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Cold War Intrigue

Cold War Intrigue

posted by:
February 15, 2013 - 8:01am

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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The Better Downton Abbey?

The Better Downton Abbey?

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

HBO and BBC have partnered to bring Parade’s End, based on Ford Madox Ford’s classic modernist tetralogy, to the screen in a new five-part miniseries that will premiere in the US on February 26th on HBO. Ford’s novels, published separately between 1924 and 1928, were first combined and reissued as Parade’s End in 1950. The story follows Christopher Tietjens, the wealthy heir to the estate of Groby, who is serving in the British army during World War I. Christopher’s personal life is complicated by a love triangle. He is torn between his socialite wife Sylvia, who Graham Greene called "surely the most possessed evil character in the modern novel," and his suffragette mistress Valentine. Rather than focusing on the upstairs/downstairs themes of Downton Abbey, Parade’s End portrays a broader view of England and the English gentry around World War I. Parade’s End is a challenging but worthwhile read. The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch calls the novel “The Better Downton Abbey,” citing the characters’ sharper edges and the novel’s drama that excels where he feels Downton Abbey has begun to fall flat.

 

The miniseries was adapted for the small screen by Sir Tom Stoppard. Director Susanna White says that Parade’s End, which was commissioned before the Downton Abbey craze, is its own unique take on the time period.  Get a sneak peak at this critically-acclaimed drama, featuring the BBC’s Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher, here.

Beth

 
 

Bellwether for the Union

Rise to GreatnessAbraham Lincoln was an inexperienced president in 1862 when he faced his troubled country's most daunting crises to date. With the new year came the inescapable truth of a nation divided, broken, and at war. To realize his vision for the union would take patience, even-keeled fortitude, and the ability to draw in friend and foe alike. In David Von Drehle's terrific and highly readable book, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year, the historian reconstructs in a dramatic but disciplined tone the year's greatest challenges for the self-schooled Illinois lawyer. Unfolding month by month, Lincoln's growth as a leader is as transformative for the 16th president as it is for the state and stabilization of the union.

 

There is no doubt that issues were burning for Lincoln and the country. Aside from a civil war and unabated "secession fever,” the president was facing a government overwhelmed, a treasury without money, and a war department reported in shambles. Europe was exhibiting impatient leanings toward the south. At home, Lincoln's domestic situation presented its own challenges and heartache. The moral crisis of slavery, which would eventually catapult Lincoln to greatness, was looming.   

 

Von Drehle's careful chronology of this tumultuous year begins with New Year's Day and concludes a year later with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In captivating narrative guided by hefty research, layers of political, military and diplomatic maneuvering are peeled away as Von Drehle attempts to define the man Lincoln became as a result of the year's high stakes. Micro-biographies of the usual players add color, as do the plethora of Lincoln quotes, many poignant. Readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough will recognize here the republic at a crossroads and the bellwether of a nation who saw beyond.

Cynthia

 
 

Against All Odds

Against All Odds

posted by:
February 14, 2013 - 8:01am

The Queen of KatweThe inspirational story of a Ugandan teen is deftly shared by Tim Crothers in The Queen of Katwe: a Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. Phiona Mutesi lives in poverty with her mother and three siblings. Meals are hard to come by and Phiona’s education has been haphazard at best.  In 2005, at age nine, Phiona met Robert Katende, who had also grown up in slums, was a war refugee, and worked tirelessly as a missionary. His dream was to empower children through chess – highly unlikely since the game was so foreign there wasn’t even a word for it in the children’s language.

 

Children were enticed to the chess lessons by the promise of porridge, but soon many grew to love the game. Of these children, Phiona stood out as a talented, thinking chess player. In 2007, she was her country’s junior champion and continued winning titles over the next several years. In September 2010, she traveled to Siberia to compete in the Chess Olympiad, the world’s most prestigious team-chess event. Although she didn’t win, she did earn the respect of competitors and teammates. The Queen of Katwe is the story of a young girl struggling against every conceivable obstacle to pursue her dream. Readers will root and hope that Phiona will one day succeed as a Grandmaster and will remember her uplifting spirit long after the book is closed.

 

Crothers first shared Phiona’s story in an ESPN Magazine article, which was a finalist for the National Magazine Award. To hear some of the story in Phiona’s own words, watch this video from ESPN. In September, 2012, Phiona again competed in the Chess Olympiad, and her strong performance earned her the title of Woman Candidate Master, making her the first titled female player in Ugandan history. This fantastic dream may just become reality. 

 

Maureen

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Web of Lives

Web of Lives

posted by:
February 11, 2013 - 9:15am

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

 
 

Blood or Water?

Blood or Water?

posted by:
February 11, 2013 - 8:45am

yBooks about children in the foster care system tend to be a largely grim bunch. Fiction or fact, they are often filled with requisite accounts of, at best, benign neglect and frequently tell a far more horrifying tale. In her debut novel, Y, author Marjorie Celona explores the concept of family ties that bind both by blood and by choice.

 

The headline reads “Abandoned Infant: Police Promise No Charges” after a newborn baby is found in the early morning on the steps of the YMCA. The revolving door of foster families grinds into motion as baby Shandi gets shuffled about, her name changed to Shannon and her arm broken by a foster father. As a preschooler, Shannon lands in the loving home of single mother Miranda and her daughter Lydia-Rose who is the same age as Shannon. Miranda’s home is modest and her income small, yet she is determined to form a family which includes loving Shannon as her daughter, as Lydia-Rose’s sister.

 

Could the story end here? Instead, Celona goes on to explore the effects of abandonment and subsequent feelings of alienation on Shannon as she grows up in Miranda’s home. At the same time, she alternates Shannon’s story with that of her parents and grandparents, revealing the trajectory of events which led up to the morning at the Y. Celona uses Shannon as an omniscient narrator and allows her to completely relate her own story; this includes her search for her “real” parents. At the same time, she is recounting her biological family’s history, chronicling incidents occurring long before her birth. Ultimately, Shannon must figure out what constitutes “family” for her. For more about growing up in the foster care system, try Janet Fitch’s White Oleander or Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s biography, Three Little Words.

 

Lori

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The Fascination Continues

The Fascination Continues

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

The Missing Manuscript of Jane AustenJane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice remains one of the most popular and imitated classics although it has been two hundred years since its publication on January 29, 2013. Syrie James offers an intriguing addition to the many modern Jane Austen homages with The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, which presents a story-within-a-story, both of which will delight ardent fans. 

 

Librarian Samantha McDonough is travelling in Oxford when she stumbles across a letter in an old book of poetry. The letter is from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, and describes a manuscript Jane had lost while visiting an estate named Greenbriar in 1802. A missing Jane manuscript could be monumental and Samantha immediately begins researching. Her investigation leads her to the now-crumbling Greenbriar and its owner Anthony Whittaker. The two discover the pages in a secret compartment and begin reading The Stanhopes along with the reader. This purported Austen story introduces Rebecca Stanhope and her rector father, both snubbed by polite society because of a fabricated gambling charge. As Rebecca attempts to restore her father’s good name and discover the nefarious person spreading the lies, she encounters love. James does an excellent job of recreating Austen’s voice and setting and weaving two compelling stories. As the Stanhopes strive to regain their respectable position, Samantha and Anthony are caught up in their growing attraction, yet disagree on how to handle this invaluable treasure.

 

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Jane should be pleased as punch, although it is doubtful that she would ever surrender to such vanity. Syrie James is one of a multitude of authors, including P.D. James and Colleen McCullough, who have entries in the Jane Austen assembly. From spunky Bridget Jones to Colin Firth’s (as Mr. Darcy) unforgettable lake scene, Pride and Prejudice remains a touchstone for modern storytelling.   

Maureen

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Best Friends Forever

Best Friends Forever

posted by:
February 7, 2013 - 9:01am

You Tell Your Dog FirstA Letter to My DogDog owners will tell you that their dogs are much more than just pets. They are important, beloved members of the family. Two new books examine that love between humans and their canines. For many years, Alison Pace, author of a new book of essays called You Tell Your Dog First, was a dog person without a dog. Then she moved into a dog-friendly apartment building in New York City and found the love of her life—a West Highland white terrier named Carlie. In these essays, Pace shares the ups and downs of her life as a single writer in New York City. She quickly sees that she connects to the world differently once Carlie becomes part of her life. Together, Alison and Carlie weather bad dates and a cancer scare, and they meet some interesting new friends at the park. Pace, who typically writes romantic fiction featuring lovable canine sidekicks, brings warmth and humor to the essays and makes us all long for a loyal pal like Carlie.

 

Following the success of their popular blog A Letter to my Dog, Robin Layton, Kimi Culp, and Lisa Erspamer compiled a new book called A Letter to My Dog: Notes to Our Best Friends.The book is a collection of photographs of dogs along with letters to the pooches from their humans. Letters from celebrities like Tony Bennett, Oprah Winfrey, Kristin Chenoweth, Chelsea Handler and Robin Roberts are funny, sad, quirky, and relatable. A Letter to My Dog is sure to warm the hearts of dog lovers everywhere.

Beth

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The Wild Blue Yonder

The Wild Blue Yonder

posted by:
February 4, 2013 - 9:01am

 

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.

 
 

The Secret Life of a Suburban Wife

The Secret Life of a Suburban Wife

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

 

Something NewJanis Thomas introduces readers to a memorable, modern mom in Something New. Ellen Ivers has it all: a model husband in Jonah, three beautiful children, a comfortable home, even a lovable dog. She also has a few extra pounds, no career, and a life of boredom.  At forty-two Ellen is questioning her life of carpooling, kids’ parties, and after-school activities. Her life is in a rut and she’s let herself go physically and emotionally. When her cousin challenges her to enter a blogging contest sponsored by Ladies Living Well Journal, Ellen is initially hesitant. It’s been years since she wrote professionally and she questions what to write about and who would really be interested in her life as a housewife. At the same time, she meets sexy cop Ben Campbell who is clearly interested in her-- and as more than a friend. His words, “If you don’t try something new, you might as well just stop” motivate Ellen to enter the contest and initiate a self-refurbishment plan.

 

Ellen begins blogging, exercising, and taking time with her appearance. Her blog posts attract increasing numbers of readers and her treadmill time is really paying off. Jonah is not entirely pleased about the new Ellen and cracks in their marriage start to widen. Ellen is thrilled with her appearance and delighted that her relationship with the married Ben has moved beyond simple flirtation. But just as her confidence and newfound career are on the rise, her family life starts to unravel. The journey Ellen faces is familiar and important, but Thomas peppers the story with laugh-out-loud moments amidst the real life situations.  Ellen is a funny, honest, and recognizable character who ultimately must choose what it is that will deliver the fulfillment she has been seeking.   

Maureen

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