Staff Picks for Adults and Teens

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A Spool of Blue Thread

(2015)

"A Spool of Blue Thread" is the 20th novel written by the prolific Anne Tyler.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning author casts her words in the direction of family dynamics surrounding three generations of Whitshanks who take turns living in patriarch Junior Whitshank's handcrafted home built by his own construction company in the 1930's.  Upon Junior and Linnie Mae's passing, Red and Abby Whitshank take residence in the same space on Bouton Road in Baltimore, Maryland.  Here, they raised four children atop the same floorboards where the grandchildren now run.  And on Bouton Road, as on most other roads of a different name, parental love is unconditional while disappointment in offspring is all but guaranteed.    

The Whitshanks are essentially a successful, well adjusted family.  Red is leading his late father's construction company while his wife is a social worker.  They enjoy a good marriage.  Red's expert craftmanship keeps the house well maintained and admired by neighbors.  Abby has a special place in her heart for those less fortunate, and she invites "orphans" to Bouton Road for family suppers.  Fierce love for their children, as well as the imperfections of their parenting, are doled out evenly between two daughters and two sons.  There are feelings of resentment between brothers Stem and Denny and competition between sisters Jeannie and Amanda.  There are times of separation and times of togetherness fraught with laughter as well as tears.  Such characteristics could define any family.  But each of the siblings, along with Red and Abby, look forward to the coveted family vacations on the beach where ill will is most times buried in the sand; all in the interests of returning the following summer.         

"A Spool of Blue Thread" unravels slowly with rich dialog and the development of rich, complex characters. Readers will be compelled to turn the pages to see if they might find their own families in the story.  Author Anne Tyler also expertly captures the generational shift that occurs as parents age, and children assume the role of caregiver and decision maker.  It is the Whitshank children who must rise to the occasion of necessity when health concerns threaten Red and Abby's continued presence in the beloved house on Bouton Road.  The issue of fading parents also reopens wounds infected by secrets buried long ago; secrets that were never intended to see the future.  Tyler's "A Spool of Blue Thread" is written with compassion and insight.  The novel also offers the comforting realization that life does indeed go on in spite of itself.     

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Girl Underwater

2015

Avery is on her way back home for Thanksgiving break when the plane she is traveling on crashes into a remote lake in the Colorado Rockies. Out of the 200 passengers on board the only survivors are Avery, Collin, Avery’s teammate on her college swim team, and three young boys. It takes all of Avery and Collin’s swimming skills to get themselves and the boys safely out of the sunken wreckage, but what awaits them out of the water is just as frightening. Their story is told alternating between present day and flashbacks of the 5 days they were trapped in the mountains. This is a story of survival. Not just surviving a horrific accident but also surviving its after effects. The injuries, the reoccurring dreams, and the ultimately, the guilt of survival. Avery tries to go back to her life before the accident, but can she really escape the past or will she learn to accept a future that may include totally a new path.

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Redshirts

Redshirts: a novel with three codas (2013)
Redshirts

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just come aboard the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, for his new posting.  He’s excited about the potential for his career—after all, some of the most famous UU officers are in charge of the ship and a few away missions will improve his chances for promotion.

 

As he attends to his duties in the xenobiology lab he starts to feel uneasy.  Why do his fellow crewmates disappear seconds before senior crewmen appear?  Away missions are the best way to work your way up, yet other crew members try to avoid them.  And what is going on with the Box?

 

Over time he realizes that every away mission includes a lethal confrontation with alien species—Borgovian land worms or Longranian ice sharks for example--during which senior officers never get hurt while at least one lower-ranking member dies.  He finds himself doing and saying things he didn’t intend, and having knowledge he never learned.  Finally Andy and his friends discover the secret of the Intrepid, and decide on a high-risk mission of their own to save lives.

 

This entertaining novel pokes fun at the tropes of science fiction TV series and novels.  If you ever watched the original Star Trek series you will enjoy this novel at a deeper level since you will recognize illogical and highly dramatic plot twists.  The novel also has a deeper level, pointing out that minor characters--the bit players and cannon fodder of the world--also have emotions and dreams of a better life, even if we only see it for 20 seconds.  The three codas are written from the point of view of the minor characters in the book.  They provide a poignant look at their futures.

 

The audio book is very well narrated by Wil Wheaton.  He played Wesley Crusher in “Star Trek, the Next Generation” which provides extra depth and emotions in his reading.

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The Golem and the Jinni : a novel

2013

It’s no surprise that Helene Wecker’s first novel, The Golem and the Jinni, won the 2014 Harold U. Ribalow prize. This adult fairy tale reminds the reader of the works of Kafka or Isaac Bashevis Singer. At turns it is funny but it can be dark. The Golem (Chava) is a creature made out of clay and the Jinni (Ahmad), born of fire, has been trapped inside a copper flask for many generations. It’s 1899 in New York City with a focus on the streets and rooftops of Manhattan. Immigrants abound. The reader knows Chava and Ahmad will eventually meet but Wecker writes a beautifully crafted story of this historical period and the characters who inhabit the New World, with a sense of foreboding. In many ways, this is a time-travel piece which draws the reader in by using a “soap opera” storytelling technique going back and forth between the various elements of the story. This book will keep you up way past your bedtime!

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The Room

(2015)

 

This Swedish-translated novel is about a bureaucratic office worker named Bjorn who discovers a secret room in his workplace and becomes enthralled with it.  Bjorn accomplishes his work faster and with more creativity and pleasure in this secret room, but it becomes a problem when his co-workers confront him with the unthinkable—the room does not exist.  When Bjorn goes into the room, his co-workers see him standing in a hallway, staring at the wall, and are creeped out enough by his behavior that they unanimously want him to stop.  Tensions are high and matters escalate in the battle between Bjorn and his co-workers and boss.

 

This book kept me intrigued the entire way through, begging many questions about the possibly unreliable narrator, Bjorn and his predicament—is the room even real?  If so, why can’t other people see the room?  What is the true nature of the room?  Is Bjorn insane?

 

Despite never having worked in an office, Karlsson captures office culture perfectly—the awkwardness of shared spaces, the unique vibe of a work party, the homogenous social expectations.  Bjorn runs into trouble on this last point; he definitely breaks from the herd.  This is probably the most agreeable trait about this character, since Bjorn walks a fine line of likability with his superior attitude and pedantic views.

 

I found this a really captivating, even mysterious read; it was humorous but with the ring of truth.  Definitely recommended.

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My Sunshine Away

(2015)
My Sunshine Away

 

While I could not put My Sunshine Away down, I had to summon the courage to read the last few chapters.  I could feel the anxiety in my chest grow. The narrator relives his adolescent memories as he wrestles with the part he may or may not have played in the rape of the quintessential girl next door.  His childish obsession with the victim, Lindy Simpson, steers his life in astonishing ways.  The dark mystery surrounding the event that changed everything propels this engrossing book. The most vivid character might very well be the lovingly described Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  As a coming of age story, My Sunshine Away confronts the confusion and agony of adolescence.  This story has been written with so much care, read it and be impressed. 

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Will Not Attend

Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation (2014)
Will Not Attend by Adam Resnick

Adam Resnick has pulled together hilarious tales from his life that illustrate his reluctance to interact with people and the belligerence that raises its head when he is forced into social situations. He “refuses to be burdened by chores like basic social obligation and personal growth, living instead by his own steadfast rule: I refuse to do anything I don’t want to do.” Resnick is an Academy Award-winning author for NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman,” so his self-deprecation is no surprise. Though many will view his behavior and thinking process as outrageous, his is a very likeable and enjoyable voice. Will Not Attend is full of laugh-out-loud funny stories told by an eccentric friend.

A note for readers: profanity is widespread throughout the book, and some may find his stories rude and offensive. (Amazon reviews)

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October Mourning

a song for Matthew Shepard (2012)
October Mourning

I am not usually a fan of poetry, but this book is an exception. Many forms of poetry are used to tell the story of Matthew Shepherd, the University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten and left to die on a fence post in October 1998, merely because he was gay. The poet, Lesléa Newman, writes poems from the perspective of various people involved, as well as inanimate objects (ie. the fence, the road). The result is incredibly moving. Have a box of tissues nearby, I literally had tears streaming down my face at points. Powerful, raw, and incredibly important. A "must read".

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Catherine the Great

Portrait of a Woman

 

In 1745, an obscure, low-ranking, 16 year-old German princess named Sophia was married off to Peter, heir to the Russian throne.  Just six months after Peter became Tsar, Sophia (now renamed Catherine) overthrew her husband and assumed the crown for herself.  Though she had not a drop of Russian blood, for the next 34 years she was the undisputed ruler of Russia, the world’s largest nation, and one of the towering figures of the age.

 

 

 

In this book, historian Robert K. Massie brings the same superb scholarship, eye for detail, and graceful prose that marked such earlier works as Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great, and Dreadnought.  Catherine comes alive as a vibrant character.  We read not only of palace intrigue, military campaigns, and jealous lovers, but of her joy in philosophy and art, and of her sincere desire to improve the lives of her subjects.  (Well, as long as their improvement didn’t curtail her power.)  Despite her sometimes appalling behavior, the Catherine of this book remains a mostly sympathetic and always intriguing subject.

 

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Last-Minute Survival Secrets

2015

When I originally saw a preview for this book, I thought, “My ten year old son is going to love this”. What science-minded kid doesn’t want to know how to make a burglar alarm with potato chips or how to open a padlock with a tin can? Unfortunately, once I actually got a chance to take a look at the book myself, I found that due to some of the content, it may be better suited for a more mature audience.  That being said, I found the book quite funny and entertaining. In fact, if you were ever a fan of the old TV series, The Red Green Show, you may enjoy this author’s humor. In a matter of minutes you can learn how to prevent heat stroke with a diaper, how to use a bra to make knee pads or even how to start a dead car battery with an aspirin! If you are in the mood for a little tomfoolery, then take a peek at this book.

 

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The Nightingale

(2015)

Redemptive love and courage under extraordinary circumstances are primary story themes in "The Nightingale" by Kristin Hannah.  Two sisters, Vianne Mauriac and Isabelle Rossignol, learn that life is not always what one may wish it to be when World War II invades hearts and souls during the German Occupation of France.  The older sister is a cautious, responsible wife and mother, who makes choices based on what feels safe and less consequential.  The younger sister is an impulsive, idealistic free spirit who believes she can save a broken world from its own self destruction.

After the death of his beloved wife, Julien Rossignol abandons their daughters.  He denies them the love of a father, and withdraws into alcohol and Paris where he dedicates himself to the operation of his bookstore.  Vianne finds love and the happy family she desires in her husband Antoine and daughter Sophie.  In contrast, Isabelle struggles to feel part of a family and sets out to establish an identity far removed from her past disappointments.  

The unravelling of Vianne's comfortable life begins when Antoine is called to war.  She leans on her friendship with fellow school teacher and neighbor Rachel de Champlain.  They raise children side by side without their husbands at home to help provide basic necessities like food or protect them from the depravities of war.  Meanwhile, Isabelle heads to Paris where she assumes risks that far outweigh those taken by most women of her time.  She dares to try love with the elusive insurgent Gaeten whose response is limited by his doubts for a free France.  As hope dwindles, the War occupies the minds of both sisters.  Honesty, once valued during peace time, is replaced by elaborate lies necessary to survive the Nazi Occupation.           

"The Nightingale" opens with an old, dying woman reflecting upon the past during the last days of her life.  Memories and a dusty trunk in the attic are reopened, and the look back is both painful and cathartic.  In her latest offering, Hannah shares a riveting example of storytelling rich with superb character development.  The author also uses her gifts of descriptive narrative to immerse readers directly into the raw emotion of the story.  And while Vianne and Isabelle are front and center, the ugliness of war serves as the catalyst for unfortunate transgressions and ultimate redemptions.             

      

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