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Archive for the ‘Circulation Services's Picks’ Category

bloodyToday’s post is written by Gemma.

Horror. It’s bloody and unpleasant, the reader’s absolute revulsion at what they’re witnessing brings horror into its most satisfying perception. However, what Joey Comeau does so well, and what he does best in his novella, One Bloody Thing After Another, is that he brings the terror of horror around on its head. Sure, there’s plenty of blood and sure, there’s even a monster to terrify us between the pages, but it’s not those fears that cause sickly dread in this book. Comeau has the uncanny ability to cause our hearts to scream from within and our heads to spin all around, and only by revealing the terrifying things found within ourselves.

Comeau twists his tale around the individual lives of three people, each dealing with their own monsters — both real and imagined (or maybe they’re really the same) — and intertwining them until they can’t escape. Jackie is still grieving over the death of her mother long before, while simultaneously managing to navigate her teenage years; Ann is experiencing difficulties at home and is trying her best to ensure her world doesn’t all fall apart around her; and Charlie and his dumb dog Mitchie just want to live in peace.

Even with Comeau’s knack for horror, the author manages to maintain a note of hope. Despite everything terrifying that befalls everyone, there’s inevitably the feeling that everything will be all right in the end.

Check the WRL catalog for One Bloody Thing After Another

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aurariaToday’s review is by Meghan.

Tim Westover’s Auraria begins with James Holtzclaw, employee of H.E. Shadburn and the Standard Company, travelling out of his familiar urban world and into the mountains of Georgia. His case is stocked with gold, pen and ink, and his notary stamp — this journey is business. The Standard Company deals in land deeds and development. Shadburn’s newest venture: buying up the land in the forgotten gold rush town of Auraria.

There was a real Auraria. It’s now a ghost town near Dahlonega, GA. It was settled in the 1830s and abandoned when the gold ran out. You’re almost tricked (for half a page) into thinking Westover’s book is historical fiction. It’s not.

As he works his way through his list of properties, Holtzclaw struggles to understand what he’s got himself into. The town is full of people who’ve stayed behind, though its heyday is long gone. Those who pan for gold in the mountain streams only find a few flakes, if any. The proprietors of the local hotels seem resigned to slow, local business. But Holtzclaw knows his stuff when it comes to buying land from poor folks. What he doesn’t expect is the strange girl who calls herself a princess. He doesn’t expect glimpses of otherworldly beings in the forest. He doesn’t expect the piano that plays itself, or the impossible house, or the talking turtle, or Mother Fresh Roasted and her chickens.

And yet, Holtzclaw is determined. Thanks to his efforts, the Company is successful — more or less. With some hasty construction and advertisements in the papers, the ghost town is transformed into a Tourist Attraction. Holtzclaw, however, is still ill at ease. The town’s new dam isn’t holding water, and neither are Shadburn’s excuses for his odd behavior and business decisions. As for the Aurarians, are they with him, or against him? What’s the future of their town if the Standard Company’s plans fail? What’s Holtzclaw’s future?

And what is he going to tell the tourists to explain away the next magical rain of fruit?

Westover doesn’t explain the magic. As I read, I felt Auraria was all the more real because of it. Like any small town in the mountains, it’s secluded, it’s old, and everybody takes its oddities for granted. There’s no logic to Princess Tralyhta or Mr. Bad Thing. That’s how it is, in this town.

If you like fast-paced adventure and clear-cut answers, you probably won’t make it past the first page. But if you’re looking for a slow, sweet, surreal fantasy that will put you in mind of small towns and mountains, this is a book you’ll want to take a look at and read.

Check the WRL catalog for Auraria

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shiftToday’s post is written by Tabor.

Shift, written by Hugh Howey, is the prequel to the dystopian novel Wool and recounts the events that created the Silos or the housing that mankind inhabits after a nuclear fallout. It follows the alternating narratives of Donald, a congressman in the 2050s and Troy, a worker from Silo 1 in the 2110s. Donald Keene is a young congressman who has been tasked to design a “just in case” building by Senator Thurman because of his degree in architecture. Along with this proposition, Donald’s past is dredged up when his ex-girlfriend from college is also assigned to the project. During the course of his chapters, Donald struggles with his marriage, his old flame, and the mysterious nature of the project he has been assigned. In the future, Troy, who works in the same building that Donald designed, is attempting to find out the purpose of the Silos while avoiding authoritative superiors. This is the foundation for the story that unravels until it reaches the time frame of Wool and imparts the notion that mankind should not attempt to prolong their mortality.

Along for the journey is another new character named Mission Jones, whose narrative burdens the reader with an idea of the deception that takes place in the Silos. Other characters that the reader knows also appear, such as Jimmy “Solo” Parker, whose origins are explored, and Juliette, who makes a brief but important appearance in the tale.

Even though this story takes place in a world which is alien to our own, it remains accessible through the characters that inhabit it. Along with creating an original world, Howey is also able to construct the challenges and complexities that come along in this world with a flare of empathy. He is able to create characters that are relatable, undeterred by the fact that they exist centuries after us and face entirely different obstacles than our own present ones. This book is not a sterile and uninviting dystopian novel; though the book offers bleak circumstances, it is the characters who bring warmth to the story. Ultimately, the characters allow the reader to hope that the outcome will not be desolate with their desire to discover the truth and uncover the reason for the existence of the Silos.

In order for a reader to start this particular book, they only need to understand that this is a continuing story and finally that it is dystopian. The only issue with Shift, which is previously encountered with its predecessor, is the inability to give a synopsis without inevitably spoiling the plot and events of the novel. Simply, Wool created the equation whereas Shift exposes the “why” factor of the equation, but what these characters do with this information has yet to be answered. It is a masterfully done book that peels away at the surface slowly until the very end of the story. Even then, the core element of the story is not revealed and encourages the reader to continue the journey along with the characters.

Check the WRL catalog for Shift

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naturalThis week’s posts are written by staff from the Circulation Services Division.  Today’s review is written by Alan.

The 15 years following the end of World War II are considered by many to be one of baseball’s golden eras. Attendance skyrocketed, great players returned from the war, the leagues were integrated, no other professional sport seriously competed for the affection of sports lovers, and television brought the game into millions of households. This same time brought forth the birth of a new development – the literary novel about baseball. Before, baseball writing consisted of newspaper reports and sports columns, inspirational sports novels for boys, and colorful and entertaining short stories about characters who inhabited baseball land.

The first, and to many still the best, literary novel is The Natural by Bernard Malamud, which appeared in 1952. It was the 38-year-old author’s first published novel. On one level it is the story of the ups and downs of the sensational rookie season of Roy Hobbs, a superb natural athlete, who enters the big leagues at the age of 35. On another level the book is a commentary on the American dream – or more specifically on the dark side of that dream. Roy Hobbs wants to live that dream, but he has failed to obtain it, through a combination of bad luck, bad choices, and an inability to understand how the game of life is played. He has a gargantuan appetite (literally and figuratively) for life, but he does not know how to live it. He is alone within himself, wary and distrustful of others, standoffish, and incapable of true affection – in short, not a people person, a team-mate, not a team player. There is a sort of redemption at the end of the novel when he realizes that he has learned nothing from his past life, and that he has to suffer again. The question left hanging and unanswered is whether he is, indeed, capable of learning from his past and putting his suffering to good use.

In 1984 The Natural was made into a movie starring Robert Redford. The movie emphasized the mythic aspects of baseball at the expense of character development and granted Roy Hobbs the bucolic and idyllic resolution and ending that he wished for in the book but that Malamud denied him on the printed page.

Two other literary novels about baseball worth mentioning appeared just a few years after The Natural. Both were written by Mark Harris – The Southpaw (1953) and Bang the Drum Slowly (1956), which was adapted first for television and then in 1973 for the movies. These books are concerned with the human aspects of the characters that inhabit the pages, not the profounder issues that concerned Malamud.

Check the WRL catalog for The Natural

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supremesNancy from Circulation recommended this book to me.  In particular, she said the audiobook was really enjoyable — and she was right — I loved it!  It is narrated by two different women playing the role of the main characters.  The voices were perfect for the story, and  I was quickly drawn in.  But I don’t think I would have picked it up without her glowing review. Here’s what Nancy has to say about this book:

In the small southern town of Plainview, Indiana, there are three female childhood friends, Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean, who have lived through the 1960s, one adventure after another. Nicknamed “The Supremes” at an early age due to their looks, attitude, and regular meetings at the same table at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat diner.

The story begins as the girls reach middle age. Their group includes their husbands, and they meet regularly after church for dinner at Earl’s, now managed by his son. You soon find out Earl’s is much more than the first black-owned business in a racially divided town. It is a place of refuge, peace talks, and forgiveness.

The first of the wonderfully charismatic, strong-willed women you meet is Odette who is the “say it like it is and don’t take no guff off of anyone” member of the trio. I fell in love with her sense of humor and her realistic viewpoint when she describes an early morning bout with hot flashes and her refrigerator remedy.  She states, “I opened the refrigerator door to get the water pitcher and decided to stick my head inside.  I was in almost to my shoulders, enjoying the frosty temperature, when I got the giggles thinking how someone coming upon me, head stuffed into the refrigerator instead of the oven would say, ‘Now that’s a fat woman who is completely clueless about how a proper kitchen suicide works!’” Her adventures include visits from her pot-smoking mother and Eleanor Roosevelt (who, by the way, are both dead), and a life-altering event that requires the strength of her family and friends to get her through.

Clarice is the wife of a charming, handsome, but unfaithful, husband. He probably loves her, but can’t seem to manage to be monogamous. She realizes she is following in her mother’s footsteps–and struggles with the thought of how her life might be without him.  She has the perfect marriage in the public eye, but a not so private truth has to be faced eventually.

Beautiful Barbara Jean, the last of the trio, seems to be the one who has dealt with many of her life decisions poorly and struggles to hide her drinking as a result.  The loss of her first love, marriage to a much older man, and losing a child are things even the best of friends cannot always fix.  Luckily for her, Clarice and Odette don’t give up trying.

The story is told by intertwining tales from the past with the current lives of the three and the multitude of friends and family characters they encounter daily. The author invites you to step into the lives of these amazing women as they face racism, greed, emotional and physical tragedy, all the while demonstrating the bond of true friendship. There will be tears of joy and sorrow shed for the characters one minute, and the next you’ll get the giggles–as Odette would say.

Check the WRL catalog for The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat

Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat

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badmonkeyToday’s post is written by Tova from Circulation Services.

Since reading 11/22/63, I have become a Stephen King fan, devouring many of his books back to back.  King’s ability to weave in-depth character development into his genre-busting tales of horror and mayhem is not only a sweet treat for the reader, but a source of inspiration for aspiring writers like me.  One of the more understated aspects of King’s writing is his sense of humor.  Sometimes offbeat and quirky, a certain plot point or snatch of character dialogue will have me laughing out loud – and I do like to laugh.

While in between reading King’s books, I decided to search out other authors who infuse humor into their tales of suspense. Using WRL’s NoveList, I happened upon Carl Hiaasen, an author whose books are often requested by library users.  Although I had never read any of Hiaasen’s works, his newest book is Bad Monkey; and, as someone with a soft spot for monkeys, I was compelled to give it a read.

Okay, so the titular monkey, whose image graces the cover of the book, is not a cute Curious George-type.  Mischievous, cynical, and impulsive, Hiaasen’s monkey commits acts that shall go unmentioned in this blog entry.  However, Hiaasen’s monkey is one of the most memorable, and surprisingly sympathetic, characters in the book.  Hiaasen successfully uses him to help tie the novel’s multiple plot threads together.

Set primarily in southern Florida, Hiaasen’s tale revolves around Andrew Yancy, a disgraced Monroe County detective who has been demoted to Health Inspector (aka “roach patrol”) due to a heinous act he committed against his mistress’ husband. In spite of his reassignment, Yancy just cannot help but launch his own investigation when a fisherman reels in a human arm from the ocean; and Yancy inadvertently ends up in possession of it.  How did the arm become detached from its original owner?  Official investigators want to neatly declare that the detached arm is the result of an unfortunate boating accident and be done with it.  However, Yancy, after uncovering some inconsistencies and shady details, thinks otherwise.  His investigation leads him back and forth between Key West, Miami, and the Bahamas.  Along the way, Yancy consorts with a colorful array of characters, including a sexually adventurous coroner, a disconcerting voodoo queen, his fugitive ex-mistress, a creepy land developer, the mysterious widow of the arm’s original owner, and, of course, the aforementioned monkey.

I found the humor I was looking for as the book is often laugh-out-loud funny.  The whereabouts of the detached arm, which Yancy first stores in his freezer, is a running gag throughout the story.  The snappy dialogue is also a source of humor.  Yancy’s antics made me laugh and groan simultaneously as he transgresses multiple boundaries and finds himself in sticky predicaments of his own making.  The fun is in imagining Yancy as he tries to get out of his self-made predicaments.  That Yancy was morally and ethically corrupt pleased me greatly.  I prefer my protagonists to be like most people in life – a mix of good, bad, and everything in between.

Hiaasen cannot compare to Stephen King when it comes to character development; however, his work stands on its own as he succeeds in creating a memorable cast of characters.  By the end of the book, we certainly have a more rounded view of Yancy and we can sympathize with his desire to get his old detective job back, even if he employs questionable means to that end.

I would recommend Bad Monkey if you are looking for a light, fun, suspenseful story with a wicked sense of humor, and if you do not mind some coarse language and raunchy adult themes.  I will certainly check out more of Hiaasen’s work – while in between Stephen King books, of course.

Check the WRL catalog for Bad Monkey

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rosewaterToday’s post is written by Jennifer from Circulation Services.

The story of three sisters seems to be deeply ingrained in our human subconscious.  There are the mythological Weird Sisters, the women of Ang Lee’s film Eat Drink Man Woman, and those of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, to name just a few examples.  One could even go so far as to contemplate the “Three Sisters” method of planting beans, squash, and corn, used throughout North America in pre-Columbian times.  The motif is not limited to any single culture, and more often than not, as in Lee and Esquivel’s works, the lives of the three sisters are intimately connected to the food that they cook and enjoy.

Marsha Mehran’s novel Rosewater and Soda Bread is a fine addition to this little niche of a subgenre.  After fleeing their home country of Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the three Aminpour sisters open Babylon Café in the tiny Irish town of Ballinacroagh.  Practical Marjan, the oldest, is trying to keep the café (and everyone’s lives) running smoothly while being pursued by a dashing English gentleman.  Middle sister Bahar bears a heavy burden from a troubled past, but is finding solace in an unexpected place.  And the youngest, Layla, is a Shakespeare aficionado who just wants a little independence from her older sisters – and time to spend with her boyfriend.  As if life isn’t complicated enough, their landlady and former pastry chef Mrs. Delmonico finds a “mermaid” washed up on the beach.  Who is she, where did she come from – and what about the baby on the way?

Much like a rambler in the hilly Irish countryside, Rosewater and Soda Bread is unhurried in reaching its destination, minding small details and occasionally taking detours.  This is part of the book’s charm, though, especially when Mehran describes Marjan’s cooking and its effect on those who consume it.  For (most of) the residents of Ballinacroagh, Bablyon Café’s food and drink are synonymous with comfort.  Indeed, the best word to describe Mehran’s prose would probably be “cozy.”  I would highly recommend settling in with the book on a rainy day, a hot cup of bergamot tea by your side, and letting yourself be enraptured by the charm and intrigue of the Aminpour sisters’ adopted hometown.

Recipes for many of the dishes referenced in the story can be found in the back of the book, something for which I’m very grateful.  I nearly drooled when reading the description of Marjan’s tacheen, a saffron rice and chicken dish: “…first buttered rice and almonds, then fried chicken and sautéed spinach, the yogurt binding them into a brotherhood of delicious play.” Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?  I would recommend this book for gourmands, anyone interested in Irish culture, those who are fascinated by what happens when cultures from thousands of miles apart meet – and by how sharing a meal can help break down even the most seemingly insurmountable barriers.

Check the WRL catalog for Rosewater and Soda Bread

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houndedAtticus O’Sullivan looks a youthful 21, with blond hair, charming grin, and a trace of surfer dude attitude.  Atticus enjoys the sunshine of Tempe, Arizona, has a close connection with nature, and enjoys hunting with his Irish Wolfhound Oberon.  He owns his own business and has a relaxed, carefree life.

Atticus is the last of the Druids; he’s made it 2,000 years by keeping a low profile and communing with nature.

So far Atticus has managed to stay far ahead and hidden from a crazy Celtic god, but his luck is about to change.  Aenghas Og has found Atticus and wants his sword, Fragarach, back. This time he won’t quit until he has beaten Atticus, even if it includes unleashing a few demons to get his way.

There are other magical beings in this world, including many from Celtic mythology.  The author adds the requisite vampires, werewolves, witches, and fairies to flesh out Atticus’ story, but they aren’t the main focus.

Hearne weaves old mythology, popular references, puns, and witty repartee to create a funny, action-filled story.  If you enjoy urban fantasy but have been looking for something that feels fresh and different, while also providing a sense of comfort  familiarity, this is the book to pick up.

Prepare to put your feet up for a few hours of laughs, action, and a refreshing new perspective of a modern magical world.

Check the WRL catalog for Hounded

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wonderI admit it; I occasionally hit a reading slump.  I’m surrounded by hundreds of thousands of wonderful stories, and sometimes I am unable to find one book that will pull me down the rabbit hole.  So I turned to a fellow librarian for advice.  I asked for the one book she had read that she just could not get out of her head. Her response was immediate — R.J. Palacio’s Wonder.  No hesitation, no thought, no second guessing, she laid Wonder at my feet and I’m so glad she did.

Ten-year-old August Pullman will be starting public school for the first time after being homeschooled his entire life.  Auggie happens to have a combination of rare genetic mutations that cause severe facial abnormalities.  Because Auggie is so obviously different on the surface it is hard to see that he is just like many other boys his age — intelligent and funny and passionate about Star Wars.  Needless to say going to public school will be an adventure filled with friends, enemies, middle school wars, laughter, joy, and pain.

I don’t want to give details of the plot because Wonder is a story about everyday life for someone that happens to be ordinary with an extraordinary face.  These details are best appreciated and understood as revealed by Auggie.  Wonder weaves together the shifting perspectives of Auggie and his friends and family to reveal the joys and challenges of life with compassion and humor.

Wonder is magic that will pull you in and won’t let go.  For me it’s the very best kind of book, one that makes me love being in the rabbit hole, but also able to appreciate the world around me a little more when the story has ended.  There will be moments this book will make you cry, but it is worth every teardrop.  This is a book that will stay with you for a long, long, long time.

Check the WRL catalog for Wonder

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BBCClosing this week’s reviews is a musical selection written by Mandy.

In her review of the Civil Wars’ CD Barton Hollow, Charlotte discussed her susceptibility to earworms—“those catchy snatches of melody that get stuck in your head for hours on end, sometimes for days.” Last fall, I encountered an earworm in the song Lights Out, Words Gone,” the second single off of A Different Kind of Fix, the third album from British quartet Bombay Bicycle Club. I stumbled upon the song while driving home from work one night and instantly loved it, but, much to my chagrin, the announcer never gave the name of the song or the artist. This song, with its lovely, haunting intro and gently brooding lyrics, was stuck in my head for weeks until I was able to identify the group and check out the album.

Since the release of their debut album in 2009, Bombay Bicycle Club have received numerous accolades in England, including Best New Band at the 2010 New Musical Express Awards, and their second album Flaws was nominated for the Ivor Novello Award for Best Album. In addition, the group performed during the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony concert in Hyde Park.

I discovered Bombay Bicycle Club through “Lights Out, Words Gone,” and was happy to find that the rest of A Different Kind of Fix lived up to the promise of that single. It’s a tightly-focused collection of guitar-driven rock that’s quite catchy and very accessible. Along with “Lights Out, Words Gone,” standout tracks include “Your Eyes,” “Bad Timing,” and the irresistibly jaunty “Shuffle.”

Fans of alternative rock groups such as Phoenix and Two Door Cinema Club who are looking for something new might want to check out Bombay Bicycle Club’s A Different Kind of Fix.

Check the WRL catalog for A Different Kind of Fix

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escapefromcamp14Today’s review is written by Nancy.

A few months before the headlines were filled with news of North Korea’s military actions and potential nuclear threats, I came across this intriguing book. Being an avid fan of old war movies, I thought this might be a book about POWs and the Korean War. When most people think about labor camps, political prisoners, and the atrocities reported, they picture the German death camps and POW camps during WWI, WWII, the Korean and the Vietnam Wars. It only took reading the jacket notes inside the front cover to realize this was a modern day story of a young man born in a North Korean political prison camp in 1982.

Blaine Harden, serving as the East Asia Bureau Chief of the Washington Post, tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a boy subjected to unfathomable physical and emotional torture, his extraordinary escape at age 23, and Shin’s current struggle to survive in the outside world. This intriguing story gives the reader insight into the secretive world of the most repressive totalitarian state still in existence today.

As I read Shin’s story and watched current news events in North Korea, it made his harrowing experience come to life, albeit gruesome at times. It was emotionally painful to realize that these types of atrocities continue to this day. Detailed accounts of torture, brainwashing by way of isolation from civilization, and the teaching of young minds to be snitches to protect their own lives. Families were simply forced to be in competition for food. Shin was made to witness the killing of his mother and brother to show him what happens to those who even speak of escaping. Being raised with such a lack of human affection made these horrifying situations more bearable at the time but has caused great difficulties in his current life.

Generations of families were held in the camps for the crimes of distant relatives to ensure that descendants would not rise up against the government. Shin is the only known person born in the camps who is also known to have escaped.  His story will not only open your eyes to the struggle of one young man but also to the struggle of over 200,000 people still being held in the camps to this day. Although the camps have been aerially photographed and documented, the North Korean government continues to deny their existence. In an interview Shin was quoted as saying “I am evolving from being an animal.”

Check the WRL catalog for Escape from Camp 14.

It’s also available as a CD audiobook, read by the author.

 

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grace_silenceToday’s review is written by Tova.

“How well do you know the people who raised you?”

Journalist Michele Norris presents this question to the reader in the epilogue of her book The Grace of Silence: A Memoir. In her work—as much an investigation of the painful historical realities of race in America as a memoir—Norris reaches deep into the depths of her own family history and illuminates this country’s racial past along the way.

Originally intent on writing a book about the “hidden conversation” on race taking place in a supposedly “postracial” America in the wake of Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency, Norris changed course when she discovered that the conversation on race within her own African American family had not been honest. She discovered two family secrets: her maternal Grandmother Ione had been a traveling “Aunt Jemima” in the Midwest, and her father Belvin Norris had been shot in the leg by a white police officer in Birmingham shortly after his discharge from the Navy at the conclusion of World War II. Uncovering these secrets shakes Norris’s sense of her identity: “These revelations suggest to me that in certain ways I’ve never had a full understanding of my parents or of the formation of my own racial identity.” The majority of the book is devoted to discovering who her parents really are and, by extension, who she herself is. Why did her parents intentionally keep these secrets from her?

Most jarring about these revelations, for Norris, is that they are incongruous with her conception of her parents. Norris writes of her father: “how could a man who always observed stop signs, a man who always filed his taxes early and preached that jaywalking proved a weakness of character have been involved in an altercation with Alabama policemen? . . . Why would he impart life lessons to us about looking the other way, turning the other cheek, respecting those who lived across the color line in spite of insults hurled our way, when he himself had not?”

What Norris discovers along the way in her journey to answer these questions is surprising, revealing, uncomfortable, and thought-provoking for both her and the reader. I found myself getting emotional at times while reading the book. My eyes watered when Norris described brutal attacks on African American World War II veterans and their families. I found myself groaning inside when a relative of one of the officers involved in the shooting of Belvin Norris remarked to the author, “I don’t have anything against [African Americans], only the ones who are snooty or trying to prove themselves,” and then referenced President Obama as an example. But that’s what this book does. It hits you in the gut. I suspect that no matter your racial or cultural background, this book will “ping” your emotions in many different ways.

While this is not an “easy” book—as it challenges you emotionally and makes you think about certain ugly truths that some would rather not acknowledge—it has its moments of levity. You will smile wryly at the ingenious ways in which Norris’s mother foils the attempts of her neighbors to sell their houses and flee the neighborhood after the Norris family integrates it. You will also be touched by the loving relationship Norris has with her father. In a sense, this book is an extended love letter to her father. Even while championing an open dialogue about race, Michele Norris appreciates that her father early-on made the decision to remain silent as part of a strategy to ensure that his children would not be hindered by bitterness and acrimony in their struggle to achieve.

When I read the premise of the book, I was immediately drawn to it. I, too, am African American. I am familiar with the silences surrounding family secrets dealing with race. As a result, I found myself constantly comparing the strategies adopted by Norris’s family in dealing with racism to those of my own family. Norris’s mother and father concerned themselves with trying to be “model minorities.” My mother, a single parent and Black Power activist, made a different choice and took a different route in raising her children. My mother, just like her father, taught us that we should be angry about racism. This anger provides the fuel for my activism. Norris’s book exposes a particular truth, that we, as African Americans, have adopted multiple and varying strategies for navigating within a racially hostile world.

In the end, Norris suggests that we can come to a fuller understanding of who we are individually and as a nation by being more open about race. One thing Norris discovers is that white families also have their racial secrets and silences. Most of the families of the police officers involved in her father’s shooting either had no clue of their family member’s involvement in the shooting, or the family members did not want to talk about the incident.

How many of our families, regardless of our racial or cultural backgrounds, harbor secrets relative to race? What do these silences tell us about the state of race in America? Norris’s work, The Grace of Silence: A Memoir, is a call to all of us to sit down and ask questions. If we are to truly move racially forward as a nation, we must hear our family stories. We must question our elders, and we must listen to not just what is said, but what is not said.

Check the WRL catalog for The Grace of Silence

It’s also available as a CD audiobook, read by the author.

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absolutistToday’s review is written by Alan.

John Boyne is best known for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a morality tale set in a concentration camp that was made into an award-winning film in 2008.  Although that book was written for children, seven of his nine novels are for adults, including his newest, The Absolutist, published in 2012.

The Absolutist is also a morality tale, but most of its action takes place in a different kind of hell-hole of man’s devising—the trench warfare of World War I, where soldiers rotted and were maimed both physically and emotionally and died brutally and senselessly. The main characters are Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft, English teenagers, who meet in boot camp in England and are sent to France as infantrymen to fight in the trenches. The book chronicles what happens to them physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Like most good books that deal with soldiers and war, The Absolutist is not a war story, but rather a study of and meditation on what war does to average people who are thrust into an inhuman and insane environment and how they cope to make sense of their situation, come to terms with it (if possible), and survive (if possible). The war setting serves as the backdrop to deal with issues of physical and moral bravery, moral cowardice, ethical dilemmas, self-deception, self-knowledge, and knowledge of others.

In just over 300 beautifully written pages the author concerns himself with some of the great human issues and poses questions as to what it means to be a fully functional human (in the best sense of the word) in an inhuman and insane world and also in the real (normal) world.

Check the WRL catalog for The Absolutist

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wench_bkcoverThis week’s reviews are written by the Circulation staff.  Today’s post is written by John.

This provocative novel narrates a gripping story of white masters and their slave mistresses during the early 1800s prior to the Civil War. The four main characters are from separate southern plantations, but Lizzy, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu vacation with their white masters in a free-state resort in Xenia, Ohio each summer. Over the course of several summers, the group forms a complex sisterly bond, based on both mutual need and mutual distrust. While we do read of events on the plantation on which Lizzie, Phillip and Drayle, their master, live; the novel mostly focuses on their collective Ohio experiences. There the women struggle to balance their longing for freedom with both the subtle and blatant ways slavery debases them. Though the work is entirely fiction, the resort’s site is historically accurate. According to the historical research I found, rumors of white masters with slave concubines gradually caused the resort’s decline and closing. In 1856, the resort was purchased by the Methodist Episcopal Church to become a school for free blacks. Later, it became the site for Wilberforce University, which continues to this day serving as an institution of higher learning.

That the site eventually becomes a school serves as an ironic counterpoint to one of the plot’s main topics—can Lizzy convince her master to educate and free their son. The novel’s main focus is Lizzy, Drayle and his childless wife, Fran. The author describes Lizzy’s “seduction” and builds with how she and others on the plantation all confront the many conflicts which ensue. But the novel mostly details how each of the women in Wench suffer emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their “owners.” Each finds herself gradually and systematically worn down, able to escape only in dreams of freedom—her own and her children’s. Although each woman has a unique relationship with her respective master, Lizzy, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu constantly carry the common bond of slavery and mistreatment. In spite of the seeming benefits over all the other slaves at their home plantations, each still finds herself trapped—sometimes in snares of her own making. The novel vividly depicts the heart-wrenching decisions, emotional turmoil and tragic pain each woman must endure as she struggles to save herself physically, spiritually and emotionally. Not only must each bear terrible ordeals, she must also walk a fine line because harsh consequences always follow if she fails to please her master. The women exist in perpetual turmoil. The fact that they summer in a free state puts freedom within each woman’s grasp. The central question becomes should she seize it or submit?

Perkins-Valdez uses such riveting and poetic language in telling her story, that, in spite of shocking and difficult passages, the reader learns to find sympathy where it is least expected. Unlike any other novel I’ve read about this period, never before have I found myself drawn into the minds of the characters caught in this life. Indeed, many times I wanted to look away. Parts of the novel were too raw and real. Yet Perkins-Valdez kept me engaged because she presents real people ensnared in unspeakable tragedy. Because the characters are so believable, we care about what happens and read on.

The novel explores several complex relationships. For me, the most complex was the relationship that gradually develops between Lizzy and her master’s wife, Fran. Not only is it unexpected, but it is key to understanding the novel’s climax. As the plot progresses, Lizzie’s indecisiveness becomes central to understanding the novel. The author lets us suffer along with Lizzy’s ambivalence about what action to take because it is fundamental to her character’s predicament. Just as she had to face what to do early in the novel, when confronted with knowledge of a planned run away, Lizzy’s trap is always her never changing reality. Is her chief duty to herself or to her children? We understand and sympathize with this inner battle because the author succeeds in making her character authentic.

The very reality of the characters makes the novel hard to put down. Rarely does a novel capture one’s attention the way Wench does. After starting, I found any excuse possible to find time to read. I felt conflicted about it, too, because the novel covers such an ugly chapter in our history. Yet the author takes such care in telling the stories of these four slave women that you find yourself longing to know what becomes of Lizzie, Sugar, Reenie and Mawu. The novel’s strongest element for me was that while the white master’s actions were unspeakably cruel, the women always handled themselves with a grace and dignity beyond imagining. At the end one is both shocked and relieved, but also longing still to know the rest of these absorbing stories. In a postscript at the novel’s conclusion, the author says she doesn’t plan a sequel. Instead, she invites readers to imagine the war gradually coming and with it a fuller promise of freedom for both the women and their children. I see her point, but found these stories too compelling to end here. If you read Wench, I think you will agree.

Check out the WRL catalog for Wench.

Or try it on CD audiobook.

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This one is from Nancy :

 I’ll be the first to admit I love a feel good Christmas story any time of year. Richard Paul Evans’ book The Gift does not disappoint. Make no mistake, the characters of the book face everything from personal tragedy and physical pain, to public scorn and hatred. Thus begins the journal and the story of Nathan Hurst, a man who has grown to hate Christmas and yet finds healing from the most unexpected places. Enter fate…a holiday weekend, a snowstorm, a cancelled flight, and Collin and his mother and sister stuck in the same airport overnight. As the days pass from Thanksgiving to Christmas the story tells of the special healing powers of young Collin, the curse that comes with each healing, and the greed and overwhelming desperation of mankind when it comes to their own mortality. The innocence of one healing creates an onslaught of public outcry for help regardless of the consequences. Nathan becomes a guardian for his new friends and in the process he receives both physical and emotional healing.

I highly recommend this in audio book form as well. The narrator makes it possible to envision the innocents of the young miracle worker and the desperation of those seeking his touch. Also recommended is Evans’ Finding Noel which tells the story of Macy, adopted as a young child, and her search for her biological sister. A healing of sorts results as well for all those involved.

Check the WRL catalog for The Gift

Or look for it as an audiobook on compact disc

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Before he won the Academy Award for directing Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and became the artistic director for the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games, Danny Boyle distinguished himself in the mid-‘90s as a director of edgy, highly stylized films, including A Life Less Ordinary (1997), Trainspotting (1996), and Shallow Grave (1994), his feature film directing debut.

Set in Edinburgh, Scotland, the plot of Shallow Grave centers around three cynical and self-absorbed friends who share a spacious and well-appointed flat: David (Christopher Eccleston), an accountant; Juliet (Kerry Fox), a doctor; and Alex (Ewan McGregor), a tabloid journalist. They’re in need of a new roommate, and the film opens with a series of disastrous interviews in which prospective roommates are cruelly appraised, then rejected. Finally, Juliet personally interviews one intriguing candidate, a mysterious man named Hugo (Keith Allen) who says he’s returning to the city to write a novel. Juliet and Hugo make a connection, and she convinces David and Alex to take Hugo on as a roommate. The arrangement seems ideal until the morning after Hugo moves in. After he fails to join them for breakfast, the concerned roommates go to his room and discover him dead on his bed. Searching for answers, Alex discovers a suitcase full of money under the bed. Juliet wants to report Hugo’s death to the police, but Alex objects, arguing that if they call the police they’ll have to report the money as well. He proposes hiding the body and keeping the money. I do not want to give away too many details in this review (although readers of this blog can connect the dots based on the title and my brief summary); however, I do not think it is revealing too much to say that a seemingly foolproof plan becomes complicated when fractures in the friendship, not to mention Hugo’s past, begin to catch up with the roommates.

Shallow Grave is not a traditional murder mystery. The suspense is not focused on ‘whodunit’; instead, the suspense is generated from the ways in which the roommates, especially David, internalize their actions and the cumulative effect these actions have on the friendship. A subplot involving Hugo’s associates is not quite as well-developed, but it does help to tie events together at the end.

I first saw Shallow Grave back in 1996, and I think the film has held up surprisingly well. Ewan McGregor brings a lot of charisma to the role of Alex and arguably has the film’s most memorable lines, but Shallow Grave’s real chills come from Christopher Eccleston’s carefully crafted performance as the seemingly milquetoast, but ultimately unstable David. At 93 minutes, Shallow Grave is taut and fast-paced, and it is a good showcase for the talents of director Danny Boyle who, in the 18 years since the film’s release, has produced a diverse and impressive body of work.

Check the WRL catalog for Shallow Grave

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Today’s review is from Nancy in Circulation Services:

“There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus.”

Joshilyn Jackson grabs you with her opening line and has you chasing her words through a wonderfully funny, exciting, eye-opening, and suspenseful journey. Her frequent “Southernisms” will keep you in stitches no matter what part of the country you’re from, and for those of us born and bred below the Mason Dixon Line, you’ll catch yourself acknowledging your Southern Belle tendencies with an uncontrollable smiling nod.

Arlene Fleet has fled her home town of Possett, Alabama, for the big city of Chicago in hopes of escaping a tiny little mistake made in her sophomore year of high school… killing the senior star quarterback and dumping his body over a cliff. Her pact with God is that if he will let her get away with this small error in judgment by not letting the body be found, she will keep three promises: never tell a lie no matter the cost, stop fornicating with every boy that crosses her path, and never return to her hometown of Possett. Ten years later, fate steps in as her African American boyfriend declares “I want to meet your family or it’s over.” One by one her promises are challenged, leading her back to Possett and the array of special family and friends. This good-hearted group includes her Southern Baptist, Bible toting Aunt Florence, her slightly “touched” crazy mother, a family tree of happy racists, and her unconditionally loving best friend Cousin Clarice. With her past catching up with her, the future seems too scary to face. Arlene remembers and reveals the events of her life that tell the story of the murder but keep the reader guessing until the end as to what really happened that night.

The story covers tough issues such as sexual abuse, teenage promiscuity, and a bit of racism mixed with denial, and in the same light expresses the strong bond between best friends and family. It’s a story of self awareness, soul searching, and acceptance of differences that will make you sad, angry, and relieved, while allowing you to laugh out loud at the antics and expressions of the eclectic characters you will come to love.

The audiobook, read by Catherine Tabor, a Georgia native, captures the diction and accent of the Alabama southerner. gods in Alabama is truly brought to life!

I recommend this first work of Joshilyn Jackson as well as her next book, Between Georgia. Another great read or listen!

Check the WRL catalog for gods in Alabama.

Check the WRL catalog for gods in Alabama in audiobook format.

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We close this week’s posts with a blog from Christine in Circulation.

Abigail Lowery, formerly Elizabeth Fitch, is a successful computer programmer and business woman running a private security firm from her home in the Ozarks.  With her faithful dog by her side and a secluded home tucked securely into the hills of the Arkansas Ozarks, Abigail has finally settled down and started her new life hiding out but no longer running from the Russian mafia.  But Brooks Gleason, local police chief, won’t let Abigail settle for too much longer.  As Abigail tries to create a quiet life and stay under the radar she only accomplishes the exact opposite.  After a year of politely rebuffing the locals’ conversations, keeping to herself, and shopping online rather than in town, Abigail’s actions only fuel the interest of the police chief and her small-town neighbors.  Following his gut, Brooks sets out to discover Abigail’s secrets.

The other night I caught a brief snippet of a show on HGTV that was talking about set design on the drama “The Good Wife.”  One of the designers made a comment about how the set design was based on the sensibilities of movies from the 1940’s and 1950’s where sets were opulent and grand in order to heighten the senses of the viewer.  Everyday life for most people is not filled with plush offices with designer furniture, boldly-colored accent walls, and elegantly sophisticated bric-a-brac.  So when you tune in to “The Good Wife” you are instantly drawn in by the world that the writers, set designers, and actors have created and are willing to come back for more.

So how does this tie-in with “The Witness?” When the designer made this comment, I couldn’t help but think about this book.  From the moment I picked it up to read I found myself unable to put it down.  The world and the characters Roberts created are grand and amplified.  The heroine is brilliant surviving on wits and instinct for years as she builds a life on the run.  The hero is charming and intelligent with a keen intuition. Abigail and Brooks are reminiscent of other memorable duos, i.e. Nick and Nora, Bones and Booth, but with their own style. The backdrop of the Ozarks and the sense of community and family bring the story full circle.  The fact that Roberts’ focuses on the couple and not the threat of Abigail’s past only enhances the suspense.

Roberts’ 200th title incorporates all her hallmarks of writing but it all comes together so seamlessly that reading this book was effortless fun and rates this book in the top three of Roberts’ oeuvre for me.  If you’re looking for the familiar with a little bit of over the top for your spring and summer reading, this is the book for you.

Check the WRL catalog for The Witness

Or listen to The Witness on audio CD

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