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Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle

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The Harder They Come is genius author T.C.  Boyle's 15th novel. It was published this spring to rave reviews and while I have a love/hate relationship with Boyle's work, this one I love.

Multi layered, and not a “pretty” book, The Harder They Come grabs you from the first page and makes you think as you work your way through the stories of the three damaged people at its center.

The opening chapter tells the story of Sten, a retired high school principal and Vietnam veteran, who is on a cruise with his wife, Carolee. At a port of call, Sten and Carolee are on an ill-advised excursion into a remote area when they and other passengers are held up by local bandits. As fellow cruise mates watch, Sten’s military training kicks in, and he subdues the attackers  to cheers and applause.  Sten is their hero, until they uneasily realize that he has crushed the attacker’s windpipe, killing him.



The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

the accidental empress 9781476790220 hrChicago ago author Allison Pataki's second work of historical fiction is the story of Elisabeth (Sisi), who becomes the Austro-Hungarian Empress, the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph.

The Accidental Empress has all the elements that make for an excellent work of historical fiction - rich period details including time and place, clothes, food, and furnishings; fascinating characters; and it set during a period of great political upheaval and intrigue.

Sisi is introduced to us at age 15. She is Duchess of Bavaria and is traveling to the Habsburg court with her older sister, who is to be betrothed to the Emperor. Instead, Franz Joseph and Elisabeth fall in love and, despite many objections, Sisi becomes the Empress.

As a child, Sisi has been brought up far from the court and its ways, free to ride and explore the countryside and to indulge in energetic pursuits. Her new role requires that she learn self-control and the very disciplined and formal ways of the court. The course of love is not always true. Sisi's relationship with her domineering mother-in-law is a difficult one.



Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg

Note to celebrities looking to publish their memoirs: forget about the ghost writer trying to tell your story in your own voice. Find a quality writer who has some knowledge about what it is that you do and let do what they do best and articulate your story. That's what Jerry Lee Lewis did with Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, author of All Over But the Shoutin' and The Prince of Frogtown. Bragg does an outstanding job of capturing Lewis' story and voice and has produced a real page-turner.

Born in poverty in Louisiana, at first glance Lewis seemed unlikely to take the world by storm with his music (he had one formal piano lesson in his life) Lewis spends much of his early life trying to reconcile his family's religious convictions with his desire to play the devil's music. Growing up close to his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, Lewis bounced between playing churches and juke joints and even enrolled in seminary for a short while. He was too rough hewn for many established record labels but found a home at Sun Records, home to Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Lewis's insights on contemporaries such as Elvis, Cash, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry are some of the highlights of this book.

Lewis's career was starting to flounder when he convinced Sam Phillips to send him to New York City for a last ditch attempt to give him some national exposure. The gamble paid off when a rollicking version of Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On (complete with piano bench being kicked across the studio floor) on The Steve Allen Show let the world know that he was a special talent. Great Balls of Fire and Breathless would soon follow and these great singles as well as half-crazed marathon shows made him the hottest star in the country.

Unfortunately, Lewis's fall would be swift, as he took his new bride Myra with him on his first tour of  Great Britain. When the British tabloids got word that his third wife was not only 13 when they were married but was a cousin as well, he was hounded and run out of the country before he could play all of his shows. While he had been advised to leave her at home, his orneriness became apparent in his insistence that he had done nothing wrong and would bring her with him, reporters be damned. Unfortunately this bad press sent his career into a long drought, although Lewis would never quit producing records or performing.

Following years of drug abuse, car wrecks (including a fantastic one at Graceland), concert fights, near-death hospital stays and even a role in a modern adaptation of Shakespeare, Lewis started to get the recognition that he deserved as he was initiated in the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Amazingly, at 79 Lewis is still producing albums and playing live. In this book he is fiercely unrepentant about a life that has brought him seven marriages, IRS troubles and a constant internal struggle between darkness and light.

Bragg does a fantastic job at bringing Lewis's colorful history into the light without making any of it seem trashy, which could have been easy given the material. He gives readers a sympathetic taste of the South in which Lewis was raised, which is as familiar as Mars to me. Bragg nicely colors the facts of Lewis's life with Lewis's own takes on his motivations and desires. All-in-all this book was everything that a memoir should be - a well-written fresh look at a fascinating person.

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Music  Mikes Picks


At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen

 At the Water's Edge, the latest novel from Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants), transports us to a small Scottish village at the height of World War II. Our heroine, Maddie Hyde, is a young woman who has come from a wealthy but loveless home. When she is sent away to a prestigious school, she meets Ellis, her future (and worthless) husband, heir to the Hyde fortune. When she and Ellis make a serious faux pas at a Philadelphia New Year's Eve party, they are thrown out of the Hyde mansion and Ellis' allowance is severely cut. In an attempt to redeem the family honor, Ellis, school chum, Hank, and less willingly, Maddie, embark on an adventure to find the Loch Ness monster.

This is an adventure story that employs a journey motif. Staying in an inn without running water or electricity and surrounded by a cast of quirky characters, Maddie senses the shallowness of her life. But most important, she sees the truth about her marriage. As she struggles to find the Loch Ness monster, she discovers something far more important--the monsters within oneself.

If you are a fan of Sara Gruen, or simply looking for a light read, you will enjoy At the Water's Edge.

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Sara Picks


The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton

 The Secret Wisdom of the Earth has been compared to To Kill A Mockingbird (for its small town aura), Cold Mountain (for its gorgeous descriptions of mountainous nature) and Flight Behavior (for presenting the reader with environmental information in the context of a page-turning novel.) Scotton’s writing has further been compared to that of Mark Twain and John Irving.

14-year old Kevin and his mother Anne arrive from Indiana to spend the summer at Anne’s father’s house in Medgar, Kentucky, deep in coal mining country. Kevin’s younger brother died in a tragic accident, and his father hopes that he and his mother will benefit from time away at Anne’s childhood home. 

“Pops,” Anne’s father, is the revered town veterinarian. He enlists Kevin as his assistant, taking him in and out of the rural hollers to treat animals of all kinds. Kevin makes friends with a local boy, Buzzy Fink, who introduces Kevin to swimming holes, hiking trails, and long standing country traditions. Pops takes the boys on a ritual two week “tramp” through the mountains, during which time they will live off the land, and fend for themselves. The three of them face unexpected obstacles on their journey; roles switch as Kevin and Buzzy take their turns as the hero.

Several subplots simmer beneath the surface of this coming of age/journey novel.

Mining has long been a source of jobs in Medgar, but the new method of coal mining, which involves literally blowing the tops off of the mountains, has pitted the locals against each other. Set in 1985, the story also addresses the small town resident’s attitudes toward homosexuality. Mr. Paul has grown up among them, and everyone has known that he has a special relationship with his housemate. When Mr. Paul organizes locals in protest against the mountain top removal of coal, things get ugly, and his personal life is exposed in public.

I recommend this book for so many reasons. It is old fashioned story telling at its best: the book spans one summer without jumping back in forth in time, or using multiple narrative points of view.  Christopher Scotton’s powers of description are amazing, his characters vivd. 


Nancy Picks  Fiction


The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

William Marshall was born the younger son of a minor English noble and as a result, was legally landless. His life was also chaotic; when he was only five years old his father gave him to the king as surety for a debt. While this solved some of his father's problems it was dangerous for William. Enraged that the debt was not paid in money the king sentenced the five-year old William to death by hanging. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and William escaped the noose. He grew up to become  a wealthy knight and in time, rose to the rank of Earl.

William was the consummate knight, both battle tested and a tournament champion. The model of the chivalrous knight, William was was anything but soft  toward his enemies. He served five British kings, beginning with Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. William's influence extended to his helping negotiate the terms of the Magna Carta. His life was never a calm one as the politics of the time required shifting alliances and a cool head.

Thomas Asbridge was able to tell William's colorful story thanks to the earthing of a 13th century biography of the knight. In 1861, a French scholar bought the volume, the only known copy, at auction and it has been kept in various private collections. This book is rich in historical detail and includes genealogical charts and maps, which add to the story.

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