the failure of his first marriage, he has sworn off women and marriage. However, Eliza and he learn that they share a common enemy and find themselves thrown together repeatedly in their efforts to recover her fortune and save his business. Eliza and Hamilton aren’t without friends who try to help their cause, including Agatha, an opinionated suffragette who happens to be the eldest daughter of Eliza’s employers, Arabella, sister to the Beckett brothers, and Theodore Wilder, a dashing detective.

 

This debut inspirational historical romance is packed with humor, interesting characters, and a fast-moving plot. This is the first in the Ladies of Distinction series and will appeal to fans of Deeanne Gist and Cathy Marie Hake. For more fun with this zany crew, look for A Most Peculiar Circumstance in June where readers will be delightfully reacquainted with Theodore Wilder and Arabella Beckett.

 

 

Maureen

 
 

Secrets, Politics and Life in the โ€˜70s

You are the Love of My LifeUnrelated secrets simultaneously surface, threatening to destroy a family, a neighborhood and a country in Susan Richards Shreve’s latest novel, You Are the Love of My Life. A community on the outskirts of Washington, DC is the perfect backdrop for this story set in 1973, just as Watergate is ready to engulf the capital and the nation. In this seemingly tranquil neighborhood, Lucy Painter grew up in a family drowning in secrecy. Her father, an advisor to Harry Truman, committed suicide due to “the information he kept”. Her mother changed their last name and moved them across the country for a fresh start, but these actions only served to catapult Lucy towards an adult life equally full of secrecy and lies. When Lucy moves with her two children back to her childhood home, she hopes for a life of anonymity. But intrusive neighbors, especially fellow mother Zelda who has been hiding a dysfunctional marriage, threaten the protective shell she’s built around her life. When Lucy’s daughter Maggie becomes entranced with Zelda and further isolates herself, Lucy realizes she must lay bare her past in order to move forward in her own life and rescue her daughter.

 

Shreve does an excellent job creating nuanced characters who don’t reveal all their cards. In addition to Lucy and Zelda there is August, a former professor who’s widowed and struggling with professional shortcomings, Lane, who is coping with the then-shame of breast cancer treatment, and Adam, Zelda’s husband and Vietnam veteran who is silently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Shreve’s novel highlights a time in American history when normalcy and conformity battled with larger social issues and political blunders too big to ignore, a time when underlying tensions came to a roiling boil.

 

Melanie