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.

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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My dog : the paradox, a lovable discourse about man's best friend

2013
 	My dog : the paradox, a lovable discourse about man's best friend
Matthew Inman drawing

The intro to this book begins with the quote- “Every Pet is a tiny tragedy waiting to happen”, (George Carlin).  But apart from facing the relatively short mortality of our pet “children”, this book is also an affirmation of the joys and idiosyncrasies that are part of sharing our lives with pets.

While this is a cute cartoon book, it is not meant for children. Some of the language is adult.  But it correlates to what it seems a barking dog is saying when chasing a car, or greeting you home. And it is funny.  (On the way to being neutered: “S*** yes! The car! Love the car! Wind and speed! Love the wind! Where are we headed anyway? Are we going to the park? Love the park!” Owner: “Dude I am so sorry.”).

The author hails from Seattle, where he began his career as a computer programmer. The Oatmeal is a comics and articles website Inman created in 2009.  He played the video game “Quake” a lot when he was younger and his alias was Quaker Oatmeal, which is how he got the name “The Oatmeal”.  He was an accomplished artist at a young age, as evidenced by this picture he drew of a bird in art class.  He built a dating website which he advertized by drawing comics. This eventually segued into his current popularity.

The book is (mostly) dedicated to Inman’s first dog, Rambo, who the dog character is based on. But readers may recognize many of their own dog’s behaviors and smile and maybe even shed a tear.

 

 

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Still Alice: A Novel

2007

Alice Howland, is a fifty year old psychology professor at Harvard University who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Told from Alice’s perspective, this story tells of the effects of this ravaging disease has on family members and the victim herself. Lisa Genova is a first-time novelist who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University. She knows of what she speaks. Yet she portrays Alice’s situation with sensitivity, humor, and compassion with a minimum of technical jargon. This book is a wake-up call to us all. This situation could happen to any of us and it would likely change the course of our lives for years to come. Thoughtful presentation.

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Among others

(2010)
Among Others

Morwenna , age 15, arrived at Arlinghurst with few possessions but a lot of mental baggage.  Her twin sister was killed and she was crippled in an accident after trying to peform magic to save the world from her wicked and possibly insane mother. 

Fleeing her Welsh home she appealed to her father, who she barely knew.  He is controlled by his three spinster sisters, though his interest in science fiction is enough to form a bond between them. 

Now Mori, as she rechristens herself, must try to find friends in this foreign world of the upper-class English boarding school, a tough task when she is Welsh and lower class in their eyes.

 

Her intelligence and devotion to reading set her apart from her schoolmates who are interested only in sport—in which her damaged leg does not allow her to participate.  Instead she fills her time with reading as an escape and also to look for answers to her past.

When she returns to Wales to visit her grandfather and aunt she goes into the hills to look for answers.  Did she and her sister do right in performing magic which ended up harming others?  Should she try to get her sister back, or use magic to gain friends at the school? 

The determination with which she goes about getting more reading material (the wonder of inter library loan!) and tries to apply what she sees in fiction to her life—a life where fairies and magic are real—were engaging for me since I was also a voracious reader when young. 

 

For those who are interested in books, especially science fiction and fantasy, this is a great reminder of what it felt like to meet those characters and discover those worlds for the first time.  If you are not interested in fantasy, it may be less intriguing.  If you liked Ready Player One with its concentration on the pop culture of the 1980s, and you also like fantasy and science fiction, this may be the book for you!

Winner of the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

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If We Survive

2012
If We Survive

 

It will readily become apparent to most readers of this blog that I am swiftly becoming the action adventure book reviewer. My  favorites are well written action adventure books with a quirky sense of humor. Andrew Klavan’s If We Survive  is an excellent exploration of how people react to terror and extreme circumstances. Although I generally shudder at the mixture of unclear voices, unrealistic verbiage, and  the uneven rhythm of the character dialogue found in most books, Klavan’s use of first person narrative allows a nearly seamless flow between the dialogue  of the characters and the monologue of the lead character.

 

In the book If We Survive six Americans find themselves in a suddenly hostile Central American country under the control of a man that one character calls “soulless psycho killer”. Facing down firing squads, spiders the size of your fist and a raging river, they will discover true courage if they are going to make it home.

 

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A Walk in the Woods

Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (1998)
A Walk in the Woods

The Appalachian Trail runs over 2,000 miles, through 14 states, from Georgia to Maine, and Bill Bryson decided to walk it.  Fans of Bryson’s other travel books (In a Sunburned Country, Neither Here Nor There, and more) know that they will get a very personal account of his travels, with comments that are, at times, trivial, bizarre, amazed, grumpy, and very, very funny.  A Walk in the Woods ranks as one of Bryson’s best, a real delight.

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Survival Lessons

2013

 

I have always enjoyed Alice Hoffman’s novels, being introduced to her at age 16 and awaiting each new release. Her books have elements of magical realism and dystopian fiction, with several having ended up on bestseller lists and turned into feature films. I was very interested to learn, then, that she had written and published her very first non-fiction book.

Survival Lessons was started while Hoffman was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, while at the same time facing down other life disruptions and losses. She describes the book’s origins as a sort of ad-hoc list for herself of important affirmations and choices to remember while going through her ordeal and for when she made it through to the other side, as a survivor. This is the meaning behind the title of the book. While there are parts that are deeply personal, this book is not a memoir in the traditional sense.

During a first cursory glance of the subject matter and summary, I sighed and surmised that it would be probably be depressing and tearful. Also, did I really want to put myself through that in this post-holiday dead of winter? I could not talk myself out of foregoing something written by my favorite author, so I checked out our copy of Survival Lessons on audiobook, popped it in for a long car ride and ended up feeling much more uplifted and hopeful than I ever anticipated. But, most importantly, I arrived at my final destination with a list of people I already wanted to start recommending this title to.

While chemotherapy and cancer are mentioned, it is not the central focus; nor does Hoffman make her illness-or even herself-the main character of the book. Her aim here seems to be an all-inclusive observation of life upheaval; humans become survivors by making it through all manner of painful events that cause one’s view of their world and of themselves to change. Loss and joy run through all lives, she reminds us. It is impossible to have one without the other.

Each chapter is a "choice" that Hoffman presents to the reader, framing it within her own experiences. Chapter 1, for example, is “Choose Your Heroes.” Other “choices” include: choosing to plan for your future, choosing to forgive, and choosing to dream. Hoffman, never preachy, always includes the listener in her suggestions and experiences. This format results in a more reflective and personal experience, as opposed to simply reading someone else's story and trying to find where you-as the reader or listener-can relate.

While I was hoping that the author herself would narrate the book, Xe Sands took that role. While at times a bit cloying, Sands voice is ultimately pleasant and she adds dignity and emotion to Hoffman's words and experiences. If you are looking for an interesting and thought-provoking commute, by all means grab the audio version. With only 1 hour total running time and easy stopping points, you could get through this book in a just a few days. Survival Lessons is also available in print format, at 83 pages, and through OverDrive.

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