Posts Tagged ‘Janet L.’s Picks’

Best New Books of 2014: Janet L’s Picks

December 8, 2014

Winter is coming, with its cold days and long nights.  In other words, perfect reading weather.  It’s also the traditional time to look back and choose favorite reads of the past year.  If you are a fan of humor, mystery, travel, or food (not to mention good writing) I can highly recommend the following five books:

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Neighborhood curmudgeon Ove is not amused when a lively young family moves in next door.  Imagine everyone’s surprise, especially Ove’s, when instead of the expected disaster, something wonderful results.  Fredrik Backman’s debut is an amazing mixture of comedy, pathos and social commentary.  Will appeal to almost everyone, especially fans of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and The No. 1 Ladies Detective series by Alexander McCall Smith.

The Bone OrchardThe Bone Orchard by Paul Doiron
Life would be much easier for Mike Bowditch if he could just keep his mouth shut, but then reading about him wouldn’t be so much fun.  No longer a game warden for the state of Maine, Mike finds himself drawn into a case when good friend and former mentor, Kathy Frost, is gunned down and critically injured.  One of my favorite mystery series; if you haven’t had the pleasure, begin with The Poacher’s Son.  Especially recommended for readers of the Alex McKnight series by Steve Hamilton, the Conway Sax series by Steve Ulfelder and the Anna Pigeon series by Nevada Barr.

Smoke Gets in Your EyesSmoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
Caitlin Doughty, founder of The Order of the Good Death, is a Los Angeles mortician.  She wrote this book to give people a behind the scenes look at funeral home. Death is a somber and scary subject, but Doughty handles it with humor and compassion. If she hoped this book would demystify death and make it more comfortable to contemplate, she succeeded with this reader.  Recommended for fans of Mary Roach and Sarah Vowell.

The Age of LicenseThe Age of License: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley
Graphic artist Knisley shares the ups and downs of her book tour to Europe and Scandinavia.   Honest, charming, yet serious, this graphic novel will appeal to fans of travelogues and mouthwatering descriptions of food—and isn’t that almost everyone?

The Black HourThe Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day
Sociology professor Amelia Emmet has made violence the focus of her academic research.  When a student she has never seen before appears outside her office and shoots her, theory becomes all too horribly real.  Back on campus, Amelia attempts to resume her life.  Relying on painkillers, a cane, and her sardonic sense of humor, Amelia struggles to find the answer to the questions that haunts her:  Why?

Wild : From Lost To Found On the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

March 28, 2014

 

It’s 1995 and Cheryl Strayed is floundering. Still grieving the untimely death of her mother, Cheryl is in the process of divorcing a husband she loves after sabotaging her marriage with meaningless affairs. She has lost touch with her siblings, has never been close to her biological father, and the once fond relationship she enjoyed with her stepfather has become distant. A promising student, she has allowed herself to come within one paper of graduating college. One five page paper she somehow can’t seem to write.

Then by chance, she picks up a book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Suddenly Cheryl has a goal in life: to hike, alone, this trail made famous by naturalist John Muir. It doesn’t matter that she has no real hiking experience. She has her guidebook and the friendly, knowledgeable staff at REI. They will help her choose the best equipment to take. What more could she need?

The answer to that question forms the basis of this fascinating, inspiring true story. Hunched under a too heavy backpack quickly nicknamed Monster, Cheryl begins a journey that is spiritual as well as physical. Her plans for her hike are soon revealed as inadequate (who knew water weighed so much?) and she must improvise as she goes along—much as we all have to adjust when our best laid plans go awry.

As she hikes the PCT, Cheryl finds her experience of the land changing. As she gains elevation, her view expands and she is stunned by the beauty of the wild and humbled by her place in it. She is alternately spooked and soothed by the solitude and grateful for the perspective it allows her to gain, not just on the horizon, but on her life, even the painful parts.

I loved this book. Strayed is an engaging protagonist. She tells her story beautifully and honestly, allowing us to feel her stubbornness when she refuses to give up, her fear when as a lone woman she encounters strangers, her joy and surprise at discovering her own capabilities. Her naiveté is endearing (for who among us has not gone off on a project half cocked?) and all too human; her struggle to succeed in spite of it inspiring. Highly recommended.

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Greatest Hits: Flora by Gail Godwin

January 3, 2014

Flora by Gail Godwin

We’re kicking off the new year with The Book-A-Day Blog’s most popular posts of 2013!

It’s 1945 and ten year old Helen Anstruther lives in a dilapidated old house at the top of a rutted driveway in Mountain City, North Carolina. Her mother died when she was three and she’s just lost her beloved grandmother, Nonie, to a heart attack. Her father needs to find someone to stay with Helen while he goes to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to contribute to an important, but mysterious project related to the war. Twenty two year old cousin Flora is recruited to spend the summer looking after Helen.

Helen is a precocious child trying very hard to appear more grown up than her actual years and her behavior elicits mixed emotions. I spent part of the book feeling true sympathy for her and the rest wanting to shake her until her teeth rattled. Her loneliness and confusion engender empathy, while her treatment of Flora is infuriating.

In Flora, Gail Godwin creates what I sometimes think is the trickiest character of all—a genuinely good person. Flora is what another character calls “simple-hearted”. This is not similar to being simple-minded. Flora is likeable without being unbelievable and moral without being preachy. She isn’t perfect. She has her insecurities, like everyone else, but she manages to deal with them without resorting to cynicism, or meanness, or liquor. She was chosen by Helen’s father more out of convenience than anything else, but he couldn’t have found a better companion for Helen if he had tried.

The developing relationship between Helen and Flora is the heart of the story. Where will that relationship lead? The first line of the novel, which is narrated by Helen, contains hints, “There are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.”

This is a story of innocence and its loss, actions and their consequences, memory and forgetting. The themes of this short novel are played out not only in the relationship between Helen and Flora, but in the backdrop of an America doing what is deemed necessary to win a war. The writing is gorgeous and reminded me of one of my favorite short story writers, Alice Munro. Add this to the list of fabulous books published this year by North Carolina writers.

Find and reserve this book in the catalog.

 

Best New Books of 2013: Janet L’s Picks

December 9, 2013

I like books that feature characters, whether fictional or real-life, to whom I can relate.  This year I was drawn into the world of a motherless girl in the NC mountains, an alien sent to Earth from another planet, a fellow librarian, service personnel redeployed home, and the commander of the British sector of post WWII Berlin.

Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel
In The Good Soldiers, David Finkel wrote about the lives of the soldiers of the US-216 Infantry Battalion during their deployment in Iraq.  Thank You for Your Service is the eye opening account of what life is like for these same soldiers as they return home.   This is a searing, heartbreaking and sometimes infuriating book, written with compassion and a great eye for the telling detail.

Flora by Gail Godwin
Ten year old Helen Anstruther lives in a dilapidated old house at the top of a rutted driveway in Mountain City, North Carolina. It’s 1945 and her father needs someone to stay with his motherless daughter while he goes to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to contribute to a mysterious project related to World War II.  Twenty two year old cousin Flora is recruited.  The developing relationship between Helen and Flora is the heart of the story and has unexpected and devastating consequences.  Read my full-length post here.

The Humans by Matt Haig
The family of mathematician Andrew Martin is surprised but pleased by the sudden, favorable change in his behavior.  Little do they suspect it’s because he’s been replaced by an alien sent to prevent him from discovering a mathematical truth that could give humans unprecedented power. Instead the alien finds himself warming to and falling in love with the very beings he’s been sent to destroy.  This novel deftly combines math, poetry, and family dysfunction into an often hilarious and touching exploration of what it means to be human.

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook
Colonel Lewis Morgan is in charge of the British operations in the divided city of Berlin, immediately following the end of World War II.  His wife resents the assignment; they lost a child in the bombing of England by German planes.  Morgan struggles to treat the defeated Germans in a manner he considers decent while fulfilling his mission of rebuilding the war torn city and identifying former Nazis.

The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne
Josh Hanagarne has a well developed sense of humor, forged in the crucible of a loving family fond of practical jokes — and he needs it. Diagnosed with Tourette syndrome at a young age, he faces extra challenges in life. His condition affects his school life, his love life, and his stint as a missionary for his church.  He must persevere to find love, finish his education, and establish a career.  Along the way he develops coping mechanisms, including controlling his tics through physical exercise.  This is a very funny, beautifully written book with a lot to say about perseverance, family, marriage, faith and yes, weight training. Read my full-length post here.

The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne

August 12, 2013

“You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time—of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.”

This is one of my favorite quotes, made by a very funny man, Stephen Colbert. I was reminded of it while reading this memoir.

Josh Hanagarne has a great sense of humor, forged in the crucible of a loving family fond of practical jokes — and he needs it. Diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome as a child, he faces extra challenges. Tourette’s affects his school life and his stint as a missionary. He must persevere to find love, to finish his education, and to establish a career. The incongruity of becoming a librarian is not lost on him. He writes:

“One of the reasons I work here is because I have extreme Tourette’s syndrome. The kind with verbal tics, sometimes loud ones, the kind that draws warning looks. Working in this library is the ultimate test for someone who literally can’t sit still. Who can’t shush himself. A test of willpower, of patience, and occasionally, of the limits of human absurdity.”

Tourette’s isn’t Josh’s only medical challenge; he and his wife also struggle with the pain of infertility. His honesty in examining the effects of these difficulties on his relationship to God and his church is engaging and moving.

Then there’s the weight training. Worried about his son, his father bundles him into the car and takes him to the gym. Dad’s instincts are good.  Josh finds the focus of weight training helpful for coping with Tourette’s. Then one day at the library a book by Pavel Tsatsouline, aka “The Evil Russian”, crosses his desk. Pavel is a proponent of training with kettlebells (“essentially a cannonball with a handle”) and advertises his methods with such catchy phrases as “Try it if you think you’re so tough. You’ll wish you were dead.”

Have you ever seen a movie you liked so much that afterwards, when telling friends why you like it, you find yourself practically reenacting it? Saying things like: oh, wait, I can’t believe I almost forgot to tell you about this scene! That’s how I feel about this book. I haven’t even touched on Josh’s library life, or what happens when he and his wife try to adopt a baby, or several other key sections. But maybe it’s best if I leave some things for you to discover.

I loved this book. It had a lot to say to me about family, love, marriage, faith, libraries, and weight training. I thought it fitting that it ended with a challenge met with laughter.

Check out Josh’s blog at
www.worldsstrongestlibrarian.com/

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

July 18, 2013

bookcover.phpThis is not a review, it’s a love letter.

I adore this book. Why? It has a likeable narrator in Clay Jannon, a mysterious bookshop, romance, puzzles, secret societies, a San Francisco locale (with a side trip to New York), and a sly sense of humor. The theme of Old Knowledge (books) vs. Internet knowledge gives the author the chance to slip in scenes at Google, a museum dedicated to knitting overrun by first graders, information about fonts, a character who made his fortune creating realistic 3-D versions of breasts, and a warehouse of artifacts that seems a cross between what I imagine Amazon’s warehouses to be and the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The theme also allowed for scenes that reminded me of other books and movies, from Lord of the Rings, Canticle for Leibowitz, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Shadow of the Wind, and, strangely enough, O Brother Where Art Thou.

There are many good quotes for book lovers in this story. My favorite:

“Some of them are working very hard indeed. ‘What are they doing?’ ‘My boy!’ he said, eyebrows raised. As if nothing could be more obvious. ‘They are reading!”

This title was one of the winners of the 2013 Alex Award, given every year by the American Library Association to “ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”

This book is fun. (Did I mention the cover of the hardback edition glows in the dark?). It’s the kind of book that made a reader of me, the kind of book that keeps me reading, the kind of book I write blog posts about because I want to share the joy.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

July 17, 2013

bookcover.phpHave you ever wondered how differently your life might have turned out if you had lived in another era? That’s the question Andrew Sean Greer explores in his new novel, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.

When we first meet Greta she lives in New York City, circa 1985. She has lost her beloved twin brother to AIDS and her lover of ten years to another woman. Depressed, she seeks help, and is prescribed electroshock therapy. It works better than anyone could have imagined. Not only does it begin to jolt Greta out of her depression, it sends her back in time, specifically to 1918 and 1941.

In her other lives, she’s still Greta, lives in the same area of New York, and has the same family and friends. But the choices she’s made and can make as she shifts from decade to decade are affected by the social customs of the time. The book follows Greta as she discovers things about herself and the people she loves that sadden, delight and surprise her. There’s a lot of interesting observations about the tradeoffs made no matter when people live.

I’ll stop there with the plot summary, because I don’t want to give any more away. I liked this book very much and was fascinated by the choices Greta faces. This book reminded me of another recent book, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I found Atkinson’s book to be more about how you would change your behavior if given some foreknowledge and a second chance, while this story was more about how the same person’s life would change (or not) based on when they lived.

An engrossing, engaging read with a sympathetic main character, I would recommend it to fans of Jack Finney’s Time And Again, The Time Traveler’s Wife and fans of time travel books in general.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Caretaker by A.X. Ahmad

July 1, 2013

Looking for a great summer read? I recommend this well written thriller. It has locales that range from India to Boston to Martha’s Vineyard, lots of action, and sharply drawn characters.

The protagonist, Ranjit Singh, is a Sikh and a former member of the Indian military. Discharged from service due to scandal, Ranjit immigrates to the United States where he barely makes a living doing odd jobs on Martha’s Vineyard. He’s thrilled to land several jobs as winter caretaker for some of the expensive homes. At least until he and his family find themselves running for their lives from mysterious men who want to steal something from one of the homes under Ranjit’s care. The targeted house belongs to a charismatic United States senator, with a beautiful wife of whom Ranjit is particularly fond.

The scenes on Martha’s Vineyard alternate with flashbacks to India and the failed mission that ended Ranjit’s army career so suddenly and spectacularly. I think Ahmad is particularly good at describing setting. I really felt like I was on the glacier with Singh and his men in the scenes set in India. When the action moves to the Vineyard, I could see the empty houses of the rich as Ranjit tended them during the somber days of the off season.

Ranjit Singh is an appealing character with a background I’ve never run across before in a thriller. I found the details of his army career fascinating. The sense of honor that made him a good soldier carries over into his civilian life and is, for me, one of Ranjit’s most endearing qualities. He stubbornly insists on behaving honorably, even if it’s not convenient or worse yet, downright dangerous.

The Caretaker is the first in a trilogy featuring Ranjit Singh from debut author A.X. Ahmad. The second title in the series, Bollywood Taxi, will be published next year. I look forward to reading it.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Last Summer of the Camperdowns by Elizabeth Kelly

June 25, 2013

The Last Summer of the CamperdownsI’m not sure whether to pity or envy Riddle James Camperdown.  She has one of the funniest mothers I’ve ever encountered in fiction.  That makes me envious.  On the other hand, Greer Camperdown’s withering humor is often aimed at Riddle.  Score one for pity.  Her father, Godfrey, known as Camp, is unnervingly gifted.  A labor historian, activist, composer of (off) Broadway musicals, and noted biographer of James Hoffa, he’s now a candidate for Congress.  He’s also the source of Riddle’s unusual moniker; she’s named after James Riddle Hoffa.  Score two for pity.

It’s 1972 and Riddle is looking forward to a lazy summer at the family home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.  It’s the perfect seaside setting for reading, playing with the dogs and indulging her passion, horseback riding.  The only cloud on Riddle’s horizon is her father’s campaign.  Her mother is not happy about it either, especially the expected entertaining and schmoozing.  But she’s a famously beautiful actress who left Hollywood when she married and she knows how to pretend she’s listening.

Riddle is twelve, the age at which children begin to realize adults have a life in which important things happened before they were born.  Adults have secrets too, and her parents’ will turn out to be unexpectedly dangerous.

Riddle acquires her own fatal secret when she witnesses something unsettling in a neighbor’s barn.  It involves the truly frightening hired hand and gifted horse handler, Gula Nightjar, a man who pops up to terrify Riddle whenever she has an impulse to tell what she knows.  He is spooky, spooky, spooky, and you believe he would paralyze Riddle into inaction.

Secrets abound in The Last Summer of the Camperdowns and Elizabeth Kelly uses them to explore the cost of silence, what constitutes true love and friendship, and how hesitating to do what’s right can have devastating consequences.  These are big themes and I found the way they’re explored in this novel compelling.  I also loved the characters, all sharply drawn and given to conversations so hilarious and beguiling I found myself losing track of time when reading.  I love it when that happens.  Highly recommended.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Flora by Gail Godwin

June 6, 2013

It’s 1945 and ten year old Helen Anstruther lives in a dilapidated old house at the top of a rutted driveway in Mountain City, North Carolina. Her mother died when she was three and she’s just lost her beloved grandmother, Nonie, to a heart attack. Her father needs to find someone to stay with Helen while he goes to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to contribute to an important, but mysterious project related to the war. Twenty two year old cousin Flora is recruited to spend the summer looking after Helen.

Helen is a precocious child trying very hard to appear more grown up than her actual years and her behavior elicits mixed emotions. I spent part of the book feeling true sympathy for her and the rest wanting to shake her until her teeth rattled. Her loneliness and confusion engender empathy, while her treatment of Flora is infuriating.

In Flora, Gail Godwin creates what I sometimes think is the trickiest character of all—a genuinely good person. Flora is what another character calls “simple-hearted”. This is not similar to being simple-minded. Flora is likeable without being unbelievable and moral without being preachy. She isn’t perfect. She has her insecurities, like everyone else, but she manages to deal with them without resorting to cynicism, or meanness, or liquor. She was chosen by Helen’s father more out of convenience than anything else, but he couldn’t have found a better companion for Helen if he had tried.

The developing relationship between Helen and Flora is the heart of the story. Where will that relationship lead? The first line of the novel, which is narrated by Helen, contains hints, “There are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.”

This is a story of innocence and its loss, actions and their consequences, memory and forgetting. The themes of this short novel are played out not only in the relationship between Helen and Flora, but in the backdrop of an America doing what is deemed necessary to win a war. The writing is gorgeous and reminded me of one of my favorite short story writers, Alice Munro. Add this to the list of fabulous books published this year by North Carolina writers.

Find and reserve this book in the catalog.


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