Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Bad Paper by Jake Halpern

For those of you still paying off your holiday shopping, Jake Halpern has written a book about the state of debt collecting in the United States. It will  make you never want to carry a credit card balance. Americans owe $411.28 trillion. $831 billion is delinquent or unpaid. 30 million consumers owe an average of $1,458.

Banks, credit card companies and other debt holders bundle and sell off these IOU's they can't collect on. Companies then buy this debt for pennies on the dollar usually, try to collect on it and then keep what they collect. It can be very lucrative. Once they think they can't collect any more, they in turn sell it again - and so on down the line. Outside of the biggest debt collection companies, the business is a seedy one and is largely unregulated. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau focuses on the largest 175 collection companies while thousands of smaller ones go unregulated.

This book is the story of Aaron Siegel who left his Wall Street job in 2005 to move back to Buffalo, NY. He took a job in private wealth management but since there is little private wealth in Buffalo (the debt collection capital of the U.S.) he was bored and decided to switch careers again. Using $125,000 of his own money he bought some "paper" and started trying to collect on it. He hired some veteran collectors to help him. Some of them were of an unsavory sort - ex-cons, drug addicts, con-men - so he hired a floor manager to deal with them. Aaron was making tons of money with 199% returns, 264% returns, 20% returns and on. When Aaron was done with the paper he sold it to Brandon, an ex-con with a decidedly ungentle approach to collecting on the debts.

This book deals with the seedy side of debt collections, not the debtors. It is full of characters, most of them people you hope you never meet, let alone have to do business with. I found this an interesting book about a subject I knew nothing about.



Gray Mountain by John Grisham

I hadn’t read this author for a while, and I’m really glad I picked up his newest book.

It begins in a Manhattan law firm, which is suffering massive staff layoffs after losing it’s major client, Lehman Brothers.

Our narrator is Samantha, one of a handful of lawyers who has been offered a “furlough” - if she works for one of the non profits on the list she has been handed, she *might* be offered a job back at the firm after they reorganize. This leads her to work at a legal aid society in a rural hamlet of Virginia, deep in coal mining country. Of course a handsome male lawyer there is suing coal mines for deforesting……Gray Mountain.

A good page turner, really enjoyed it.



The Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco is a writer of beautiful poetry and prose. Much can be said about him, to identify him, factually.  He was born in Madrid in 1968. As an infant, he immigrated, with his Cuban-exile family to New York and then to Miami. He grew up and studied in Miami. At Florida International University, he earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering and an MFA in creative writing. He is an engineer, an educator, and an author. In 2013, he was the firth inaugural poet of the United States and was the youngest, the first Latino, first immigrant, and first gay writer to have that honor. All these facts are factors in his writing. But, it is the combination of his lyrical style and his narrative skills that make his writing special.

The Prince of Los Cocuyos is a memoir of Blanco's Miami childhood. In each chapter, he tells the story of a different time and situation in his life, as he grows from a small boy to a young man about to graduate from high school. Among the stories - "The First Real San Giving Day" which includes learning to cook a turkey; "Losing the Farm" about time spent with his grandfather and the animals they raised in the backyard of their home; "Listening to Mermaids" about maturing, friendships, and loving. In more than one chapter, he describes his years working at the family market, El Cocuyito (the little firefly) and the employers, co-workers, and customers who were a part of his childhood.

Blanco writes with such a combination of insight, sensitivity and humor that I savor every word.  I know some readers do not like poetry, but in case you do or want to try his poems after you read his memoir, there are three books of his poems in our collection.  If you want to know more about Richard Blanco, here is a link to his website:

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The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Short Stories by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is best known for her historical fiction based on the life of Thomas Cromwell. The first two, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, each won the Man Booker Prize. Her international audience anxiously awaits the last book of the trilogy.

Her short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, exhibits all of the wit, stellar prose, and black humor that so characterizes Ms. Mantel's writing. Some of the stories capture the cruelty of childhood, as in the chilling "Comma" and "The Heart Fails Without Warning." Others, like the title story, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher," reflect the author's unconcealed anger at the once all-powerful prime minister. As the narrator observes:

 I thought, there's not a tear in her. Not for the mother in the rain at the bus stop, or the sailor burning in the sea. She sleeps four hours a night. She lives on the fumes of whiskey and the iron in the blood of her prey. (p. 232)

Only the most skillful of writers could write a comic story about politically-motivated murder, leaving the reader sympathizing with the killer and his surprising accomplice.



The Question of the Missing Head - An Asperger's Mystery by E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen

Samuel Hoenig owns a business called "Questions Answered." He would like everyone to know that he is NOT
a private detective. He simple answers questions for a living. He also has Asperger’s Syndrome and this helps him out enormously. He can always find the answer. But his most recent question has him somewhat stumped. He is asked to find
out who stole a cryogenicaly preserved head from the Garden State Cryonics

He is in luck however (and this is an idiom he wouldn’t
understand) because Ms. Washburn had just arrived to help with another question
and now she can help him with this one. Samuel arranges to investigate the Institute
and when he does he realizes his case of a missing head has turned into a
murder investigation. With his
methodical, precise skills Samuel and Ms. Washburn begin their investigation. They investigate everyone - the company president, the head of security and his wife, and other doctors working at the Institute. Samuel methodically eliminates suspects until he is left with the family of the woman whose head is missing. But would they make a ransom demand of themselves? Samuel keeps digging placing himself in danger until he can solve the case.

This book is short, sweet and a fast read.
Somewhat quirky, it details how Samuel's Asperger’s helps him. He doesn’t consider it an affliction, but a
plus in his life, and in this instance it most certainly is.  Ms.Washburn exhibits a patience for Samuel
that helps him along. Her character is a
perfect foil for Samuel’s.

The book is written by two men: E.J. Copperman who writes the Haunted Guesthouse Mysteries, and Jeff Cohen who is the author of 2 books on Asperger's syndrome. Cohen's background gives Samuel's character a very real feel and Copperman lends his expertise to the mystery.
I liked this book. A new kind of cozy mystery, this book is perfect if you're looking for something new in mysteries.

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This title is the newest addition to the psychological thriller genre made so popular by Gone Girl and Defending Jacob. It was published 1/13/15, and I am ordering more and more copies, trying to keep up with the demand!

Main character Rachel commutes back and forth to London on the train every day. As she gazes out the window, she concentrates her attention on the row of houses next to the tracks where she used to live. Her ex-husband Tom lives there now with his new wife and there is another young couple two doors down. As Rachel fantasizes about what goes on behind those closed doors the reader begins to realize that Rachel is a very unreliable narrator! Fired from her job because of her major drinking problem, Rachel continues taking the train in to London and out every day so she doesn't have to tell her roommate that she has lost another job due to drunkenness.

When a woman goes missing, the woman from the house two doors down from where Rachel used to live with Tom, Rachel is convinced that she has seen something important from the train window - and she wants to help with the investigation.

The Girl on the Train is skillfully plotted, the characters well drawn.



Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits... by Glyn Johns

It's not typical that a memoir is more enjoyable for its supporting cast than its subject but in the case of Glyn Johns - a music producer and engineer who worked on albums by the likes of The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton - we're definitely along for the stories of the bands that he worked with rather than any kind of insight into his own life. If you're looking for a fascinating story about a person whom you know next to nothing about, then this might not be your book. But if you are a music geek then you will LOVE the stories that Johns has to share.

Besides the perfunctory childhood background and early career motivations, the book is really is all about the musicians and the music industry. Every chapter covers one (or sometimes a few) musicians and details Johns's interactions with the musicians, typically as he records an album or a concert.

Johns was there when the Beatles were approaching the end while recording Let It Be, and while it wouldn't have hurt to have been provided some more dirt, his insights into the personalities involved are enjoyable. He was also present for various incarnations of The Rolling Stones, and was around to see Brian Jones fall apart and Mick Taylor implode and made it through only part of the Black and Blue sessions before falling out with Keith Richards, not returning to work with the Stones for another 35 years.

It's fascinating to hear Johns's take on the personalities of various musicians. While at first critical of a strung-out Eric Clapton, he later learns to appreciate his talent when he produces Slowhand and brings Clapton in for some guest work on other albums. And while crazy stories of Who drummer Keith Moon abound, Johns points out that they are only enjoyable in retrospect and while he enjoyed Moon's sense of humor, he also had a tendency to take things too far and to negatively affect others. The last major production that he covers is The Clash's Combat Rock, walking away with a new friendship in Joe Strummer and a dislike for Mick Jones (with the caveat that Johns understands why Jones would feel threatened in having his work undermined by an outside producer).



The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is an immigrant story that begins in 1913 - a rags to riches tale that spans 75 years. The book weaves between time periods as the main character, Lillian Dunkle (ne Malka Treynovsky), recalls her colorful life.

We'd been in America just three months when the horse ran over me. I don't know exactly how old I was. Six perhaps? When I was born, they didn't keep records. All I remember was running down Hester Street, looking for Papa. Overhead, a bleached sky was flanked by rooftops, iron fire escapes. Pigeons circled, street peddlers shouted, chickens squawked; there was the strange rickety calliope of the organ-grinder. Great upheavals of dust swirled around the pushcarts, making the shop signs swing back and forth like flags. I heard a clop, then I was tumbling. There was a split-second flash of hoof, then a white-hot bolt of pain. Then: nothing. (p. 3)

By a strange twist of fate, the horse that nearly crushes Lillian is pulling a penny-ices cart. When her own parents abandon her, it is the driver of this cart, Mr. Dinello, who brings Lillian home from the hospital. His wife grudgingly takes her into the family and she comes to work side by side with Mrs. Dinello in the ice cream business.

One of the many strengths of this novel lies in its character development. Susan Gilman has created a character who is unlikeable, and yet, with whom one feels great empathy. Although she becomes a great ice cream tycoon, Lillian would rather drink hard liquor than eat the product she manufactures. In a sense, ice cream is a metaphor for the happiness that always stays a bit out of reach. As she explains, "As soon as I began to lick the spoon, the ice cream inevitably started to turn to liquid...Sitting alone in the drafty storefront, staring down at the dirty spoon in my hand, I wondered why everything I adored disappeared so quickly...Ice cream? All it did was intensify my grief." p. 99