Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Murder Most Persuasive

I like trying new authors and I love mysteries so this book should have been a good fit. Murder Most Persuasive by Tracy Kiely is an updated cozy mystery. Mostly cozies take place somewhere in the English countryside, usually a small village with eccentric characters and an older woman who has a knack for solving murders. Kiely's book takes place in current time, is located in the US and has a young woman with a knack for solving murders.

Elizabeth Parker, is a young woman who works at a newspaper and is really unhappy in her job. The paper manager is something of a fool and thankfully he doesn't appear too often. The story line starts just after the death of her uncle, Martin Reynolds. He leaves behind his second wife, Bonnie, and three daughters all with secrets of their own. Bonnie believes Martin has been murdered, but he died after a long bout of illness. The Reynolds house in the small town of St. Michaels', Maryland has been sold. As the new owners are removing the pool, the body of a man is discovered. It turns out he is the former fiance of Reynolds' daughter Reggie. The police detective investigating the murder is the ex fiance of another daughter, Ann. After the funeral Bonnie jets off for a spa week and returns with a boy toy named Julian. Who is supposedly a whiz at investments. Bodies begin to pile up once Bonnie returns.

The plot and the premise of the story are entertaining, what bothered me was that Elizabeth quotes Jane Austen and Bonnie quotes Scarlett O'Hara. Amusing at first but annoying after awhile. Once you get past that though, the story is entertaining, the mystery has a nice twist and I will read the next in the series to see what happens to Elizabeth and her boyfriend and Ann and her detective.

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When We Danced on Water

Evan Fallenberg, best known as the superb translator of A Pigeon and a Boy, is himself a creative and sensitive writer. His latest book, When We Danced on Water, is an exploration of what it means to be an artist. It explores the lives of two characters--Teo and Vivi--both numbed by very different wartime experiences.


Vivi is an Israeli and child of a Holocaust survivor. While serving in the army, she falls passionately in love with Martin, a German medical student. After he returns to Berlin and she finishes her military service, she impulsively leaves Israel to live with him. It is in Berlin, jobless and wandering aimlessly, where she is drawn day after day to the Berlin Wall. There she meets Peter, a midget who acquaints her with the plight of the Jews in Germany before and during World War II. He, too, is an outsider, having left his family in East Germany to go to West Germany just before the Wall was erected. He could not return. The Berlin Wall is a metaphor representing the isolation and alienation both Peter and Vivi feel.

Gradually, Vivi becomes estranged from Martin. She returns to Israel, disillusioned and heartbroken. We meet her when she is in her early 40s and a server in a Tel Aviv cafe. In her free time, she dapples in many art forms, although she is not able to earn a living as an artist. It is at the cafe that she meets the 85 year old Teo.

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Bizarre Botanicals

The weather is warming up so many of us are starting to plan our gardens. But for those looking for something outside the normal catalogs and garden guides, there is a interesting little book called Bizarre Botanicals.

This little book is packed with beautiful and downright bizarre plants. Admittedly most of the plants highlighted cannot be grown outdoors in this area but maybe in a pot? There are pictures, Latin names, growing instructions and what the plant is like. Everything from Jack-in-the-Pulpit to the common and carnivorous Venus Fly Trap. Including the Titan Arum, a plant that blooms once every 8-12 years, smells like rotting meat once it does and then collapses in a heap after 3 or 4 days.

The books claims that it includes information on weird and wonderful plants and it does not disappoint. Something a little different now that it's starting to feel like spring.

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How It All Began

How much does chance play in our lives? What would happen to the lives of other people if our own life was changed in some measure? These themes form the premise of Penelope Lively's new book, How It All Began. In it, Charlotte Rainsford, a retired teacher, is accosted by a thief and breaks her hip in the ensuing fall. When she goes to live with her daughter, Rose, to recuperate, lives are disrupted and infidelities are exposed.

Charlotte is a highly literate and empathetic woman whose routines are thrown completely out of sync by her accident. Although retired from teaching, she now devotes herself to teaching English as a second language to recent immigrants. Confined to her daughter's house and dependent upon her for routine tasks, she acutely misses her avocation as well as her books. She is stoic about the pain she is in, often choosing to remain alert and not take her pain-killers in favor of losing herself through reading. One feels that Charlotte is the voice of the author; her insights into the humbling experience of aging, her knowledge of literature, and her sheer love of books reflect the persona of Penelope Lively herself.

Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system....She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand and experience...She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without. (pp. 34-35)

Charlotte is, by far, the most likable of the female characters, as well as the most introspective. Her daughter, Rose, is not a reader, and in fact, might gain some insight into herself and her choices if she were. Instead, she falls for one of her mother's students, Anton, and becomes emotionally entangled with him. As with most affairs, she wonders about her feelings for this ambitious man and about the lack of passion in her own marriage. Rose, unlike her mother, has always chosen the easy route--she had married her first serious suitor and adamantly opposed having a career. Instead, she chooses a job "assisting" an aging 18th century political scholar, Lord Henry Peters.

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Cecelia and Fanny

This small and very interesting history of the relationship between slave and mistress was based on just 5 letters. These letters, all from a run away slave named Cecelia to her former mistress, show the remarkable relationship that existed between the 2 women from before the Civil War to after it. The 5 letters were found among the papers belonging to the Ballard family of Kentucky. All of the letters are from Frances T. Ballard (Fanny) to her slave Cecelia. They were saved by her son, Rogers Clark Ballard. The letters from Cecelia to Fanny are missing.

The story starts in 1846. Cecelia is 15 and Fanny is 20. They live in Fanny's father's house in Louisville. The 2 women have been visiting Fanny's relatives in Washington, D.C. and Fanny's father decides to take them to Niagara Falls, a popular tourist destination at the time. Across the falls is Canada and freedom for Cecelia. For reasons that are not documented, Cecelia decides to escape to Canada, leaving her mother and brother in the Ballard household. This would not have been hard for her to do. Canada was a short 8 minute boat ride across the river and there were systems in place to help slaves who wished to escape.

Fanny and her father woke up one morning and Cecelia was gone. Fanny's father was angry, he rarely had a slave escape and he blamed the abolitionists who were in Niagara Falls. Fanny had received Cecelia as a gift for her 14th or 15th birthday, a common practice of the time. The 2 women had basically grown up together as Cecelia had arrived at the Ballard house as an infant when her mother was purchased to work there.

Local Canadian records indicate that Cecelia was in Toronto, arriving before November 1846. She chose a name for herself: Cecelia Jane Reynolds. In that month she married Benjamin Pollard Holmes, who was also an escaped slave. This was a monumental event for Cecelia. Slave marriages were not recognized in the southern United States.

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Love and Shame and Love

Peter Orner's Love and Shame and Love (2011) is a novel linking three generations of the Popper family with Alexander Popper--the main character and perhaps the voice of the author. His nickname is "Popper." The book is written in vignettes. Some of the most poignant ones are from Alexander's grandfather, Seymour. We come to realize how little Seymour knows of his dancer wife through his letters to her during WWII. Maria Russo, in her recent review of the book, sums up the Popper men.

As (Seymour) tracks the final days of the Pacific conflict, wild with desire to get back to her, we sense his fundamental lack of understanding of the woman he will return to. He is all forward motion, everything Popper is not, and yet we can see a deeper pattern that Popper and his father will inherit, of not quite knowing how to hold onto the women they love.

(New York Times Book Review, December 9, 2011)

We get glimpses of Bernice's loneliness when she reflects on the dancer she could have been. Then, in a chapter entitled, 1308 Lunt Avenue, we see her looking out of the dirty window in the attic, contemplating the next day's move to Highland Park. Orner beautifully captures the sense of entrapment she feels as she gazes at the "brown lawns and leafless trees" through "a blur of spit and dirt."

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The Innocent

Vanessa Michael Munroe, the information procurement specialist is back. This time Munroe is being asked to rescue a young girl who has been kidnapped and is being held by a cult. Her mother escaped, but the girl was taken.

While in north Africa, Michael receives a call from her friend Logan. Logan is himself an escapee from the cult holding the girl. It is his request that Michael find Hannah, the 13 year old daughter of Logan's friend Charity. Logan helped Charity along with her boyfriend and Hannah, escaped from a cult known as the "Chosen." Hannah was then taken by her mother's boyfriend back into the cult. Since that time Hannah has been moved around to different locations in several South American countries. This has been going on for 8 years. Logan has received information that Hannah is now being held in Argentina.

Logan asks Michael to help as a personal favor to him. But Michael is dealing with her own demons and Logan is bringing 3 other ex-cult members into the investigation. Logan decides to bring Miles Bradford in to keep an eye on Michael. The Chosen are a dangerous lot, charged with allegations of systemic child abuse.

The story line moves at a rapid pace. From New York to South America, Michael searches for the havens, the secret hiding places of the Chosen. Finally Michael discovers where Hannah is being held, but Logan's friends seems to be getting in the way. Filled with mounting tension the story rapidly comes to a conclusion. Michael's skills are deadly and when combined with the talents of Miles the two make a formidable pair.

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The Marriage Plot

Back in the late 70s and 80s, the literary canon was being challenged in English Departments across the nation. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Henry James and the Bronte Sisters were considered passe, replaced by theorists such as Derrida and Foucault. "The marriage plot"--a story driven by the courtship of a man and a woman--was considered antiquated; Deconstructionism reigned supreme.

Jeffrey Eugenides uses this literary revolution to serve as the backdrop of his new novel. His heroine is Madeleine Hanna, an English major at Brown. Madeleine, who is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, is trying to adapt to changing times. She takes a course from a well-known semiotics professor and meets Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant and erratic student who will change her life. Leonard suffers from bipolar illness, and Madeleine falls passionately in love with him. Theirs is a highly charged relationship with Madeleine craving him physically and Leonard needing her emotionally. At the other end of the spectrum is Mitchell Grammaticus, who loves Madeleine but to whom that love is not returned. He goes off to India to explore religions and come to terms with his unrequited passion. Through him, as well as through Leonard, Madeleine comes to a better realization of the meaning of love in real life.

The Marriage Plot is a literary novel that draws it strength on the author's ability to understand the young adult mind. We first saw this in Eugenides' portrait of Calliope in Middlesex. Eugenides once again creates a sympathetic female protagonist. The reader cheers for her and is afraid for her as she innocently plunges into romantic entanglements. Madeleine is the living embodiment of the characters about whom she reads.

The Marriage Plot offers insights into bipolar illness. Eugenides is very detailed in his descriptions of the side effects of medication, the euphoria/depression experienced by the sufferer, the possible psychotic episodes, and the impact all this has on loved ones. Madeleine is seen as the long-suffering heroine who wants to be a martyr for love. Leonard is portrayed as rendered egotistical by his illness, but ultimately, becomes selfless through his love for Madeleine.

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Bound by Antonya Nelson

This book was recommended to me by one of our library patrons, and was one of the New York Times Notable Books of 2010.

I really enjoyed it. It is partly a story about relationships, partly a suspense novel that kept me reading to find out what happened next.

It begins with a riveting scene in which a woman (Misty) accidentally goes off the road in Colorado in her car, and her dog escapes. Subsequent chapters take the reader to her friend Catherine, Misty's now orphaned daughter "Cattie", and Catherine's marriage to a much older man, Oliver, and Catherine's mother who is in a nursing home.

The ending has an interesting twist, and I like that it was left so open ended. Recommended to those who want a good read, as well as those who want a good book to discuss.

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