Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Age of Miracles

“We didn’t notice right away.  We
couldn’t feel it.”

“We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge
of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.”
“We were distracted back then by weather and war.  We had no interest in the turning of the
earth.”
 So begins Karen Thompson Walker’s dystopian novel.
Here is how it ends (and this is not a spoiler.)
“We dipped our fingers in the wet cement, and we wrote the truest,
simplest things we knew -  our names, the
date, and these words: We were here.”
The story is told from the point of view of a young woman, the central
character, Julia.  It is a coming of age
novel, but coming of age under very unusual circumstances.  Julia experiences family life, friendship,
school, falling in love – all as the rotation of the earth slows on its
axis.  As the book jacket tells us, she
adjusts to a new normal.
The Age of Miracles is Karen
Thompson Walker’s first novel.  It is well
conceived and well told in numerous ways – from the interior point of view of
12 year old Julia, from the description of life in Southern California, and
from the perspective of a changing world. 
It echoes works in many genres. 
Specific reference is made to the Ray Bradbury story “All Summer in a
Day”.  I was reminded of the recent novel
by Hilary Jordan,  When She Woke.  It deals with many topical themes – politics,
the environment, science, the fate of humanity. 
The focus is on the beauties of life and relationships and how they remain, while the world changes entirely.

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River of Darkness

Set in England at the end of the first world war, this layered mystery does not disappoint. Inspector Madden and Billy Styles are sent to investigate the massacre of a family in their home. Everyone is dead except for a little girl who escaped and hid and is now too traumatized to speak. She can only draw pictures of what looks like a balloon with eyes.

Madden, back in the police department since his military discharge, is carrying his own demons - memoirs of the horrors he witnessed during the war, plus the deaths of his own wife and young child before he enlisted. His interactions with the town's doctor seem to involve more than her care and concern for the traumatized girl. Billy Styles is new to the CID and surprised he's been assigned to the case. He is watching and learning. He's also a better police investigator than he thinks he is.

The story drips out the background of the main characters - layering information and keeping the story line tight. The murderer is identified before the story's end, but the suspense level remains high. Why does he keep doing this and what is he planning next?

Well written, this book is one of a series that I recommend.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

After reading This Is How You Lose Her,
the latest book by Pulitzer Prize winner, Junot Diaz, I was hooked on
his innovative writing style and unusual characters. His earlier book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is equally stylistic. Yunior, who appears in inter-linking stories in This Is How You Lose Her,
is the narrator of the earlier novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar
Wao
. When not the narrator, Yunior is the sex-obsessed Rutgers roommate
of Oscar--a roommate who is a foil for Diaz's anti-hero. Whereas Yunior
is confident, cocky, and highly macho, Oscar is an overweight and
depressed nerd, completely immersed in comic books and fantasy novels.
He compulsively writes in his journals. He has no friends and is
constantly bullied in the college cafeteria. When not living in the
world of Tolkien, Oscar falls in love with unsuitable and unattainable
women, ultimately putting himself in harm's way. Is this Oscar's death
wish or is he simply a foolish romantic who cannot tell fiction from
reality?

Like Oscar, Yunior is a writer. And like the
character in This Is How You Lose Her, he is the same womanizer who
cannot be true to the woman he really loves. Only in dreams is he able
to reveal his feelings.


Before all hope died I used to have this stupid dream that
shit could be saved, that we would be in bed together like the old
times, with the fan on, the smoke from our weed drifting above us, and
I'd finally try to say works that could have saved us.



__________ __________ ____________.


But before I can shape the vowels I wake up.  My face is wet, and that's how you know it's never going to come true.


Never, ever. (p. 327)

The Brief Life of Oscar Wao
is far more than the adventures of a maladroit teenager.   The story of
Beli, Oscar's mother, is a tragic immigrant tale. It interweaves the
brutal history of 1940s and 1950s Dominican Republic under the notorious
dictator Rafael Trujillo, all the while, painting a picture of a
colorful and strong woman whose hard life ultimately embitters her.

If you love adventurous writing and unusual characters, Juno Diaz is an author to read, discuss, and enjoy.


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The Other Woman's House

Who hasn't wondered what the inside of a certain house you like looks like? After reading this book you may never look at a real estate website the same way. The Other Woman's House by Sophie Hannah is a psychological thriller with an innocuous enough beginning. Connie Bowskill is a highly suspicious wife. She believes her husband is having an affair while he, of course, denies it. After finding another address in his GPS system labelled as "home" Connie has been obsessed with the house at 11 Bentley Grove and and woman who lives there. When she finds the house listed on a real estate website she decides to take the virtual tour. What she sees will change her life.

A dead body in the lounge (the living room for those of us in the United States) lying in a pool of blood. The image is seared into Connie's brain.  Horrified she wakes up her husband, the computer expert. He looks at the website, watches the tour and no dead body. How can that be? Connie watches the site over and over and still no body. She calls the police to speak to Simon Waterhouse, someone she knows. Unable to reach Waterhouse, as he is out of the country, she is left to deal with his co-workers. And she thinks she is losing her mind - but is she?

And that is the question at the heart of this book. This is one great psychological thriller. The suspense starts building on the first page and just keeps building until the end of the story. The plot line races toward the conclusion where everyone comes to their fate.I read this book in 3 days. I could not put it down. This is the first book I have read by Sophie Hannah but it will not be the last.

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Karen
Russell is an amazing young author who first came on the literary scene
in 2006 with the publication of the short story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. This was followed the novel Swamplandia!, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (that never was) in 2012.

Now with her new collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell has once again proven her amazing skills not only as a skilled
writer, but also as a writer of  "realistic fantasy."  All of her
stories place the magical and improbable in very human situations.  Her
characters, whether vampires in the title story or former presidents
reincarnated as horses (The Barn at the End of Our Term) are treated with great empathy as they tackle universal problems.

Take,
for example, the title story. In it, two vampires, Clyde and Magreb,
are a couple in a long marriage that not only seems like eternity but is eternity. Clyde, was a blood-sucking vampire before he fell in love with Magreb, a
vampire who had never tasted blood. They marry, and Magreb takes it
upon herself to reform Clyde. They move to a cellar in western
Australia, "where the sun burns through the clouds like dining lace."
(p. 11) Magreb encourages Clyde to come out of the cellar and experience
the outdoors.

After that, and for the whole of our next thirty years together, Clyde explains, I
watched the auroral colors and waited to feel anything but terror.
Fingers of light spread across the gray sea toward me, and I couldn't
see these colors as beautiful. The sky I lived under was a hideous,
lethal mix of orange and pink, a physical deformity.
(p. 11)

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The Yellow Birds

The Yellow Birds, by first time author Kevin Powers, is both beautifully written and terrifying at the same time. Powers is an Army veteran of the Iraq war and knows whereof he speaks. The title of the book comes from an Army marching cadence. It eerily fits the theme of the book.

It is the story of 2 Army privates from small towns who meet just as they are about to deploy to Iraq in 2004. Daniel Murphy has just turned 18 - he is both excited and scared and he latches onto John Bartle who is several years older. Bartle feels he is resonsible for Murph and actually tells Murphy's mother he will make sure Murph "gets back." This promise clouds his actions later on in the deployment.

The longer they are in Iraq the more precarious Murph's mental state becomes, until the awful, horrifying end. Bartle is left to deal with Murph's actions in his own misguided way. 

This book is not for the faint of heart. Beautiful, almost lyrical prose is beside graphic descriptions of death and dying. I normally don't read books about the Iraq/Afghanistan wars. This book was an exception. I recommend it, but be careful, while it is a buddy war story they do not always end pleasantly.

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The Light Between Oceans

The
Light Between Oceans
by M. L. Stedman is a moving novel which explores
the often gray line between right and wrong. Tom Sherbourne is back
from World War I, where he has witnessed and participated in the
atrocities of war. Seeking to heal, he takes a job as the lighthouse
keeper on a remote Australian island. The job suits Tom. Here he can
continue to serve his country in a capacity that only saves lives. Like
the light he maintains to perfection, Tom is guided by his own internal
light. He has an innate moral compass--a quality that causes him pain when he recalls the killing he witnessed and committed during the war. The
routines of caring for the complicated machinery in the lighthouse
provide respite from the chaos he formerly experienced.

All
this changes when Tom meets and marries the spirited Isabel. At 19,
she is as innocent of life as Tom is tainted by it. The story traces
their relationship from the time she comes to live in the lighthouse to
her death some 40 years later. In between lies an act that will change
their lives forever.

When a boat lies shipwrecked on
the beach with its sole survivor-- a baby-- Isabel claims the child as her
own. She rationalizes that the mother has fallen overboard; its father
lies dead in the hull. Tom becomes complicit it this lie, unable to bear
his wife's loneliness and yearning for a child. But unlike Isabel, he
is wracked by guilt and the knowledge that he has committed a grievous
wrong.

You could kill a bloke with rules, Tom thinks
during a sleepless night.  And yet sometimes they were what stood
between man and savagery, between man and monsters. The rules that said
you took a prisoner rather than killed a man. The rules that said you
let the stretchers cart the enemy off from no-man's-land as well as your
own men. But always, it would come down to the simple question: could
he deprive Isabel of this baby? If the child was alone in the world?
Could it really be right to drag her away from a woman who adored her,
to some lottery of Fate?
(p. 104-105)

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The Art Forger

There seems to be an abundance of books on art forgery and theft in the past year. I think I have read them all, and this one is one of the best. While it takes the reader through the Gardner heist, it offers an alternative ending that is wholly satisfying.

Claire is an artist with a scandal in her past. She currently works for an art reproduction company, making copies of other, more classic  and well known paintings. Her specialty is Degas. She has been trained in how to actually forge a painting, so that it looks exactly like the original. Aiden Markel is a mover and shaker in Boston's art world. He knows Claire from the time before the scandal. He approaches Claire with a job offer that is borderline legal: Aiden wants her to copy a painting that was part of the Gardner Museum heist. He is offering her a lot of money and promises to return the original to the museum. Being very short of cash, Claire agrees - and makes a deal with the devil.

The story line focuses on the creation of the copy and the growing relationship between Claire and Aiden.  Filled with technical art terms (plein air, digital wavelet decomposition) the book is interesting in that it gives an education about some aspects of the mechanics of painting. It also gives some interesting glimpses into the world of stolen art. Are they really used as collateral for drug  and arms deals? There are also short asides about real art forgeries written into the story line.

I liked this book mostly because I learned something new from it. It's a short, fast and interesting read. Go visit the Art Institute after you read it, you'll look at the paintings in a different light.

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Interventions: A Novella and Three Stories

Interventions,
by Richard Russo, is a beautifully printed set of 4 short works, each
of whose cover and opening page is artfully designed by daughter, Kate
Russo.

Readers of Richard Russo's fiction are familiar
with the rust-belt towns where characters eked out a living. But in
"High and Dry," Russo describes Gloversville, N.Y., his boyhood home. 
Home to once flourishing glove-making factories, its denizens now live
unemployed. When regulations were imposed on these factories forcing
them to maintain safety standards and protect the environment from
harmful bi-products, the companies moved overseas. Russo writes a
glowing indictment of these companies while painting a heart-felt
description of his single mother and his grandparents.

"Horseman,"
the next story in the collection, is the weakest in the group. It
features a female professor who has reached a plateau in her career
while acknowledging her loveless marriage. Her autistic son has bonded
with her husband, making her feel unwelcome in her own home. The
problem with the story is that the professor is so distant and
self-centered that she draws little sympathy.

This is
not the case with the nun in "The Whore's Child."  Cleverly written, it
centers on a nun seeking solace in a professor's writing class. The
nun's story unfolds in captivating installments as she works out the
history of her life through what she has written. The juxtaposition of
the nun reading her tale to the young students, and ultimately, seeing
the truth through their eyes is a touching literary conceit.

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