Staff Picks

 Comment on a review by clicking on its title. You can also write your thoughts about any book on our Facebook Wall. When you're in the Library, be sure to browse the "Staff Picks" display for additional staff suggestions.

You can still access reviews from pre-September 2012 for Adults and Children.

The Secret Life of Sleep

(2014)
The Secret Life of Sleep

Kat Duff’s book had its beginnings as a blog for the “sleepy, the sleepless and the curious” and that sets the tone for the book. The chapters are short, interesting, folksy and informative.

Have you ever been falling asleep and suddenly your whole body startles awake? There is actually a name for this- a Myoclonic Kick. As we wind down to sleep we pass through a state called hypnagogia where we slowly lose consciousness. Once asleep, our brain continues to function, but in a way that is healing. The author brings up many interesting possibilities and conjectures about different states of sleep. Some are scientific, some are cultural, all interwoven.

Chapters are devoted to dreams. An ancient Greek philosopher stated that the science of the soul would come to us through sleep. During the Dark Ages, dreams were denounced as works of the devil. The affects of dreams on memory and learning are addressed here from a more modern viewpoint.  The psychological aspects of this subject are looked at through a Jungian lens.

Another section is devoted to trying to get to sleep when one cannot do so. Within this is a detailed history of sleeping pills from Bromide to Barbiturates to Benzodiazepines. There is some rather interesting data on sleep tests and drugs. People do not necessarily sleep much longer with the help of sleeping pills, but they feel more rested.

A side note I found interesting was that the president who established a special committee to investigate drug dependence in 1962 regularly took Ritalin for energy, barbiturates for sleep, codeine for pain, and Librium for anxiety.

It is easy to read a couple chapters of this book before going to bed at night. And what better time to read a book about sleep?

 

 

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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

2014

A.J. Fikry is a miserable man. His wife died tragically, his bookstore is struggling and now his prized possession, a rare edition of Poe’s Tamerlane has been stolen from his apartment. The sale of that book was what was going to get A.J. off this island some day. Now A.J. is stuck on Alice Island, where he has alienated most of the population with his superior attitude and bad disposition. Everything changes for A.J. when a mysterious bundle is left in his bookstore one night. This small bundle gives A.J. the power to change his entire life which, in turn changes the lives of other people close to him.

 

This book surprised me. This is not the type of book I normally would be drawn to and it actually sat on my desk for a week before I decided to give it a try,. The minute I picked it up, I was hooked and didn’t put it down until I was finished (with tears running down my face). This book is full of literary references, has the emotion of a memoir and yet at times, reads like a romantic comedy. Definitely quirky and may not be for everyone, but pick it up and give it a try. You may be as surprised as I was!

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Wonder

(2012)

August (Auggie) Pullman is different from other ten year old kids.  Born with a rare congenital condition resulting in startling facial deformities, he has a not so ordinary face that invites curiosity and criticism, as well as compassion.  He leaves the bubble of his loving and safe home-schooled environment to attend fifth grade at Beecher Prep in New York City.  For one year, readers follow Auggie as he stumbles through the minefields of adolescence: vulnerable in a school culture where being different is an oddity not easily forgiven.  The 2014 Fox Cities Reads selection of "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio for its community read leading up to this week's Fox Cities Book Festival is a true winner.  A glimpse into the world of Auggie Pullman presents multiple opportunities for discussion between a community of parents and children, teachers and students, teens, preteens, and their peers.  

Auggie takes us down the hallways that echo with whispers and into Ms. Petosa's homeroom where the desk next to him remains empty.  We join him for lunch where he and his new friend Summer are stared upon as they sit alone, at a long table, in a crowded room.  It is here at Beecher Prep where he dodges enemies and forges friendships in spite of being called names like "Zombie Kid" and having a school recess game named after him called the "Plague".  Soon we understand why he hid his face inside an astronaut helmet for years or why wearing a mask so he can blend in with everyone else makes Halloween his favorite holiday.  Though saddened by the reactions of others, August does not feel sorry for himself.  Instead, the fifth grader returns to school every day; ultimately winning over the hearts of his classmates and teachers with his sense of humor and his humble acceptance of their natural curiosity.     

The book evokes much emotion and is at different times funny, warm, heartrending, insightful, and sad.  While "Wonder" is a worthy exploration of Auggie's experiences, the author also includes reactions to the young boy's circumstances from the view of various people involved in his life.  Palacio tenderly shows readers how Auggie triumphs over his own adversity with the help of loving parents, his protective sister Via, a compassionate school principal in Mr. Tushman, fellow classmates who dare to be his friend, and an excellent attitude.  The Fox Cities Reads author should be commended for writing a meaningful story and introducing us to a character who will remain on our minds and in our hearts for a very long time after the 2014 Fox Cities Book Festival has ended.    

 

  

 

     

 

 

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The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's greatest abolitionist

2013

At thirteen, Tula wonders "how many slaves / Mama will buy with the money / she gains by marrying me to / the highest bidder." Loosely based on the early life of the Cuban novelist and human rights advocate Gertrudis Gmez de Avellaneda (1814-73) who was nicknamed Tula, this novel in verse follows her through a dangerous open rebellion against 19th century slavery in Cuba and a personal fight to resist an arranged marriage.  During this time in Cuban history, the most open rebels were poets like Gmez de Avellaneda. This award winning novel is recommended for grade 6 and up and would pair well with books like Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan.

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Grant Wood: A Life

2010

Grant Wood was best known for his 1930 iconic painting, American Gothic. He was born to Quaker parents on the eve of Valentine’s Day 1891, in the small rural town of Anamosa, Iowa, about thirty miles from Cedar Rapids. He was named after Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s father, a farmer, disapproved of his art while his mother supported and encouraged his interest. Grant was ten years old when his father died. His death freed him to become an artist. In the 1920s Wood studied art in Paris, explored his homosexual leanings, and adopted the bohemian lifestyle as an impressionist painter. His return to Iowa brought a style change toward the regionalist school of art and focus on the “cast of characters that includes sturdy farmers, long-suffering mothers, and acid-tongued spinsters we encounter in Wood’s later work.” Wood adopted overalls as his uniform, perhaps to appease the memory of his father. His work had the folksy common touch that glorified Midwestern American scenery and personalities.

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Escape from Communist Heaven

2013

 

The Vietnam War.  Just saying it evokes all kinds of memories, images and emotions from people who were directly involved to those of us who were born well after the conflict ended. Usually we hear only the American side or the Viet Cong side of the war but in Escape from Communist Heaven by Dennis W. Dunivan we get to hear what happened to Vietnam after the war was over. Based on a true story, Escape from Communist Heaven reads like Dystopian Fiction and recalls a world that is remarkably like North Korea. Author Dennis W. Dunivan worked with Viet Nguyen to share his story of escape in this fictionalized account. Fans of First They Killed my Father by Loung Un will find this to be a gentler read and while this book is not poetic it is poignant in its simple text.

In this book the main character Viet, whose name means people, is an everyman character who is adapting to life in a new country. But this new country is the same country he was born in only now all of the rules have changed. Now people disappear, there are prison camps for children, good food is a luxury and no one can be trusted. Would you want to escape from communist heaven?

 

 

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Cocaine Blues: a Phryne Fisher mystery

2006
Cocaine Blues

Phryne Fisher didn’t intend to solve crimes; as a flapper she was enjoying wealth and free time after a childhood of hunger and deprivation.    After many parties and dancing, shopping and theater trips, her boredom and restlessness made her wonder what to do with her life.  A daring jewelry theft during a high-society ball causes her to spring into action and brilliantly solve the crime, and a detective is born.  One of the guests, impressed by her intelligence, asks Phryne to help find out what is going on with her daughter Lydia, who fears she is being poisoned.  As a lark, Phryne decides to visit Australia and check up on Lydia's well being. 

Once in Melbourne, Phryne visits top society events to find out what is wrong with ­Lydia and why she fears her husband.  She becomes passionately involved with a Russian dancer, tracks down a cocaine ring, and makes some wonderful new friends—none from her social class—who will become her loyal friends and assistants in solving crime.

Wonderful characters, the unusual setting of 1920s Melbourne, and carefully plotted mysteries are great reading--even when better listened.  The audio version is perfectly voiced by Stephanie Daniel. 

Kerry Greenwood has degrees in English and Law, has written plays, novels, and children’s books.  Her stories are well-researched and reflect the social and political events of the time without being preachy.

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Apple Tree Yard

(2014)
Apple Tree Yard, by Louise Doughty

Definitely a compulsive read.  The book opens in a London courtroom where we learn the narrator, Yvonne, is on trial for an as-yet unknown crime.  The story is presented as though Yvonne is writing a letter to her partner in an adulterous relationship. Although she doesn’t intend to mail it, she is using this method to process the events that transpired between them.  This psychological thriller is quite different from what I usually read, but I absolutely loved it and never wanted to put it down.  Apple Tree Yard contains quite a bit of non-explicit sex: it’s generally just mentioned as having happened without a lot of detail or drawing it out.  There are one or two very disturbing scenes, but, again, they are not drawn out.  I definitely recommend this title to anyone who loves a character-driven thriller and is ok with the stuff previously mentioned. Likely more appealing to a female audience.

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The Storyteller

(2013)
The Storyteller

I am a huge fan of Jodi Picoult, but haven't been thrilled with her last few books. This one was a game changer for me. Jodi is back in full form!  This book completely enthralled me.  I particularly enjoyed reading Minka's perspective of the holocaust and life as a Jew inside of occupied Poland and the concentration camps. I did not want to put it down and had a few late nights while reading this book! If you love historical fiction or Jodi Picoult, I do not think you would be disappointed. Great read!

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The Curl Up & Dye

2014

LilyAnn’s hopes and dreams died when her boyfriend was killed in Afghanistan. Eleven years have passed since his death and the former Homecoming Queen is now withdrawn, slightly pudgy and working as a drug store clerk. LillyAnn is convinced that she already had her one true love in her life and lost him so she is done with men. That is bad news for her next door neighbor Mike, who has loved her for his whole life. He has spent the last 11 years trying to make LillyAnn notice him as something more than her best friend. Mike is failing miserably in his quest so the ladies from the Curl Up and Dye Hair Salon set out to help get the two of them together. This story is filled with small town Southern charm and has just enough drama to keep you on your toes. A good choice when curling up on the couch this winter.

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The Invention of Wings

(2014)

Two young girls, growing up in Charleston, South Carolina during the early 1800s, struggle to find their wings along the divergent paths they have been allotted in life.  Sarah Grimke is the daughter of a wealthy Southern judge while Hetty "Handful" Grimke is the spunky slave presented to Sarah as a "gift" on her eleventh birthday by a domineering mother.  Sarah reluctantly welcomes Handful into her life.  Finding the practice of slavery distasteful, she uses the opportunity to teach the young black girl how to read and write.  Sarah also demonstrates for Handful how they can treat each other with respect and dignity in spite of an uneven social standing and grave economic disparity.  Sarah, though she lives a life of privilege and extravagance, also finds her dreams limited because she is female.  She speaks out liberally and often against both the injustice of slavery and the constraints put upon women and girls.  She is unafraid of the consequences of her feelings, and her mother Mary is often shamed by what she believes to be her daughter's momentary rebellion.     

Handful was better understood by her own mother.  Charlotte gifted her daughter with the strength of her experiences, hope for a better future, and a deep love that knew no boundaries.  Charlotte, valued by the Grimke family as a talented seamstress, presents the story of her past to Handful in the form of a treasured story quilt and tales of the spirit tree.  She is bold and spirited and often takes chances with her own life in order to better her daughter's.  When her fearless mother is absent, Handful is drawn to the courageous Denmark Vesey, a free black man and father figure, who is passionate to win emancipation for his enslaved brethren.                       

Sue Monk Kidd explores the pursuit of freedom on both sides as the seeds of the abolition movement are planted, and the idea both unites and divides the country in "The Invention of Wings."  The author borrows facts from the real life abolitionist and women's rights activist Sarah Grimke.  The result is a moving story that shows the power one person can have as a catalyst for change or as a formidable force in changing the minds of others.  The book covers a span of 35 years, and the author lays a trail of excellent character development as the two girls grow into women.  While they lead parallel lives, Sarah and Handful are ultimately wishing for the same things and are forever tied together by the inspiration they receive from each other.      

As Sarah Grimke champions the idea to end slavery, she is eventually joined in her efforts by her younger, more fearless, sister Angelina.  The women face their adversaries, battle public conscience, and experience love and loss.  In spite of the endless array of challenges, they refuse to accept failure.  Early in the book, Sarah makes a promise to Charlotte that she will see Handful free.  She gives her entire life towards the hope of fulfilling that one promise.  Sue Monk Kidd delivers a powerful account centered around an affliction of history that was sought to be made right by the color blind Grimke sisters willing to absorb the risks and accept the sacrifices of their convictions.            

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