Posts Tagged ‘Clare B.’s Picks’

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Clare B’s Picks

December 22, 2014

I read both fiction and non-fiction.  I prefer books that have rich characters, who feel like people I know by the time I finish the book.  Here are the best books I read in 2014.

Ten Things I've Learnt About LoveTen Things I’ve Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler
Alice is a wanderer, unable to decide on a career.  She has a strained relationship with her family, but has returned to England to be with her father during his final days.  Daniel is a middle aged homeless man on the streets of London, who uses found items to make small, transient art pieces.  He is also searching for the daughter he has never met.  The chapters in this amazing debut novel, alternate between Alice’s and Daniel’s voice, as events lead them inexorably towards each other.

The Death of SantiniThe Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son by Pat Conroy
Pat Conroy returns to his troubled relationship with his father in this excellent biography, where he also explores the dynamics between he and his siblings, particularly his sister Carol.  In the prologue, Conroy says that he has been “writing the story of my own life for over forty years…but I must examine the wreckage one last time”.  He does, using soaring language, and descriptions that are both tragic and hilarious.  The picture Conroy paints is not always pretty, and at times he is especially brutal in describing his own actions.  However, Pat Conroy is the ultimate storyteller, and that amazing talent shines in this retelling of his life.

March, Book OneMarch, Book One by John Lewis
I am not generally a fan of graphic novels.  However, this is perhaps the most powerful book I have read this year, and I think the format is an excellent way to describe the Civil Rights struggles.  Congressman Lewis recounts his early meeting with Martin Luther King, which led to his commitment to the non-violence movement.  Illustrator Nate Powell’s images help bring to life the incredible bravery and determination of the young men and women who risked their lives to right the horrible wrong of segregation.

The Other TypistThe Other Typist  by Suzanne Rindell
New York City in the 1920s:  women’s roles are changing, Prohibition is in full swing, and crime is hidden right in front of you.  Odalie Lazare is the new member of the typing pool at a police precinct.  Beautiful, mysterious, sometimes charming, sometimes cold, she fascinates the staid, reliable typist, Rose Baker.  Odalie pulls Rose into her world of intrigue with the promise of friendship and excitement.  Told in Rose’s voice, this satisfying tale will leave you asking, “what just happened?”

Guests on EarthGuests on Earth by Lee Smith
Evalina Toussaint, an orphan, arrives at Asheville, NC’s famed Highland Hospital, in 1936. Her mother has died, her father is unknown. she is alone, abandoned and has virtually shut down.  Dr. Carroll, the hospital administrator, and his wife, a concert pianist, take Evalina under their wings.  Part patient, part ward of the Carrolls, Evalina lives at Highland on and off over the next several decades, as she struggles to find a life for herself.  Smith has not only written a well-crafted novel, but she has also explored the changing attitudes about mental illness, and its treatment, using the factual story of Highland Hospital and the tragic fire that killed its most famous patient, Zelda Fitzgerald.  Zelda has a cameo role in the novel, providing a fleeting, but enduring influence on Evalina.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

April 28, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LeeIn honor of Harper Lee’s 88th birthday today, we are pleased to re-post this review of her seminal novel that we ran in back 2010 for the fiftieth anniversary of its publication.

I have debated writing about To Kill a Mockingbird.  There have been so many reviews of this book, and so much has already been said.  What was left for me to say?  But, this week is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of this timeless classic.  How could I not write a few words?

I do not need to review the story.  Atticus Finch, his children Scout and Jem,  the reclusive neighbor  Boo Radley almost feel like family to most of us.  This indelible story of race, class, and growing up in the Deep South of the 1930s was relevant at its publication and is still today.

Published in July 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild. A condensed version of the story appeared in Reader’s Digest magazine.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961.  Horton Foote wrote a screenplay based on the book and used the same title for the 1962 film adaptation.   Earning eight Academy Award nominations, the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird won four awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch.

Not everyone has embraced the novel.  Over the years there have been many challenges by parents or groups who have wanted To Kill a Mockingbird banned from libraries and school curriculum.  The objections focus on some of the language and the racial themes of the novel.  In 2004 it was challenged at Stanford Middle School in Durham, N.C.

To Kill a Mockingbird remains a major work of fiction.  It has been translated into more than forty languages, and has sold more than thirty million copies worldwide. It has never been out of print, in either hard back or paperback.   Most recently, librarians across the country gave the book the highest of honors by voting it the best novel of the twentieth century.

Harper Lee never wrote another book.   Although she did collaborate on the making of the film, visiting the set during filming and granting  interviews to support the film,  she soon retreated from public view.  She seldom grants interviews or makes public appearances.  Even the hoopla of this 50th anniversary has not brought her out.

Libraries and book stores throughout the country will be commemorating To Kill a Mockingbird this summer.  Take this opportunity to revisit (or read for the first time) this amazing book.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog

Greatest Hits: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

July 3, 2012

This week we’re featuring some of our “greatest hits” – the most popular Book-a-Day blog posts since we started this almost three years ago. Today’s is As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, reviewed by Clare B.

Story telling is considered a Southern tradition, and perhaps one of the greatest of Southern storytellers is William Faulkner.  I often hear people say that Faulkner is too difficult to read.  He can be difficult. As I Lay Dying is certainly is not.

As the novel opens Addie Bundren is dying.  Outside her window, her son Cash is building her coffin.  Addie has had a difficult life.  Her husband is no count; her children are hardly better.  She has made her husband promise that he will bury her body in Jefferson, a neighboring town where she grew up.  This simple request is actually anything but simple.

Sons Jewel and Darl are away with the wagon, and return two days after Addie is dead.  Floods wash out two bridges, further delaying the trip.  Two days into the trip, an accident while they are attempting to ford the flooded river leaves Cash seriously injured and the mules dead.  In the mean time, buzzards are following them, and the smell of the Addie’s body is overwhelming.

As I Lay Dying is funny, horrifying and fascinating.  Each chapter is told in the voice of a different family member or friend.  We see this journey in the bewilderment of young Vardaman, who cannot understand his mother’s death; of Dewey Dell who is too absorbed in her own unplanned pregnancy to grieve, and Anse Bundren, whose main goal, besides burying his wife, is to buy false teeth.

I think the key to reading and enjoying Faulkner is to not think about it too much.   We read him in English class, and spend hours examining what he was trying to say.  Instead, perhaps, we should just read him.  Enjoy the language and loose ourselves in the humor, satire and train of thought.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

June 27, 2012

I have come to love southern gothic literature in the last few years. I think I needed life experience in order to truly appreciate the humor and the truth in it. For this reason, I have never been a big fan of Flannery O’Connor, until now. I recently read O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood. From the first chapter I became a fan. This is the story of Hazel Motes, a young man recently released from the Army and in search of a new life. His family is dead, and he is struggling to deny the faith he was raised under. He meets Asa Hawks and his daughter Lily Sabbath. Asa is an apparently blind street preacher, and Lily is searching for a better life for herself. Motes recognizes the truth about Hawks, and decides to prove himself a greater cynic, by creating his own “church”, The Church of Christ Without Christ.

There are only a few characters in the rich novel, but each one is searching for something that they believe Motes can give them. Enoch Emery, another lost soul, is sure that Motes is right, and he does all in his power to befriend him. Mrs. Flood, Mote’s landlady believes they can have a life together. Hoover Shoats wants to work with Motes to develop a money scam.

Early in Wise Blood, you know that all of these people are on a collision course, with Motes in the middle. There is simply no way this novel is going to end well. And yet, it is a thoughtful, compelling and lyrical novel you will not want to put down.

Wise Blood was O’Connor’s first novel, in her very small body of works. She died at age 39. One has to wonder what incredible characters she would have created had she lived and written longer.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Last Letter from Your Lover by Jojo Moyes

June 11, 2012

I read a review of this novel last year, and was intrigued, so I put it on my “to read” list. Last week I found myself in want of a light read, so I picked up The Last Letter from Your Lover. I was pleased to find that it was a poignant story, not just about love, but about discovering yourself and making difficult choices.

This is two stories that merge, one in the early 1960s, and one in 2003. Jennifer Stirling is a woman who has it all. She is poised, lovely and witty, married to an incredibly successful businessman. The novel opens with Jennifer recovering from a tragic car accident that has left her unsure of who she is and remembering nothing. As she slowly begins to piece her past together, she realizes that her life has not been what it appears. She finds several love letters hidden in her belongings, indicating that before the accident she was in love with someone else.

Forty years later, journalist Ellie Haworth’s life is a mess. She is involved with a married man and her career is careening towards disaster. An assignment sends her to the newspaper’s archives, where she stumbles upon a love letter buried in a file of apparently unrelated papers. With the tenacity of an investigator, Ellie goes in search of the people connected to the letter. She finds Jennifer, who willingly tells her story. In the process, each woman finds that what she believes isn’t necessarily the truth.

Although the conclusion of the novel is a bit predictable, the path to it is not. Several interesting twists and surprises will keep you reading, even when you think you know where this enjoyable story is taking you.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Austenland by Shannon Hale

February 4, 2011

I am like so many readers, in that I dearly love the novels of Jane Austen.  Unlike many others, though, I tend to shy away from the plethora of sequels, knock offs and adaptations of her books.   Austenland seemed different, and quirky enough, to catch my interest.    I am glad it did.  I found it a charming exploration of the fantasies most of us cook up.

Jane Hayes, modern, single, thirty-something career woman has a secret passion:  Fitzwilliam Darcy.  Well, actually, her passion is Colin Firth, playing Mr. Darcy in the BBC movie version of Austen’s great novel Pride and Prejudice.  And Jane honestly believes that this is her secret, until her Great-aunt Carolyn bequeaths her a three-week all expense paid trip to Austenland.   Jane is at first mortified to realize that anyone else knew her secret.  But, she decides to take the trip.  It might be fun.

Pembrook Park, in Kent, England is a fantasy camp of sorts.  But rather than, say basketball or quilting, visitors live in Regency England, in a grand manor house.  Upon arriving, the guests give up their personal possessions, and  dress in clothes of the period.  They must relinquish all electronics (including cell phones!), and are only allowed books of the time period.  It is essential, they are told,  to follow the manners and customs of the time.

Jane encounters a odd mix of characters at Pembrook Park, from the crotchety Mrs. Wattlesbrook, the proprietress, to the blue-eyed gardener Theodore.  At first she has trouble telling who is a paying guest, and who is paid staff, and she definitely has trouble staying in 1816.   Hale delivers a delightful tongue-in-cheek comedy that will appeal to Austen fans and non-Austen fans alike.

Find and reserve Austenland in our catalog.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

February 3, 2011

My New Year’s resolution was to focus much of my 2011 reading on classics.  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens seemed like a good place to start.  What a great choice.

This is the story of Philip Pirrip, or Pip, an orphan boy who is raised by his much older sister and her kindly husband, the blacksmith Joe.  Pip is a good child, whose great ambition is to be Joe’s apprentice.  Little does he know, a series of events will change his life, and provide him with “great expectations”.

Two encounters seem pivotal to his change of fortune.  As the book opens, Pip, a boy of about 6, is accosted by an escaped convict, and threatened into stealing food for the desperate man.  Later that night he accompanies Joe and other townsmen as they follow a group of soldiers out to re-capture the convict.  This terrifying experience never leaves Pip.

Pip is later sent to be a companion for the strange, regal, reclusive Miss. Havisham.  Here he meets Miss Havisham’s ward, the beautiful but cruel Estella, who he falls in love with.   For the first time in his life, he realizes how poor and ignorant he actually is.

Four years into his apprenticeship, Pip learns that he has an unnamed benefactor, and is to be raised up as a gentleman.  Pip then leaves his home for London, to pursue his Great Expectations.

Few writers can match Dickens for the richness of his characters and his vivid descriptions.  Who could ever forget Pip’s description of Miss Havisham “I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone.”

The story is full of humor, satire and tragic reality.  Great Expectations is simply a treat to read.

Find and reserve Great Expectations in our catalog.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

February 2, 2011

Once in a great while I find a book that has everything I could wish for:   excellent writing, a crumbling castle, elderly sisters, a young heroine and secrets.  Lots and lots of secrets.  The Distant Hours, the latest book by Australian author Kate Morton, has all of this.  It also has beautifully developed characters and is, quite simply, a good story.

As with Morton’s other two novels, The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden, this novel takes place in the past and in the present.  Edie Burchill is the only child of reserved, distant parents.  She works in a small publishing house in London.  During a visit to her parent’s house, her mother receives a letter that causes her to cry.  Puzzled, Edie questions her mother, and learns that during the War, her mother was evacuated to Middlehurst Castle in Kent, and that the letter was a long lost one from Juniper Blythe,  one of the three sisters who lived there.

Edie doesn’t really think much about this, until she stumbles on Middlehurst Castle months later.  Much to her surprise, the three sisters, twins Persephone (Percy) and Seraphina (Saffy) and their younger half-sister, Juniper, are still alive.  She also finds that their father was Raymond Blythe, author of the children’s classic, The True History of the Mud Man.  She tours the castle, never mentioning her mother.

Soon after, Edie receives a letter informing her that the Blythe sisters have requested that she write the forward to a new edition of Mud Man.  Puzzled, she returns to Middlehurst and begins to unravel her mother’s past, and the secrets held within the crumbling walls of the castle.

Find and reserve The Distant Hours in our catalog.

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

February 1, 2011

Many of my favorite books are debut novels.  Russian Winter may well be added to that list.  This is a sweeping novel of love and betrayal, and mostly about the secrets that result from a tyrannical government.

The novel is set in the Soviet Union during and after World War II, and in modern day Boston.  At the heart of the story is ballerina Nina Revskaya.

At the tender age of nine, Nina is enrolled in the Bolshoi ballet school, and quickly rises to stardom.  Life in Soviet Russia was difficult, and even the advantages of life as a Prima Dona with the Bolshoi were overshadowed by the terrors of Stalinism.  At the height of her career she defects, but never discusses her reasons or her past.  Decades later, elderly and crippled, Nina lives in near isolation in Boston.   The decision to allow her extensive jewelry collection to be auctioned, to benefit the Boston ballet, brings her hidden past crushing down.  Drew Brooks, an associate at the auction house, is determined to make this auction the key to her future, and is willing to dig as deeply as she can to learn the history of the jewels.  Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian at a local university, believes that an amber pendent he has is a match to earrings and a bracelet in Nina’s collection.  He eagerly wants to see if Nina is the key to his own murky past.

Nina’s story unfolds gradually.  Kalotay moves her narrative easily between Soviet Russia and modern Boston; between Nina, Grigori and Drew.  Each has their own assumptions of the past, and all are surprised by the truth.

I have to say that the ending of Russian Winter left me wanting more.  But it also left me thinking about the book for days.  And that may be the mark of truly good writing.

Find and reserve Russian Winter in our catalog.

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

January 31, 2011

I think Pat Conroy is the best American storyteller currently writing.  I had the pleasure of hearing him speak recently.  He tells his stories as well as he writes them.  All his stories, and in fact, the signature events of his life, revolve around reading.

My Reading Life is a memoir of the people, places, and especially the books, which have influenced Conroy’s life.  Each chapter is something of a short story.  Many are funny, some are very sad.   The first set of books he ever owned was the complete works of William Makepeace Thackeray which he found, when he was seven years old, while dumpster diving.  He was delighted with the find; his friend Gary wanted a chest of doubloons.  Thousands of titles have graced his shelves since.

Conroy writes candidly about the people who have influenced his reading and his writing.  His mother encouraged and directed his reading, while his father denigrated reading and his efforts at writing.  Some teachers and librarians fostered his passion for books.  Others thought little of such pursuits.  He traces all of these experiences with clarity and wit.

Early in his writing life, Conroy made the decision to read at least 200 pages a day.  He has maintained that ambitious schedule for decades.  He reads widely and deeply.  Describing his expectations of a writer, he says  “I want a book so filled with story and character that I read page after page without thinking of food and drink, because a writer has possessed me, crazed me with an unappeasable thirst to know what happens next.”  I want the same, and that is exactly what Pat Conroy gives me.

Find and reserve My Reading Life in our catalog.

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