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An Everyday Obsession

An Everyday Obsession

posted by:
December 3, 2012 - 9:15am

The Dangers of Proximal AlphabetsTo the average observer, Ida, Jackson, and James are ordinary childhood friends. They imagine fantasylands, have sleepovers, and run amok outdoors, all in each other’s company. But they don’t stay children forever. In The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, Kathleen Alcott exposes the obsessions, insecurities, and weaknesses of the trio as they grow from closely enmeshed friends into troubled and estranged adults. 

 

Told from Ida’s point of view, much of the story focuses on Ida and Jackson, or I and J, as they call each other. From their earliest meeting Ida sees Jackson as uniquely hers, and Alcott’s simple and poetic prose unveils the seeds of Ida’s disquietingly intimate obsession with him. As an infant she cried when she was first separated from him, as a child she listens to his eerie sleep-talking conversations with James, and as an adult she proudly catalogues for the reader some of his most personal idiosyncrasies. James, Jackson’s younger brother, is slowly marginalized within the friendship into a mere witness to Ida and Jackson’s growing closeness. As they age, Ida and Jackson gradually become a couple and James drifts into mental illness. Jackson’s boyhood sleep-talking has transformed into more disturbing sleep-walking, and Ida’s response to his unconscious actions threatens to unhinge their strangely dysfunctional relationship.

 

Although quite short, this novel is packed with subtle emotions and extremely human relationships. The characters are all eccentric in one way or another, yet they seem so normal when viewed through Ida’s eyes. Part coming-of-age story and part psychological drama, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets is a thought-provoking and bittersweet read perfect for a cold fall night.

 

Rachael

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Religion, Philosophy, and Adventure

Religion, Philosophy, and Adventure

posted by:
December 3, 2012 - 8:45am

The Elephant Keepers' ChildrenPeter Hoeg has created a delightful novel with a cast of zany characters in his newest book The Elephant Keepers' Children. Fourteen-year-old Peter and his older siblings Tilte and Hans are thrust into a mystery when they are informed that their parents have mysteriously vanished. Hans manages to evade capture, but Peter and Tilte are caught and taken to Big Hill, a home for abandoned children and recovering addicts on the island of Fino. Determined to find their parents, Peter and Title plan and execute an elaborate escape, beginning an adventure that is destined to change their lives forever. They encounter several curious characters along the way, including Count Rickardt Three Lions, a recovering heroin addict and resident of  Big Hill, Leonora Ticklepalate, a nun in Fino’s Buddhist community and resident computer scientist and IT specialist, and Lars and Katinka, two police officers who are also star-crossed lovers chasing the children. Not everyone they encounter is out to help the pair. They are also being chased by a hapless bishop and her secretary, and a professor and his wife. Peter and Tilte are aware that their parents are up to something and they believe they are going to a conference in Copenhagen that will gather together great scientific minds and religious leaders of all faiths. Along the way, Peter reflects on his own brand of spiritualty and wonders what is left when you cut through the dogma.

 

Readers may remember Peter Hoeg from Smilla’s Sense of Snow but will encounter a very different novel with The Elephant Keepers' Children. Peter is an imminently likeable narrator, and the novel is full of humor, adventure, and incredibly memorable characters. There is also a philosophical undercurrent running through the novel that readers who enjoy a second layer will certainly appreciate. The tone and atmosphere are remarkably fun and there are a few great chuckles along the way.

 

Doug

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The Second Time Around

The Second Time Around

posted by:
November 30, 2012 - 8:45am

Rescue My HeartBarefoot in the Rain According to the Sinatra song, “Love is lovelier the second time around.” These two new romances prove him right with stories of couples giving love a second chance. Rescue My Heart by Jill Shalvis, the third in her Animal Magnetism series, brings readers Adam’s long-awaited story. When he was a teenager, Adam Connelly left behind Holly Reid, the only woman he ever loved, to join the military and make something of his life. After a rescue mission in Afghanistan went terribly wrong, Adam returned to Belle Haven, the veterinary clinic he runs with his brothers, to piece his life back together. He trains Search and Rescue dogs and coordinates rescues, but no longer works in the field. Holly is desperate to find her father who is missing on the mountain. When she asks Adam to help her, he can’t refuse. The longer Adam and Holly are together, the more he realizes that he never stopped loving her. Full of loveable dogs, steamy romance, and snappy dialogue, Rescue My Heart, like Adam and Holly’s relationship, was definitely worth the wait.

 

Fifteen years ago, Jocelyn Bloom, the heroine of Roxanne St. Claire’s Barefoot in the Rain, left behind her abusive father and her life in Mimosa Key, Florida. Her only regret is that when she escaped that world, she had to leave behind Will Palmer, the boy next door and her first love. Jocelyn returns to Mimosa Key after a tabloid scandal damages her reputation as a celebrity life coach in L.A., and she finds that Will is caring for her estranged father who now has Alzheimer’s. It’s time for Jocelyn to make some serious decisions in her life, and Will is determined that they give their love a second chance. St. Claire is known for her heart-pounding romantic suspense, but her new contemporary romance series shows her versatile talent. Readers will want to revisit her Barefoot Bay series soon.

 

Beth

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Here Comes the Hostage Taker

Here Comes the Hostage Taker

posted by:
November 30, 2012 - 8:30am

Love BombSomething old, something new, something borrowed, something explosive? In Love Bomb by Lisa Zeidner, Tess and Gabe’s wedding is hijacked by a rifle-wielding woman wearing a strapless white wedding gown. Her ensemble is completed with an antique gas mask and a small bomb strapped to her arm. Tess and Gabe wanted a simple home wedding with close family and friends. Tess’s mother, Helen, had the usual worries of weather and food that accompany hosting such an important event.  And of course, the guest list was a bit tricky as it included bitter exes, jealous girlfriends, and way too many psychiatrists. But those wedding day worries pale in comparison to the hostage drama that unfolds.

 

As the players in this theater, the wedding guests realize that this woman is seeking revenge for love lost. The guests each wrack their brains to try and seek a connection with the masked woman, and soon are confessing secrets and sins in the hopes of placating the “love terrorist.” Among the confessors are the bride’s thrice-married father, her recently divorced brother, and the groom’s sister’s movie-star boyfriend who is no stranger to stalkers. All of the psychiatrists try to take over the situation and talk to the hostage taker, but it is Helen who creates a bond with her and begins to pick up clues as to the woman’s identity. 

 

The reader learns of Crystal’s (the hostage taker) sad story before the wedding guests, and her motives are almost understandable. Despite the heavy artillery and potential for bloodshed, this is a comedy of manners about love gone horribly wrong. The hostages’ stories about failed love are the centerpiece of this story and are entertaining, depressing, and pathetic. This satirical story about the infinite varieties of passion and heartbreak reaches a tender, satisfying, and surprising conclusion. 

 

Maureen

 
 

Just in Time for Flu Season

SpilloverSpillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen is a fascinating look into the world of infectious diseases, specifically those that travel from animals to humans, otherwise known as zoonosis or spillover. Humankind is all too familiar with zoonoses in the form of influenza, Ebola, SARS and AIDS. In order to get a sense of the scope of interspecies diseases, keep in mind that about 60% of all infectious disease cross between animals and humans. According to Quammen’s research, zoonosis has killed 30 million people since 1981. To investigate spillover viruses, he travels all over the world with virus hunters. He describes multiple mysterious outbreaks of disease, coming from a wide range of animals such as bats, gorillas and pigs. Quammen believes the next major pandemic will come from a nonhuman animal virus that will infect and spread into the human population.

 

David Quammen is a terrific science writer and he knows how to tell a good story. He is excited about his subject and takes a warm, personal approach with his readers. He makes this very complicated and frightening subject accessible and easy to understand. Spillover is thoroughly researched, includes an extensive bibliography and is chock-full of fascinating, engaging material. Although Quammen takes issue with Richard Preston’s Hot Zone, readers who enjoyed Hot Zone will love Spillover.

 

Zeke

 
 

A Girl, a Guy, and a House

A Girl, a Guy, and a House

posted by:
November 29, 2012 - 8:30am

Young House LoveIf you’re looking for fresh DIY ideas for your home, look no farther than Young House Love: 243 Ways to Paint, Craft, Update, and Show Your Home Some Love by Sherry and John Petersik. The Richmond, Virginia couple bought their first home in 2006. It was in need of a lot of TLC, and they soon began a blog where they documented their home improvement projects. The popularity of their Young House Love blog grew beyond their wildest expectations, currently receiving over 5 million hits per month. After the Petersiks' daughter Clara was born, they purchased a second fixer-upper and started the process all over again. They are now chronicling the transformation of their new home on their blog.

 

Their new book pulls together some of their favorite budget-friendly ideas with clear photos and step-by-step instructions to help you create the same looks for your own home. The Petersiks warn readers that they will have to get their hands dirty to complete the projects in the book and that home improvement may be addictive. Creative projects like dressing up an old dresser with wallpaper, creating wall art from a drop cloth, or crafting 3-D butterflies from pages of old books are inspiring. Each project includes the cost of materials as well as an estimate of time and skill level required for completion. Their style includes a variety of textures and pops of color that add modern flair. The Petersiks’ engaging narrative makes Young House Love great for both DIY-ers looking for new ideas and less-motivated readers who prefer watching HGTV to tackling their own projects.

 

Beth

 
 

Upward Mobility

Upward Mobility

posted by:
November 26, 2012 - 9:05am

NWNegotiating life outside of London's Caldwell council estate is a little like surviving a video game for the sympathetic characters in British writer Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW. The NW stands for the gritty northwest corner of London, where this story takes place. Just like a video game, cantilevering to the next level involves luck, mobility, chance encounters, and the ability to beat perceived demons. The fictional housing project known as Caldie to locals is ground zero for Smith's thirty-something survivors who now cope with the vagaries of their life beyond their rough beginnings. At its core are Leah and Natalie, longtime best friends whose divergent paths belie their internal struggles to thrive. While Natalie in her dogged fashion goes about shedding her old life (she becomes a lawyer), Leah appears stuck in a morass of her own making. Their march toward college, adulthood, and marriage is not without the hardship of merging the past with a present that is strewn with self-doubt, regrettable decisions, and misguided envy. Along the way, their messy lives entwine with others from the old neighborhood, including likeable Felix, a recovering addict whose desire for a respectable life proves illusive.

 

No stranger to literary rebellion, Smith’s brassy tinkering with narrative style asks a lot of her readers. She divides the story into sections, with the largest given over to Natalie and conveyed in 185 snapshots, some only a sentence long. The author of several highly regarded novels, including White Teeth, Smith is adept at drawing out the heart and soul of her characters and sandwiching them between the rough edges of a diverse, violent, and modern city. In this case, it is a world too layered to fully understand and too fluid to remain still.

 

Cynthia

 
 

A Warped Sense of Reality

The Girl BelowThere is an unsettling mystery at the heart of Bianca Zander’s debut novel, The Girl Below, a tale of family secrets and self-discovery set in modern-day London. When Suki Piper was a little girl, she lived with her parents in a basement flat in Notting Hill. One night, her parents threw a party in their building’s courtyard. During the revelry, Suki and a few others became trapped underground in a World War II-era air raid shelter on the property. Suki has no memory of how she escaped, and this incident haunts her repeatedly, in dreams and also in waking moments when she is suddenly transported back to the party. She has other strange memories, including a hand which would reach out to her from a wardrobe and an unnerving statue of a girl in her neighbor’s flat. In the present day, Suki is in her late twenties and having a tough time. After a decades-long lonely existence in New Zealand trying to reconnect with her father, she has returned to London. Having little success with a job search or friendships, she becomes reacquainted with her former neighbors, a nice but dysfunctional family. Suki is once again launched into her past and must make sense once and for all of her fractured family and the missing pieces.

 

Suki can be a frustrating narrator, coming across as fairly lazy, impulsive and immature. Yet as she embarks on her search and more is revealed about her unstable family and upbringing, she becomes a more sympathetic character. Childhood events are relayed as Suki remembers them, giving a large portion of the story a fantastical, magical bend. Among her influences, Zander cites authors as diverse as Haruki Murakami, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sarah Waters. From these inspirations, a unique story is spun.  

 

Melanie

 
 

Hungry Like the Wolf

In the Pleasure GrooveFor the children of the eighties, big hair and make-up ruled the music world. MTV made music visual, and successful artists embraced the music video as both a promotional tool and a method of self-expression. Perhaps no band embodied the visual storytelling of this decade as completely as Duran Duran, Britain’s “other” Fab Five. John Taylor, founding member and bass player, chronicles the band’s career highs and lows with In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death and Duran Duran.    

 

While Taylor does venture into the confessional arena, revealing the typical rock-star excesses of sex and drugs, the true pleasure of this biography lies in his first-person account of British music in the seventies and eighties. As a teen in Birmingham, he and friend Nick Bates (later Rhodes) pooled their pence in order to see their idols perform live. Sitting at the proverbial feet of Queen, Bowie, and Roxy Music, they soaked up music like sponges and learned that the look was as vital to the success of the music as the beat. The band that would become Duran Duran was born from these young lessons learned. As they grew into their ruffled shirts, their conceptual lyrics combined with new wave, highly-synthesized music to give birth to the sound known as New Romanticism. Duran Duran was perfectly poised for stardom at the start of the MTV era, and the band created ground-breaking videos that still set the standard today such as “Girls on Film”, “Hungry Like the Wolf”, and “Rio.”

 

In the Pleasure Groove is not a tell-all, nor is it simply an insider’s guide to the biggest names in eighties music. It is a smooth glide through more than twenty years of music history. Fans of eighties music, as well as those of us who were teenagers then, will enjoy reliving the decade’s watershed moments such as Madonna writhing in a wedding gown, and Bob Geldof’s charity extravaganza Live Aid. Perhaps the quietest Duran member, Taylor reveals enough about the band to keep Duranies happy; they will certainly want to read this book more than once.

Sam

 
 

Unfaithful

Unfaithful

posted by:
November 23, 2012 - 8:05am

The Good WomanAt the center of The Good Woman by Jane Porter is Meg Brennan Roberts, who has always been good. As the oldest of a large Irish-American family, she is the good daughter, always available for support for her siblings, especially now that their mother’s cancer has returned. She is a good wife to Jack, her loving, successful architect husband and a good mother to three wonderful children. She has a good career as a publicist for a small winery in Napa. But lately, Meg has been having thoughts that are anything but good.

 

It all starts on a business trip to London with her younger, handsome boss Chad Hallahan. The international locale and whirlwind of fine food and wine prompt Chad to passionately express his feelings for Meg. She is flattered, and upon returning home cannot get him out of her mind. His declaration coincides with her recent feelings of emptiness, second-guessing her life choices. All of that, combined with the recent emotional distance of her husband, leads Meg right into Chad’s arms.

 

The guilt is overwhelming, but when she is with Chad, she feels like herself again and is blissfully happy.  Unfortunately, that happiness comes at the cost of everyone else in her life and who they need her to be. She chooses her family, but Jack discovers the affair, kicks her out of the house, and turns their children against her. Her family is shocked at their good girl’s behavior and heaps judgment upon her. This is an emotional story that packs a lot of punch. Porter captures the sisterly relationships perfectly and shares the story of infidelity without casting Meg as victim or villain. It is a real life story about tough choices and the aftershocks of mistakes. Readers will rejoice as this is the first of a trilogy, guaranteeing future meetings with the fabulous Brennan sisters.

Maureen