Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin

Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin

Rice Moore is the caretaker on a private nature preserve in the Virginia panhandle. Moore is the sole human inhabitant in this pristine 7,000 acre wilderness. One sweltering summer day, he discovers a mutilated bear carcass on his property. He sets out to find the lowlifes who did this and put a stop to them. It’s going to be dangerous work that puts him square in the sights of disgruntled hillbillies, vicious motorcycle gangs, and ex-military poachers. He’ll have to be extra careful, because any scrape with law enforcement could ping his location to the deadly cartel mobsters he’s been hiding out from (these bad hombres are a big part of the reason he took the job in the first place). Rice’s skills will take him only so far; he’ll have to become a force of nature if he wants to come out in one piece.

Bearskin would be good enough if it were a typical tough-guy potboiler, but a few things make it stand out from a crowded pack. First, it’s surprisingly ecologically-minded. Rice deeply cares about all creatures great and small on his preserve, and the reader will learn much about the ecosystem of old-growth Appalachian forests. These forests also make a unique setting for this kind of story. We’re accustomed to seeing hardboiled anti-heroes carry out investigations in big cities, and it’s refreshing to see the story beats play out in depressed rural areas. Finally, McLaughlin is a first time author. It’s exciting to see a new talent debut so strongly, and I’ll be looking forward to what he does next.

Readers of thrillers, Southern Gothic, and rural noir will find much to like about Bearskin. Hikers, campers, and other outdoorsy types will appreciate it as well. I think it also may appeal to fans of more literary genres, as long as those readers can handle occasional bursts of bone-crunching violence. At any rate, I think it’ll be one of this summer’s hottest reads with lots of cross-genre appeal. 

Thriller  Nature  Jake Picks  Fiction

 

The Most Dangerous Man in America, by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis

The Most Dangerous Man in America by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis

Based on official documents, journal entries, interviews, recordings, and news coverage, Minutaglio and Davis present a rollicking, outrageous caper that reads like a gonzo version of Candide. Narrated in a fast-paced present tense, Most Dangerous Man takes place in the tumultuous early 1970s. Widespread outcry against the Vietnam War and the political status quo has erupted into violence. Once-peaceful protests are now being met with brutal crackdowns, and parts of the counterculture movement have traded in “flower power” for dynamite.


Amid dismal approval ratings, first-term president Richard Nixon is growing increasingly desperate to prove that he is the strong leader America needs. He needs a symbol of crime and moral decay he can triumph over, and he chooses a man – Timothy Leary, former Harvard psychologist, LSD evangelist and countercultural guru. Imprisoned in California on trumped-up drug charges and facing additional ones that could keep him behind bars for the rest of his life, Leary decides to escape from prison and live his life as a fugitive. Aided by radical leftists, Leary embarks on a globe-trotting, substance-fueled odyssey as he tries to survive beyond Nixon’s grasp.


The Most Dangerous Man paints Leary as a complex and unlikely (but not unlikeable) protagonist, and the authors do an outstanding job of contrasting his intellect and charisma with his flaws and poor decisions. What keeps the perpetually stoned Leary relatable, however, is his frequent haplessness and his juxtaposition with less sympathetic figures. Nixon, the main antagonist, is portrayed as mentally unstable, vindictive, and surrounded by cronies who frequently indulge his most sinister tendencies. Meanwhile, Leary's supposed allies prove just as problematic for him, as he time and time again gets shaken down by (literally) bomb-throwing Weathermen and Black Panthers, a loose network of drug trafficking hippies, shady lawyers, and a real-life Bond villain. What emerges is a portrait of a man who thought he had only his chains to lose, but learns quickly how wrong he was, and whose initial fecklessness ends up costing him dearly.

Justin Picks  History

 

We Own the Sky by Luke Allnutt

We Own the Sky by Luke Allnutt

I am absolutely surprised by how much I liked this debut novel. Surprised because We Own the Sky is about a child who dies, and whose father who drowns his sorrows in alcohol. Not my usual cup of tea, but I literally could not put this book down, can’t stop thinking about it, and would be glad to read it again.

The setting is contemporary London, and the main characters are Rob Coates, his wife Anna, and their son Jack. Rob is a talented computer programmer who has sold his business to a large company, and he no longer has to work very much. He met his wife Anna, an accountant, when they were at Cambridge together. After a great deal of difficulty, they have a son, Jack, who is the light of their lives. When Jack is just five years old, he begins having health problems, and tragically he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Surgery only offers a temporary respite to his symptoms, and when problems return, Jack and Anna are told that there is nothing else that can be done for Jack.

Rob turns to an on line support forum called “Hope’s Place” to learn more from other families in similar situations. On the site, parents gather to talk about their children’s illnesses and their frustration at ineffective treatments. Through Hope’s Place, Rob reads about a controversial clinic in Prague that might offer a cure. Anna, the rational, data driven accountant, is dead set against anything that has not been proven, researched, and documented.

Nancy Picks  Fiction

 

Eternal Life by Dara Horn

Eternal Life by Dara Horn

Horn is a contemporary writer of note and author of five novels. She wrote her first novel, In the Image, while studying Hebrew literature at Cambridge University. Her second, The World to Come, was published in 2006--the same year that she completed her Harvard Ph.D. in comparative literature. She is also the mother of four young children.

Horn’s scholarly background, as well as her experience as a mother, play a large role in her most recent book, Eternal Life. When we first meet the main protagonist, Rachel, she is a 16-year-old girl in ancient Israel. The book recounts her life—and the lives of the Jewish people—during the next 2000 years.

Horn, in an interview for Publishers Weekly, notes:

Sara Picks  Fiction

04/19/18
 

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

 

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (Sara’s Picks)

Halliday’s debut novel is comprised of three seemingly unconnected stories.

Sara Picks  Fiction

04/05/18
 

Tangerine by Christine Mangan

 

Tangerine by Christine Mangan

The location is Tangiers, Morocco, and the time period is the early 1950’s. Our two main characters, Lucy Mason and Alice Shipley, met as roommates at prestigious Bennington College in Vermont. They were very close, living together all four years.  Alice came from a long line of blue bloods, and always had lovely clothes and jewelry. In contrast, Lucy was a scholarship girl, from the wrong side of the tracks, had there been tracks in the tiny town where she grew up. Really the only thing they had in common was that they were both orphans.  

Their senior year, a tragic accident occurred in a car in which Alice was riding. Alice and Lucy barely spoke after that.

Nancy Picks  Historical Fiction  Fiction

 

Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo

 

Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo

Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo (Sara’s Picks)

Eshkol Nevo is a best-selling Israeli author whose books have earned top literary prizes and been translated into many languages. His latest book, Three Floors Up, is a psychological study of the residents of an apartment building in Tel Aviv. The building provides the structure of the novel and is comprised of three interconnected stories whose narrators live on the first, second, and third floors respectively. Each story takes the form of a confessional.

Sara Picks  Fiction

02/28/18
 

Improvement by Joan Silber

 

Improvement by Joan Silber

Improvement, by Joan Silber

Improvement is a collection of interwoven short stories about the choices we make when young and the impact of those choices on our lives. The book’s main characters are Reyna, a young single mother living in Harlem, and her free-spirited aunt, Kiki, who is now in her 60s. Forty years earlier, Kiki lived in Turkey with Osman, a Turkish rug-seller who was then her husband. What Kiki and Reyna have in common are the recklessness of their youth and their exotic taste in men.

Sara Picks  Fiction

02/13/18
 

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

 

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez

The Friend is less a novel than an elegy on friendship, writing, and loss. Its narrator is a middle-aged intellectual—an aspiring and unnamed author who teaches creative writing classes. She is mourning the suicide of her former professor—the man who became her lifelong friend and mentor. Overcome with grief, she believes her own life has lost its purpose.

Sara Picks  Fiction

02/13/18
 

Tenements, Towers and Trash by Julia Wertz

 

Tenements Towers and Trash by Julia Wertz

Cartoonist and urban explorer Julia Wertz gives a tour of her adopted hometown in Tenements, Towers and Trash.  It’s far from a guidebook, and doesn’t offer much in the way of conventional history.  Instead, it’s a passionate and irreverent look at a city that’s always changing. 

Wertz revels in lesser-known aspects of the history and character of the five boroughs.  Instead of lessons on Tammany Hall or Ellis Island, we learn about pinball machine prohibition (in effect until 1978!) and the contested genesis of the egg cream (a once-popular soda shop concoction).  Instead of tours of Central Park and the Empire State Building, we get an inventory of the city’s best independent bookstores and detailed directions to Staten Island’s Boat Graveyard.  A large portion of the book consists of Wertz’s highly detailed black and white illustrations comparing city blocks then and now.  We see how select parts of the city have transformed (for the most part) from the utilitarian city neighborhoods that urban activist and author Jane Jacobs inhabited in the mid twentieth century to a homogenized playground for the 1%.  Wertz also shows us the route of a typical “Long Walk,” a meandering 15-mile stroll through Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. 

Jake Picks

 

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