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Ill-Gotten Gains

Ill-Gotten Gains

posted by:
November 2, 2012 - 6:03am

 

Live by NightPhantomFor best-selling authors like Jo Nesbo and Dennis Lehane, even if the adage “crime doesn’t pay” is true, writing about it most certainly does. Nesbo offers up Phantom, the ninth book in his police detective series, while Lehane continues his Boston-based Coughlin family saga with Live by Night. Joe is the baby boy of the Coughlin brothers, introduced to us in The Given Day. All grown up and despite coming from a line of Boston Irish policemen, Joe chooses the gangster life of the Prohibition-era 1920s. Moving between rival mobs with bloody street wars and after a stint in Boston’s infamous Charlestown prison, Joe ends up with a promotion to expand Maso Pescatore’s “family” businesses in Florida, including hooch distillation and prostitution. Cuban immigration, evangelical tent revivals, the love of women both good and bad, and some rather snappy dialogue (along with a plethora of weaponry) illuminate Joe’s struggle to balance his humanity against his choices. Better known for the psychological thrillers  Mystic River and Shutter Island, Lehane shows his versatility as an author in Live by Night.

 

 Nesbo is the Norwegian author of the Harry Hole (pronounced Hool-eh) books. In Phantom, Hole, having been dismissed from Oslo’s force, is working independently to prove Oleg Rauke, the drug running son of Hole’s former lover, innocent of murder. Nesbo has a “sins of the father” theme running through this book; as he is dying, the victim addresses his dad as part of the ongoing narration while Hole’s motivation stems in part from his guilt at abandoning his paternal role in Oleg’s upbringing. The Harry Hole series is tightly written and often weaves politics and institutional corruption into its intricate plots. Fans of Stieg Larsson and Nelson DeMille won’t want to miss Jo Nesbo and Phantom.

Lori

 
 

Through the Eyes of a Child

Through the Eyes of a Child

posted by:
November 2, 2012 - 6:01am

 

What I DidIt all begins with a boy, a father and a busy street. Christopher Wakling’s latest book, What I Did, shows how one small incident can become a case study in multiple viewpoints, having a much greater impact on people as a result. Billy runs into the road ahead of his father on an outing to the park. His father reacts with the typical fury of an overworked parent, cursing and roughly handling his son. What takes this incident from minor to major is a woman who sees him disciplining the boy and calls child protective services, who launch an investigation. What is equally intriguing and at times baffling for the reader is trying to determine the details of what actually happened, since the story is told by an unreliable narrator--six-year-old Billy.

 

Despite the serious plotline, the narration is often laugh-out-loud funny. Billy’s voice is similar to the young narrators of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Emma Donoghue’s Room. Lacking in social skills, he is imaginative and has a unique perspective of the world around him. He also has a fascination with animals and science, and his commentary is interspersed with random bits of trivia. Still, the reader only has Billy’s perspective, and his actions are steered by a six-year-old’s intellectual capacity for understanding what to do and say in order to bring this incident into proper perspective. A few sections read like a “Who’s on First” routine, when Billy misinterprets what is being asked by social workers and doctors. Wakling has an interesting background, and mentioning on his website that this book was in part inspired by his own experience with fatherhood and the character flaws it has exposed in him. This is a unique, engaging read where the reader roots for Billy and his parents, despite their flaws.

 

 

Melanie

 
 

Lightning Strikes Twice

The Garden of Evening MistsOne of the literary world’s more prestigious prizes is Great Britain’s Man Booker prize for contemporary fiction. On October 16, Mantel’s novel, Bring Up the Bodies, won this year’s Booker award. Second in a planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, Mantel won the same prize in 2009 for her first book in the series, Wolf Hall. While Mantel is only the third author (and the only woman) ­to win the Booker twice, she is also the only author to win again for a sequel. Between the Covers looked at Bring Up the Bodies in September.

 

One of the short list nominees was Indian poet and musician Jeet Thayil’s debut novel and an homage to the sub-continent’s drug culture, Narcopolis. Thayil, a self-confessed former addict, takes the reader on a fantastical journey through Bombay’s opium dens and brothels. Often revolving around Dimple, a beautiful enigmatic eunuch working as a prostitute and pipe-preparer, the narrative slips in and out of the side stories of other characters while the arrival of heroin begins to exert its influence in this underworld. In interviews, Thayil says he wanted to honor the “poor and marginalized, the voiceless,” whose story rarely is told and he does so in a portrayal that is disturbing and graphic but not gratuitous.

 

 Also on the short list was author Tan Twan Eng for his novel The Garden of Evening Mists. In the earliest stages of dementia, Malaysian judge Yun Ling Teoh is retiring from the bench. Once a prisoner in a Japanese internment camp in the Malayan jungle where her sister died, Ling Teoh then survived the pursuant guerilla civil wars by taking refuge in the Highlands with an exiled Japanese royal gardener and artist. Elegantly written, grim with historical detail, The Garden of Evening Mists tantalizingly reveals the secrets in Ling Teoh’s complex past.

Lori

 
 

It's the End of the World As We Know It

The Dog StarsThe world has changed in Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars.  A pandemic has infected millions. Many have not survived, and those that have are shunned and avoided.  The novel begins nine years after the outbreak, and centers around pilot Hig and his aging dog, Jasper. Hig and Jasper live at an abandoned airport with survivalist and gun-nut Bangley.  Hig has refurbished a 1956 Cessna, which he takes on short flights in the area. He has to choose his paths with care. If he flies too far, he could run out of fuel.  Airports in the area can be dangerous places. Wandering groups of marauders appear that would kill you as soon as look at you.  Airport runways have fallen into ruin and there is a good chance Hig would not be able to land.  He could find himself too far from home, and not able to find the fuel he needs to get back.  He finds himself desperately lonely.  He is reminded of his wife Melissa who died during the pandemic.  Bangley is not much for conversation. Occasionally, Hig flies to deliver supplies to a group of Mennonites who have been infected with the blood disease, but he can never get too close with them. Suddenly, a tragic event happens that will change Hig’s perceptions and force him to make a decision that will alter the course of his life.

 

The Dog Stars is primarily a character study of a man who has lost hope.  It is a heartbreaking work, and the reader gets the sense of intense loneliness that Hig is feeling, trapped in this new world, fighting each day for survival.  Written in short passages and often single sentences, the story has a distinct style that is very readable and ultimately compelling.  This is a novel to be savored, and the reader will remember Hig long after they have finished the final page.

Doug

 
 

Antarctica or Bust

Antarctica or Bust

posted by:
September 21, 2012 - 7:01am

Where'd You Go BenadetteBernadette Fox—mother, wife, one-time architectural prodigy—has disappeared, and it’s up to her thirteen year-old daughter Bee Branch to put together the clues as to her whereabouts. Where’d You Go Bernadette is a brash satirical novel, told in a series of emails and other correspondence from various characters that relay the circumstances leading up to Bernadette’s flight.

 

Bee’s reward for a perfect report card throughout middle school was her own idea: a family trip to Antarctica. (She’d much rather have an expedition than a pony.) But her parents don’t quite share her enthusiasm. Bernadette, the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant at the beginning of her career, suffered a crippling setback when her Twenty Mile House (built from materials sourced within 20 miles of its location) met a vengeful demise. She retreated from the world of architecture, setting up house with her husband Elgin Branch, a techie wunderkind project manager for Microsoft whose TEDTalk is the fourth most viewed video on YouTube. Increasingly antisocial and generally testy, she abhors dealing with her fellow Galer Street School moms, a petty group she refers to as “gnats.” No one in Seattle knows that Bernadette is a genius in self-imposed exile who has hired a virtual assistant in India to deal with the overwhelming details of her life. How can she handle Antarctica? How can Elgin take a vacation when his team is working overtime on Samantha 2, a brain-computer interface?

 

Author Maria Semple, a former sitcom writer for shows including Arrested Development and Mad About You, has written a wickedly entertaining sendup of over-doting parents, the politics of private schools, the importance of keeping up appearances, the zeitgeist of Microsoft, and all things held sacred by the upper middle class Seattle intelligentsia. But at the heart of this novel are the relationships between a mother and daughter, and a husband and wife who appreciate each other in spite of it all.

Paula G.

 
 

Life As We Come to See It

Life As We Come to See It

posted by:
September 14, 2012 - 7:45am

An Uncommon EducationWaiting for one’s life to begin often means missing out on the present. In An Uncommon Education, Elizabeth Percer presents a reflective, coming-of-age story. Naomi Feinstein spends her childhood waiting for circumstances to change, especially hoping for more friends and freedom from her classmates’ cruelty. As a young adult, she gradually comes to terms with her life, embracing both its imperfections and possibilities. 

 

More than one person’s reflections, however, this book is also an immigrant story and family saga. Naomi chronicles her lonely childhood with first-generation immigrant parents who were often in poor health. Her father was Jewish and her mother a Catholic who converted to Judaism, which furthers her feelings of isolation and confuses her sense of identity and where she belongs. Gifted with a photographic memory and fascinated from an early age with saving lives and curing illness, Naomi goes to Wellesley College to become a doctor. Her time at the school is heavily influenced by her initiation into a secret Shakespeare society comprised of students who are all unconventional or outsiders in some capacity.

 

Although a large part of this story takes place at a university, Naomi’s true “education” is the life lessons she receives along the way, particularly when a scandal threatens her hard-earned friendships. Percer’s writing is very poetic and lyrical. As a narrator, Naomi is smart and insightful, and as her character matures, so does her narrative style and thought process. Readers will relate to her journey, which is less heroic than it is a series of wrong turns and learning by trial and error. A good recommend for book clubs.

 

Melanie

 
 

Across the Pond Contenders

Across the Pond Contenders

posted by:
September 13, 2012 - 7:30am

Bring Up the BodiesThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FrySkiosWhat do Skios by Michael Frayn, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, and Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies have in common? Each has been included on the Long List of Great Britain’s highly coveted contemporary fiction award, the Man Booker Prize.

 

Taking place on the private Greek island of Skios, blonde Nikki Hook is the coolly capable public relations rep for the prestigious Fred Toppler foundation. She is preparing for the arrival of, and fantasizing about, much vaunted guest speaker Dr. Norman Wilfred. Nikki’s gal pal Georgie is heading to a secretive tryst at the other end of the island with dilettante playboy Oscar Fox. Lost luggage, mistaken identity, wrong rooms, taxi-driving brothers, and a language barrier all figure prominently in this farce, both comedic and satirical. Euphoksoliva, anyone?

 

Hobby-less Harold is recently retired. Seemingly estranged from his only son, on the very last nerve of his house-cleaning wife, and locked in desultory lawn care chats with his recently widowed neighbor, Harold needs a purpose. Purpose arrives via the mail in the guise of a brief letter from former co-worker Queenie Hennessy, who writes to let Harold know she is dying. Harold responds with a quick condolence note but instead decides that if he walks to see Queenie himself, she will survive. Marching along in yacht shoes and a neck tie, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has Mr. Fry walking five hundred miles through England as he develops both blisters and perspective in this charming yet poignant tale.

 

Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to Hilary Mantel’s 2009 winner of the Booker Prize, Wolf Hall, and again features Thomas Cromwell. Now a powerful minister to Henry VIII, Cromwell’s job is to clear out Anne Boleyn as Henry yearns to replace her with Jane Seymour. Written using present tense, the author offers a fresh view on Cromwell as a thoughtful reformer carrying out the wishes of the King. Mantel’s skill in writing fascinating and suspenseful historical fiction is on display here, drawing in the reader despite the foregone conclusion. Mantel plans a third book which will complete the Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

 

Lori

 
 

Life, Love, and Ducks

Life, Love, and Ducks

posted by:
September 4, 2012 - 7:00am

The Chemistry of TearsMerriam-Webster’s dictionary defines automaton as “a mechanism that is relatively self-operating” such as a robot. Such a machine forms the underpinning of the two-time Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey’s newest book, The Chemistry of Tears.

 

Carey introduces Catherine Gerhig, a London museum curator. She has just been told about the unexpected death of co-worker and family man Matthew, with whom she has been having a covert long-term affair. Catherine’s boss assigns to her the labor-intensive job of reassembling a complicated Victorian mechanical toy in attempt to distract her from her overwhelming grief. Amongst the chests of parts, Catherine finds the journals of Henry Brandling. Brandling was an Englishman who had traveled to rural Germany to commission clockmakers to build a fantastic mechanical duck which he intends to present to his beloved sickly son.

 

Webster’s second meaning for automaton refers to a machine operating according to predetermined directions; Catherine and Henry, as revealed through his diaries, both seem to be on autopilot themselves. Henry is on his single-minded quixotic quest to bring home a toy, the magical novelty of which he believes will spark his son to live. Self-medicated Catherine is slogging through the motions of life, unhinged as she is by her anguish at losing her lover.

 

Carey is a clever writer who blurs the distinctions between man and machine. Catherine eats only to live, Henry despairs at the paucity of food available to him, and what turns out to be a swan has a fully functioning digestive tract and eats for the entertainment of others. Henry and Catherine are objects of manipulation, as is the swan. The Chemistry of Tears is a well-written and intelligent story and Carey’s illuminating descriptions of antique mechanical inventions are a lovely bonus.  

Lori

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A Simple Life

A Simple Life

posted by:
August 31, 2012 - 7:30am

The OrchardistDespite majestic surroundings and lifelong ties to the earth's bounty, there was little color in William Talmadge's days.  A solitary figure living a simple life, his emotional and physical toils are somberly chronicled in Amanda Coplin's haunting literary debut, The Orchardist.

 

Set in the rural Pacific Northwest at the turn of the twentieth century, Talmadge spends his days methodically tending a grove of fruit trees started by his widowed pioneer mother on his 400 acres of family land. No stranger to loss, the middle-aged farmer still pines for a beloved sister who mysteriously disappeared years earlier. When he encounters two young and pregnant runaway sisters, Jane and Della, he decides to shelter them. His actions are shaped by his memories of the sister he lost and the family he hesitantly envisions. It is the one person who knows him well, his old friend Caroline Middey, who observes, "suffering had formed him. " Circumstances will now change his life, especially as a new baby, Angeline, becomes "his shadow in the trees," and the new bud of this makeshift family whose fragile underpinnings are about to give way.

 

Coplin's writing is spare and deliberate, with minimal dialogue. Much is conveyed by the silent introspection of memorable characters and their sense of belonging, especially of a broken Della. Coplin, who was born in Wenatchee, Washington, grew up among her grandfather's orchards. Her storytelling is rich with images of a frontier before railroads or highways and of a time and place when one belonged to the earth. Fans of John Steinbeck, Leif Enger ‘s Peace Like a River or Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain will welcome Coplin to their stack of enticing reads.

 

Cynthia

 
 

Memories of War

Memories of War

posted by:
August 28, 2012 - 9:20am

The Yellow BirdsDebut author Kevin Powers takes us to the Iraq War and back in his poignant novel The Yellow Birds. Narrating from a secluded cabin in the mountains of Virginia, twenty-one-year-old veteran John Bartle recalls his hellish experiences in Iraq’s Nineveh Province and his current struggles to rebuild a life ravaged by post-traumatic stress.

 

Private Bartle’s story begins in basic training, where he quickly befriends an eighteen-year-old recruit named Murphy. They become inseparable, and Bartle takes it on himself to protect Murphy and get him back home safely. But once they arrive in war-torn Iraq, these two young soldiers discover that neither is ready to face the physical and psychological battles yet to come. What unfolds is a testament to friendship and loss set against the horrors of war, as well as a moving portrayal of how war affects not just soldiers but also their families and friends at home.

 

Powers, an Iraq veteran himself and recent M.F.A. graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, has the voice of a poet and wrote The Yellow Birds largely based on his own war experiences. Early praise from authors like Colm Toibin and Ann Patchett hails this novel as a “superb literary achievement” and proclaims it a modern classic. In fact, New York Times bestselling author Chris Cleave has compared Powers to Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy for his use of spare, lyrical prose.

 

Rich with flashbacks, metaphors, and written in a stream-of-consciousness style, The Yellow Birds will stay with you long after the final page. Readers who enjoy this new novel may also want to try Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and Fobbit by David Abrams, two equally wonderful stories that take a satirical spin on the Iraq War.

 

Alex

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