Posts Tagged ‘England’

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Sarah K’s Picks

December 23, 2014

These five books were the ones that stuck in my mind during 2014. They reveal truths about our shared humanity while introducing readers to new places and new forms of style. Take a moment to try these out; they are well worth your time.

Claire of the Sea LightClaire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
On the night of Claire Limyè Lanmè’s seventh birthday, she disappears. Motherless, her fisherman father Nozias has decided to give Claire away to Madame Gaëlle, a shopkeeper who lost her daughter in an accident years earlier, to ensure Claire greater opportunities. As the members of the seaside Haitian town of Ville Rose, search for her, their interconnected stories, secrets, and losses emerge. Danticat creates vivid characters and her writing captures the beauty and sorrow of daily life.

The CommitmentsThe Commitments by Roddy Doyle
Put together a group of Dublin working class misfits with the soul sounds of the 1960s and you have Roddy Doyle’s punchy and charming novel about the joys of rock and roll. The book follows the escapades of the band as they combat over practice, get through their first gig, cut their first single and run into inevitable creative differences. Doyle’s free-flowing bawdy dialogue is exhilarating. So, if you are looking for some fun, introduce yourself to the Hardest Working Soul Band in Dublin: The Commitments.

My Struggle Book OneMy Struggle Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard blurs the lines between fiction and memoir in the first volume of his novelistic autobiography. The book begins with a meditation on death and then proceeds to explore Knausgaard’s childhood and fraught relationship with his troubled father. This expansion and contraction of universal ideas and the minute details of Knausgaard’s life creates a fascinating tension between the author and the reader. Knausgaard lays his life out on the table with unflinching directness for the reader to examine. My Struggle is probably not for every reader, but it is something strange and new.

AusterlitzAusterlitz by W. G. Sebald
Traveling across Europe, the unnamed narrator meets and befriends Jacques Austerlitz an architectural historian. As their relationship develops, he gradually learns of Austerlitz’s search for his lost history. As a small child, Austerlitz’s mother placed him a Kindertransport to Britain where an aged Welsh couple adopted him and gave him a new identity. After learning of his birth family after their deaths, Austerlitz begins to discover his past and how the Holocaust severed his past life from his present. Uncanny, hypnotic, and dreamlike, Austerlitz conveys the incompleteness of memories with their ragged and hazy qualities, while capturing the devastation of the Holocaust.

The Patrick Melrose NovelsThe Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn pillories the excesses and absurdities of the British upper class with elegant prose and vicious wit in this cycle of four novels. He begins with Patrick’s childhood relationships to his sadistic father and neglectful mother, and following him into a ravenous drug addiction, recovery, marriage and fatherhood. His character eventually reaches a form of uneasy redemption. Patrick and the world he inhabits aren’t likable, but there’s a level of truth to St. Aubyn’s storytelling, as Patrick struggles to place himself beyond his lifelong demons. Despite some of their grim subject matter, the novels are deeply, darkly funny.

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.

Best New Books of 2014: Sarah K’s Picks

December 5, 2014

Identity and struggle are the themes of five of my favorite books from 2014. How does adversity shape who we are? How much do we control our identities and how much are we shaped by external forces? I invite you to check out these following titles

An Untamed StateAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Kidnapped by an armed street gang in Haiti, Mireille trusts her wealthy father to pay ransom to return her to her fairy tale existence with her husband and baby. When Mireille’s father refuses to capitulate to her captors, she must find the strength to endure days of torment while trying to maintain a connection to the woman she was. Gay’s frank treatment of rape and its aftermath with clean understated writing adds to the intensity of this book.

On the RunOn the Run by Alice Goffman
As an undergraduate, Alice Goffman moved into a neighborhood in Philadelphia and began taking field notes as she fully immersed herself in the lives of the families living there. The War on Drugs had created a culture of constant police surveillance of the lives of the residents there, especially among the young men, many of whom were in some sort of entanglement with the legal system. Goffman witnessed arrests, escapes from the police and how police use employment and familial relationships as leverage against suspects. Goffman has written an insightful and sobering critique of the policing of poor neighborhoods and the human toll that it takes on the individuals living there.

The Empathy ExamsThe Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
From the confinement of illness to the traps of poverty and prison, Leslie Jamison’s clear-eyed and far-ranging essays explore the intersection between empathy and pain. If you only have time for one essay, read “Fog Count,” which begins with a prison visit, but then expands to include the larger picture of the prison-industrial complex, strip mining and the economy of West Virginia.  Her curiosity about the human condition brings into sharp focus the capacity and limitations of compassion. She deftly weaves personal experience with the universal to create a collection that rivals early Joan Didion.

The Other LanguageThe Other Language by Francesca Marciano
A woman writes about the ideal Italy while homesick in New York. Another seeks out an old companion on an isolated island in the Indian Ocean; while a third buys a Chanel gown on a frivolous whim. In this collection of nine stories, Marciano travels across countries and cultures with a knack for capturing settings and tone. She vividly captures the lives of her characters at moments of transformation with lovely and fluid storytelling that keeps the pages turning.

How to Build a GirlHow to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
Eager to escape her lackluster existence as a working-class teenager in the Midlands of England, and her unfortunate Scooby-Doo impersonation on local television, Johanna Morrigan decides to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde, music journalist. After gaining the attention of a London-based music magazine, Johanna/Dolly embarks on a series of professional and sexual misadventures as she tries to figure out how to build her new life. If you were a teenager in the early 1990s, or enjoy bold raucous humor, chances are you will love this book as much as I did.

Baptism by Max Kinnings

October 16, 2014

BaptismA heart-pounding thriller taking place in the London Underground.

Religious fanatics commandeer a subway train and stop it between two major stations. Nobody knows what they want but they are prepared to kill without hesitation if anyone gets in their way. They may be religious fanatics wanting to make a statement. Bodies are falling right and left as ace negotiator Ed Mallory leads a team desperately attempting to head off this potential catastrophe. Caught in the middle is George Wakeham, the driver of the train. His family is being held hostage so that George will do whatever the leader of the fanatics, Tommy Denning, tells him to do.

But there is something more involved in this: somehow MI5 is entangled with the impending tragedy and they have kept important “intel” from Mallory. As the situation worsens, the London police must do anything and everything possible to stop this situation before hundreds perish.

This fast-paced thriller will keep you awake at night. Kinnings has written one heck of a page turner. I expect we will hear more from him in the future.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

September 16, 2014

“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”

I first experienced The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in high school, and I think I have not gone more than a week without thinking about that one particular line since then. I chose the word “experienced” rather than read because H2G2, as Neil Gaiman dubbed it, comes in many forms. It was initially a radio play for the BBC, then became a five volume trilogy of books (don’t try to make sense of this), a legendarily difficult computer game, a BBC miniseries and a feature film, among other incarnations. I first encountered the story as an audiobook read by the author, and among the many lines and ideas that have been swimming around in my brain like a Babel Fish ever since, this notion of the illusory nature of time is at the forefront.

It’s illustrative of the real genius of Douglas Adams, which is often found in the footnotes and at the margins, in his gift for amazing throwaway lines and casual asides that are simultaneously make the reader laugh and reconsider everything that they know about the nature of the universe. The story of H2G2 begins with ordinary Englishman Arthur Dent attempting to prevent his house from being demolished, continues with the destruction of the Earth, joining up with the two-headed galactic president as he absconds with a new spaceship and then arriving at an ancient planet where they discover the answer to life, the universe and everything. This is only the first book, mind you.

It’s an engaging and entertaining story, and the characters are instantly memorable and iconic. Besides the lovable everyman Arthur the reader gets to know and adore Ford Prefect, an alien who had been working undercover on Earth to compile the entry about earth for the titular intergalactic guidebook and encyclopedia, the aforementioned two headed president Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin, the depressed, paranoid android and the Vogons, a vile race of aliens known for their love of truly abysmal poetry, and that only scratches the surface of this staggering, multimedia comedic achievement. If you’ve never experienced H2G2, hang on to your towel and don’t panic. It’s mostly harmless.

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Little Face by Sophie Hannah

August 22, 2014

Little FaceAlice was clinically depressed and alone in the world when she met David Fancourt. David was wealthy, attractive, and gentlemanly. So what if his mother was a little controlling or his relationship with his ex-wife was especially acrimonious. So what if he preferred living in his mother’s mansion to finding a flat of their own. It was, after all, a large and meticulously maintained home. It was a terrible shock when David’s ex-wife was murdered, but David and Alice were still content together. Soon Alice was pregnant, and now they have a beautiful baby girl, Florence. Or do they? Alice walks into the nursery one morning, looks at the baby there, and is positive that it is not her Florence. How and why would someone switch babies? Is Alice playing a cruel trick on her husband, losing her mind, or just becoming aware of suspicious circumstances that have always been there, threatening to engulf her?

Detective Constable Simon Waterhouse and his Sergeant Charlotte “Charlie” Zailer of the Spilling Criminal Investigation Department (CID) are called in to find some answers. The story is told in chapters alternating between Alice’s viewpoint and Simon’s and Charlie’s viewpoint, so you see things through both the victim’s eyes and detectives’ eyes as the story progresses, in a uniquely suspenseful writing style.

This is the first in Sophie Hannah’s Spilling CID series of psychological mystery thrillers, set in the fictional British town of Spilling. Hannah is also the author of the upcoming book The Monogram Murders, featuring Agatha Christie’s iconic character Hercule Poirot in a new mystery authorized by the family of Agatha Christie.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

July 30, 2014

The Night GardenerMolly and Kip are a brother and sister who have had a hard go of it in life. Ireland in the 1850s is a difficult place for children – famine and hard work are all they’ve ever known. In search of a better life, they’ve come to work for the Windsors in rural England, but nearly everyone in the surrounding village is telling them to turn away from the family’s decaying home on a secluded island whose centerpiece is an enormous, gnarling tree. But what else are two youngsters without a penny or a caring adult in the world to do? There are whispers that the Windsor home and family are cursed, which Molly dismisses as hogwash. Surely curses are the stuff of stories – as an amateur storyteller, she ought to know. But then she notices that the Windsors, from nervous patriarch Bertram to little Penny, grow paler and weaker with each passing day. There are the muddy bootprints that appear every single morning, the bad dreams that torment Molly night after night. And then there’s the tall, skinny man in the top hat that Kip says he’s seen outside…

I love children’s horror because it’s less about grisly details and more about haunting atmospheres and moral themes. If that’s your bag, then The Night Gardener is as fine an example as you’ll ever find. Themes of human greed and discontent permeate the story, and it’s just as engaging a read for adults as it is for children. Kip and Molly are brave and feisty in distinct ways, and the Windsor family is easy to sympathize with even as their problems are mainly their own fault. I loved the slow burn and the dramatic reveal of each element of the story, and Auxier‘s pacing couldn’t be better – I was on the edge of my seat during the action scenes. Are you ready to be creeped out, or to creep out your children? The Night Gardener is worth a look.

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A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

July 2, 2014

A Room With a ViewBeing a fan of Jane Austen, I can’t help but love A Room With a View. Even though it was written nearly 100 years after Austen, this novel by E.M. Forster has many Austen hallmarks.

The main character, 19-year-old Lucy Honeychurch, is a member of the English upper middle class, and she hasn’t quite worked out yet just who she is and what she wants from life. On a trip to Italy with her maiden aunt Charlotte, Lucy meets George Emerson and his father, a pair who speak the truth without realizing how offensive this can be. When Lucy witnesses a tragic incident in the town square, George helps her to return to their hotel, and the two form a bond that Lucy refuses to acknowledge, even to herself. Instead, she becomes engaged to Cecil Vyse, an arrogant, upper class prig of a man who views Lucy as someone he can shape into his ideal woman. Back at home in England, George enters Lucy’s life again. He declares his love for her, but she continues to refuse to see that she feels the same about him.

The most amusing character, and the most Austenian, is Aunt Charlotte. Here she is on a picnic arguing with Lucy about which of them will have the use of a mackintosh square to protect them from the damp ground:

“The ground will do for me. Really I have not had rheumatism for years. If I do feel it coming on I shall stand.” … She cleared her throat. “Now don’t be alarmed; this isn’t a cold. It’s the tiniest cough, and I have had it three days. It’s nothing to do with sitting here at all.”

A Room With a View is Forster’s lightest, most optimistic novel. However, if your copy has an appendix in it, then you will discover that the author did not expect things to go well for his heroine and hero after the events of the book. You can read the appendix  here.  Personally, I prefer a happy ending for Lucy and George.

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Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

May 28, 2014

strangebookcover.phpThis book has been on my “to read” book for at least two years, but I kept putting it off because of how long it is. At about 800 pages, it’s not a book to pick up on a whim! Finally this past winter, as the holidays died down and the cold kept me in more and more, I lugged this tome home with me for a read.

An alternative history set in England during the Napoleonic Wars, author Clarke’s debut novel follows the separate and intertwining stories of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the two men who have brought magic back to England. Although the study of magic has remained prevalent among certain societies of men, practical magic, that of actually conducting spells and affecting change, has been absent from England since the disappearance of the Raven King several hundred years before.

From writing articles expounding their beliefs on the Raven King to assisting the British government in outmaneuvering Napoleon’s armies, the two men reach the height of London society for their magical knowledge. As Strange tires of his role of pupil to Norrell’s of tutor, and Norrell fears that Strange’s practical skills will surpass his own, the two men fall apart, each to pursue their own directions in life. When magic not produced by either of England’s two practical magicians begins to occur, the two men’s  paths again intertwine.   It’s not a book you’ll consume in a weekend, but if you have some time, this one is well worth a read.

Find and reserve this book in the library.

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

April 11, 2014

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna TrollopeThere’s a growing trend for the estates of famous deceased authors to commission new “continuation” titles based on the settings and characters the authors created, sort of like officially sanctioned fan fiction.  One good example is The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, a new Sherlock Holmes novel approved by Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate. Agatha Christie’s estate has also recently authorized more Hercule Poirot mysteries.  Publisher HarperCollins is going one step further with its Austen Project, asking some of today’s best-selling British authors to re-imagine Jane Austen’s works with close retellings of her books set in the current time period.  The first of these out of the gate is Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility.

Trollope’s book, like the classic, focuses on the three Dashwood girls, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, and their mother.  Mr. Dashwood expires before the book even begins, but from a modern ailment – severe asthma – not from a hunting accident. His estate passes to his son from his first marriage, not due to entailment laws, but because he never actually legally married the girls’ mother, a modern twist. Left homeless, they snap up the offer of a cottage in the countryside free of rent from a wealthy cousin, John Middleton.  The story proceeds with the same characters and plot points as the original, but with modern “sensibilities.”

Much of the charm of Austen’s books lies in the customs and manners of the time period when they are set and her own unique style in making fun of them and her character’s many foibles.  Trollope’s book is also witty and satirical in its own way.  It’s interesting to see how much of the humor and how many of the romantic predicaments are timeless and translate well to today.

The Austen Project has scheduled all of Jane Austen’s books for this treatment.  Next up is Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, followed by Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld.

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