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Eight Degrees of Manipulation

The Stockholm OctavoSome novels seem designed for escape, others for amusement, and yet others to satisfy an intellectual craving. Karen Engelmann’s The Stockholm Octavo fits into none of these particular niches yet embodies the characteristics of them all by simply engulfing the reader. With each passing scene, Engelmann sweeps the reader further into to a richly-detailed hybrid of 18th century Swedish politics and mysticism.

 

Emil Larsson has fared well for himself in this world. A rising sekretaire, skillful gamer and thoroughly contented bachelor, Larsson is a man immersed in the pleasures and glory of Stockholm’s Golden Age.  However, destiny is about to deal Emil an altogether new hand. One night, shortly after learning he must give up bachelorhood to maintain his prestigious government post, Emil is approached by Mrs. Sparrow, the proprietress of his favorite gaming house. A known seer, Mrs. Sparrow tells him she has had a startling vision of his future and invites him to undergo the cartomancy ritual known as the Octavo.

 

The Octavo is a rare and delicate reading – granted to few and successfully wielded by yet fewer. Revolving around a singular life-changing occurrence and the eight people who will bring the event to pass, the Octavo is no mere game. It is a chance meeting of known destiny and free will.  And as Emil is about to discover, he is not the only player.

 

The Stockholm Octavo will appeal to a wide range of readers. A wholly original and dazzling blend of historical events, personal fortune, political intrigue and mysticism awaits readers who dare to follow Emil on his perilous journey.

 

Meghan

 
 

Deadly Crescendo

Deadly Crescendo

posted by:
November 9, 2012 - 7:08am

Little StarNot for faint hearts or weak stomachs, John Ajvide Lindqvist will be sure to terrify and delight horror fans with his unique brand of Scandinavian horror in Little Star.  Lennart and Laila Cedersrom were once a famous Swedish pop duo with a hit song.  As they grew older, their fame faded and they were left trapped in a disastrous marriage and with angry and bitter son. One fateful day, Lennart wandered into the woods to pick mushrooms, and he found an infant, left discarded, half buried and in a plastic bag.  He brings the infant home and gives her the moniker Little One.  Lennart has an ear for music, and soon he realizes that Little One emits the most beautiful notes. He believes she is destined to become a great singer. Afraid to call the police or social services in fear that they would take her away, Lennart and Laila keep Little One locked in the basement. They instill in her a fear of adults. She remains trapped for years, until she finally reaches adolescence.

 

In another part of Sweden we meet Theresa. As a girl, Theresa is quiet and doesn’t quite fit in socially.This becomes traumatic when she becomes older and begins to gain weight. She finds herself shunned and mocked at school, while even her one childhood friends finds a girlfriend and moves on. Theresa begins to withdraw from the world, creating online personas and trolling poetry sites. She becomes obsessed with a contestant on Sweden’s version of Idol, and is determined to meet this strange singer. When she finally meets Little One, a terrifying and dysfunctional friendship is formed. The novel examines the music industry, the effects of bullying, reality singing competitions and dysfunctional relationships and winds them together in a dark and terrifying package. Little Star is an unsettling read that will haunt readers long after they have finished the novel.

Doug

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Dark Secrets at The River House

Dark Secrets at The River House

posted by:
November 9, 2012 - 7:01am

Kept in the DarkThere is for each of us a place where we breathe easier, feel safer, and are most alive. It may be a quiet cabin in the mountains, a high-rise apartment in the city, or a cottage in the woods. Sonia’s place is The River House, a once beautiful three-story home along the Thames River in London. It is in this house that Sonia keeps her heart, her dreams, and her dark secrets in Penny Hancock’s Kept in the Dark. Other than sessions with her voice clients, Sonia spends much of her time at home alone. Her daughter has gone to university and her husband travels for work. It takes her by surprise when fifteen-year-old Jez, the nephew of her friend and neighbor Helen, arrives asking to borrow an old record album of her husband’s. Jez’s youth and beauty awaken memories that Sonia has worked hard to bury deep down, painful memories from her own youth. Long days spent on the river with her first love, Seb, come rushing back, and Sonia reacts by impulsively drugging Jez’s drink and holding him captive. Soon all of London is looking for the missing boy, never suspecting lovely, normal-looking Sonia. Long ago, Seb was taken from her, first by distance and then by a tragic river accident. This time, she will do whatever it takes to keep her young man safely with her forever.

 

Setting plays an essential part in Hancock’s writing, and both the house and the river are characters in this disturbing tale of obsession. Told alternately from the points of view of Helen and Sonia, we get a sense of the emotional instability of the human psyche as well as the various reactions people have under extreme stress. Like a horrific accident you cannot tear your eyes away from, Hancock dares you to look away as the many secrets unravel.  Fans of Sophie Hannah or readers looking for the next great dark thriller after Gone Girl will devour Kept in the Dark.

Sam

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Ripped from Historical Headlines

The Damnation of John DonellanThe Suspicions of Mr. WhicherTrue crime readers usually think of tales ripped from recent headlines, but some of the most intriguing crime writing is based on historical crimes. These two stories are sure to keep readers on the edge of their seats until all is revealed. The Damnation of John Donellan: A Mysterious Case of Death and Scandal in Georgian England takes on the shocking death of Theodosius Boughton, the 20-year-old heir to a fortune and baronetcy, in August 1780. Within an hour of taking a physic prescribed by his doctor, Boughton suffered convulsions and died. Could he have died of natural causes or accidentally died of poisoning from his medical treatments? Was he truly murdered? Although there could have been many natural causes of his death or many suspects if he was indeed murdered, Boughton’s brother-in-law John Donellan was tried and executed for murdering Boughton based largely on the fact that he rinsed out the medicine bottle shortly after Boughton’s collapse. Author Elizabeth Cooke breaks down the evidence from the case and the ensuing trial. Readers will see that that Donellan did not receive a fair trial and may have actually died an innocent man.

 

Readers who might enjoy this title should also try Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. When three-year-old Saville Kent was found with his throat slit in June of 1860, the case became a national obsession, dominating English newspapers. People were horrified at the brutality of the crime and stunned by the idea that someone from within the Kent household was believed to have taken the life of an innocent child. Summerscale frames the story as an English murder mystery and keeps the reader engaged until the conclusion of this story that electrified a nation and fed the English obsession with mysteries.  

Beth

 
 

A Portrait of the President as a Depressed Young Man

The HypoCountless books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, some of which cover his mental health issues. In The Hypo: the Melancholic Young Lincoln, Noah van Sciver portrays Honest Abe’s depression in a way rarely seen so clearly. Starting from the point of Lincoln’s arrival in Springfield, Illinois, in 1837, van Sciver’s words and pictures bring to life the world of this place and time in American history. Lincoln comes to work as a lawyer with John Stuart, while also serving with the Illinois state legislature. Soon after getting to Springfield, he meets the philandering but good-hearted Joshua Speed with whom he shares an apartment and who becomes his closest confidant. Working at their two-person law firm, Lincoln meets Stuart’s cousin, Mary Todd, and is introduced to society life. Although Abe and Mary Todd quickly fall in love, her family disapproves of his low social standing, and each of their mental health issues hasten the dissolution of their engagement. Lincoln has a total breakdown, and is “nursed” back to health by a doctor using methods such as bloodletting and mercury treatments. Mary Todd’s own undiagnosed issues are manifested in debilitating migraines. With the help of Speed and other friends, they are eventually reunited, engaged again and married.

 

Completely rendered in black and white, Van Sciver’s pen-and-ink, crosshatch style is perfect in telling the story of our beloved sixteenth president’s pre-wedlock years. He captures Lincoln as often ill-at-ease, bumbling, and very much prone to sadness, but who is also occasionally able to command a room with amusing tales, poetic language, and political finesse. The frontier, with all its grime, poverty, and its class divide is also intensely illustrated, placing the reader directly into the setting. Readers of David Herbert Donald’s biography Lincoln, Joshua Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy, and those interested in the biopic of the legendary president (starring Daniel Day-Lewis) will find much to appreciate in this graphic presentation.

Todd

 
 

Sand in the Wound

Sand in the Wound

posted by:
November 5, 2012 - 8:30am

A Hologram for the KingRecession-weary businessman Alan Clay lives in a maelstrom of uncertainty brought about by his own self-doubt and poor decisions in A Hologram for the King, the trenchant new novel by National Book Award finalist Dave Eggers. Divorced, broke, and obsessed with a lump on his neck, the fifty-four-year-old arrives in Saudi Arabia with an opportunity to redeem his mundane self in a ruthless global economy. He is greeted by a strangely out of place vinyl party tent where he and his team wait, and wait some more, for their one chance to impress the elusive King Abdullah and his newly built city of the future. 

 

As far as mirages go, there are plenty here. King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC)  is referred to as the "city to be in the desert by the sea"  when Clay and his team of young techies from Reliant Systems Corporation show up to demonstrate holographic teleconference systems. At stake is a citywide technology contract for their company and an emotional and financial turn-around for Clay. When Clay is not getting drunk, the former bicycle salesman is worrying about his daughter's fractured relationship with his ex-wife and how he will pay her next college tuition bill. He spends his free time writing her in a heartfelt voice several unfinished letters that he never mails.

 

Social commentary is nothing new for the multi-accomplished Eggers whose previous books include Zeitoun and What is the What. In the complex, somber Alan Clay, Eggers has created a wry character whose attempts to remain relevant and connected mirror America's own efforts to stem a decline of its own making. A pitch-perfect capture of the repercussions of today's international economic climate and the chicanery of the manufacturing industry, this solid and spare, quote-less novel is a reflection on how we live and work in a changing world.

 

Cynthia

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Mr. Rich or Mr. Right?

Mr. Rich or Mr. Right?

posted by:
November 5, 2012 - 7:45am

The Jane Austen Marriage ManualKate Shaw is broke, single, and approaching forty, but she is happy with her job as a freelance magazine writer and her circle of supportive friends. Unfortunately, Kate’s happiness is short lived in The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, by Kim Izzo, when she loses her job and her beloved grandmother dies. Still mourning that loss, Kate learns that the home she shared with her grandmother will have to be sold. Kate finds herself camped out in her sister’s living room, sleeping on a couch when she resolves to take a page from the lives of so many women in her favorite Jane Austen novels and find a rich husband. After all, it’s hard to live on love, but diamonds and Dom Perignon make everything a little brighter.

 

Her friends rally round by connecting her to other freelance jobs and presenting her with a unique birthday gift – a Scottish title! This title comes in handy for the newly named Lady Kate of Loch Broom. Her first job is to test the theory that to stay afloat in tough economic times a woman should find herself a wealthy man. Kate begins her research in earnest in London, Palm Beach, and St. Moritz where she rubs shoulders with the rich and richer. She is wooed by one wealthy man, but it is the charming bed and breakfast owner who keeps popping up at events and in her head.

  

Kate’s search for love is an age-old odyssey, but Izzo manages to freshen it up with a memorable cast of supporting characters and some hilariously embarrassing moments. The descriptions of lavish, spectacular parties and couture clothing read like something from The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and add pizzazz to Kate’s quest. Ultimately, underneath the fun and frivolity, this is an honest story of one sympathetic woman looking for money, but finding love instead. 

Maureen

 
 

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

 
 

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit

 

The Mansion of HappinessAnyone who has ever played Milton Bradley's The Game of Life knows that, whether you are winning or losing, players inexorably move in one direction. Fresh faced college graduates turn into employees who become parents and eventually, if all goes well, age gracefully into retirement. But real life doesn't really end (or start) that way.  Jill Lepore, Pultizer Prize finalist and frequent essayist for The New Yorker, challenges our understanding of the origins and rules of the modern game of life in her recent book, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death

 

Lepore uses Bradley's game and its antecedents (one which carries the name of the book) to frame her humorous and often biting discourse on such disparate topics as abortion, cryogenics, time management, and children's libraries. Each chapter explores an aspect of a different stage of life, starting with before birth and ending after death along with nearly everything in between. In every section, Lepore features an eccentric, influential, and often morally ambiguous cast of characters who have all shaped how we view our lives and our society.  She draws these wide-ranging people and subjects into a fluid and accessible narrative that is, though not historically comprehensive, certainly thought provoking and resonant for a modern audience. And for those who are especially inquisitive Lepore provides a wealth of footnotes and a well-developed index, which the more casual reader can safely avoid. Like many of the best histories, The Mansion of Happiness uncovers insights into our twenty-first century lives in the decisions, coincidences, and consequences of the past. Fans of American history and the intellectually curious will both be satisfied with this engaging and compelling journey through the game of life. 

Rachael