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Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Manaweera

island of a thousand mirrorsThis is an important book by a debut novelist who has been compared to both Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) and Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake).

I was first struck by the beauty of the writing. There are sentences that I stopped to read again. Here is the opening paragraph: "My name is Yasodhara Rajasinghe and this is the story of my family. It is also one possible narrative of my island. But we are always interlopers into history, dropped into a story that has been going on far before we are born, and so I must start much earlier than my birth, and I must start with the boy who will become my father." Pulls you in, doesn't it?

This is a story of Ceylon, which is now called Sri Lanka, and of the country’s civil war that took place over decades as rival forces struggle for power. And yes, there is violence and there is blood. But there is also so much beauty in this novel that you are drawn through the war by your loyalty to the characters, their story, and their land. Two main characters, one Tamil and one Sinhala, were raised virtually together before the troubles and appear and reappear as the story moves along.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors won the Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia, quite an accomplishment for a first time author. Highly recommended.

Nayomi Manaweera  Nancy Buehler  Island of a Thousand Mirrors


The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

book of speculationThis page-turning debut novel’s hero, Simon Watson, is a librarian who has just lost his job. He lives in an old family home on Long Island. The house is in such disrepair that it’s about to slide right into the sea. His parents are dead and his sister Enola has gone who knows where. Simon now lives solely in the company of long time neighbors and friends–And the sea.

One day Simon receives a book in the mail from an antiquarian book store. The volume is huge, heavy, and water damaged. It's a circus book from the 1700'–a log of the various stops the circus made, as well as who was employed and what they did. The book also includes pictures of Tarot Cards that the "seer" for the circus used to tell customers’ futures. As Simon delves into the book, he is shocked to read about the death by drowning of the circus's mermaid - a woman who performed an underwater show, holding her breath for over 10 minutes at a time. She died on July 24. Simon’s mother, a former circus mermaid who also could hold her breath underwater for over 10 minutes, died on July 24 too. It's just days from July 24 again, and he is worried about his sister Enola, who also is a seer as well as a Tarot card reader for a circus. Enola, who can hold her breath underwater for extended periods of time, recently has come home, and she seems to be haunted.

The author does a great job of alternating chapters between the time the circus book was set, and the present. Suspense builds as Simon struggles to find a job, keep his house from falling in to the sea, and protect his sister as more and more of the mystery of the book is revealed.

This novel is not one that I particularly expected to enjoy, but it kept calling to me wherever I put it down, begging to be picked up again and read. I am still thinking about the story, which means I will be discussing it with my book clubs. It is such a good read, and I highly recommend it.

The Book of Speculation  Nancy Buehler  Erika Swyler


Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

circling the sunThe author of The Paris Wife has written another work of fabulous historic fiction. This time the focus is adventurer Beryl Markham (1902–1986), the British-born Kenyan aviator.

In addition to being a record breaking (1936) transatlantic pilot, Markham was the first English woman to be licensed as a race horse trainer. She grew up in Africa, learning horse training at her father's knee. Markham was raised without a mother present, and from a young age, she ran with the local tribesmen and their children, and she spoke Swahili. Governesses and boarding schools could not tame her.

Beryl Markham wrote a memoir entitled West with the Night, which was the inspiration for this fictional interpretation of her life. McLain has done a great job telling the story of Markham's unconventional, adventuresome life, and the author has created a page-turning story about horse racing, flying, love, and lust.

The book may remind you of Out of Africa. I was sad when I finished it, but now I can't wait to discuss it with my book clubs.

Paula McLain  Nancy Buehler  Circling the Sun


The Book of Strange New Things By Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New ThingsThe book’s main character Peter is a minister, and he and his wife Bea are preparing for him to go on a mission to bring the word of God to a new population. (Early on, the book echoes Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.)

Peter has been selected for the mission by a major corporation after an extensive interview, and as much as he wants to bring her, he is not allowed to have Bea accompany him. It's a good thing, however, as they soon realize that she is pregnant, and the place that he is sent to is much different than either of them could imagine. A lot of topics are covered in this book, including fidelity, marriage, separation, identity, communication, the role of missionaries, future world, politics, plus -oh yeah- the three things I was taught not to discuss in public: sex, politics, and religion.

Beautifully packaged to look like a holy book, The Book of Strange New Things is making big waves with readers and reviewers alike. I am so glad I did not read advance reviews of this book - I might not have picked it up! The novel has a science fiction element to it, and I have always contended that I don't like that genre. But I loved this book. I was so far into it that when the unusual elements were introduced, they all made sense. I highly recommend it.

Find it in our catalog!

The Book of Strange New Things  Nancy Buehler  Michel Faber


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

cover-tazaki-1.jpgCumbersome book title aside, this is an outstanding book. Originally written in Japanese, it sold over a million copies the first week in Japan. The author is an international award winner, and this brilliantly translated version of his latest book was much anticipated in the US.

Main character Tsukuru (his name means "builder") was part of a very tight knit group of friends through high school. The friends’ names are all various colors (Miss Black, Mr. Red, etc.), but Tsukuru became known as the "colorless Tsukuru." Most of the group stayed in town after high school, however Tsukuru left home to go to college in Tokyo. There, he pursued his lifelong fascination with train stations and got his degree in building and designing them. For reasons he did not understand, his group of high school buddies unceremoniously cut him out of the group without explanation. Emotionally bereft, he continued his career, but never attached himself closely with another person. Enter a woman named Sara. They start dating, and Sara tells Tsukuru that until he gets over whatever is blocking him emotionally, he will not be able to live his life fully. The journey that he takes, his pilgrimage, makes for such good reading and also raises many questions that beg to be discussed.

If you are looking for a well-written book that holds your attention, and also makes you think, this is the one for you. Take care to notice the way the book is designed; it is an unusual, compact size, and both the cover art and images throughout add another layer to the reading experience. Worth noting is the detailed map in the book’s front matter that shows part of the huge Tokyo subway system. If you are an e-reader, make an exception and read the bound book, because you'll miss so much visually if you don’t.

Find it in our catalog!

Nancy Buehler  Haruki Murakami  Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrima


The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Taming_Of_The_Queen_Cover.jpgPhilippa Gregory’s latest novel, The Taming Of The Queen, takes us out of the world of the War of the Roses and back to the times of Henry VIII. This book covers the story of Kateryn Parr, the last wife of the notorious king, from his proposal of marriage to his death nearly four years later.

This engrossing and all encompassing book is a story of survival rather than one of love. By this time, the aging Henry is morbidly obese, physically rotting, extremely volatile, and murderous. Over the course of the novel, we see Kateryn fight against all odds to keep the king’s favor ­– and more importantly, and literally – her head while the political landscape rapidly shifts around her. 

The Tudor court genre has rapidly expanded in recent years in a slew of non-fiction, often featuring over-the-top romance. The Taming of the Queen combines fictionalized personal hardship with history to realistically portray Kateryn as a woman ahead of her time, trapped against her will, in one of the most frightening situations imaginable; she is constantly surrounded by reminders of her five predecessors and insecure position.

While this novel, coming in at around 450 pages, requires a reader to make a significant investment of time, The Taming of the Queen is well worth the read and is truly one of the best Tudor novels to come out in the last few years. 

The Taming of the Queen  Philippa Gregory  Andrew Scarafile


Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Kitchens.jpg Reading Kitchens of the Great Midwest (July, 2015), by J. Ryan Stradal, is as delightful an experience as savoring a dish of Homer’s ice cream. It satisfies one’s desire for a character-centered novel that is at once a Bildungsroman as well as a work of comedy and satire.

In an interview at the 2015 BEA convention, Stradal spoke of his upbringing in Hastings, Minnesota in the 70s and 80s. It was a time when “eating for convenience and speed were the norms, and a salad (need not) contain green vegetables.” (YouTube, June 9, 2015)

The book’s main character, Eva Thorvald, is a child prodigy with an amazing sense of taste. Her sophisticated appetite and interest in organic gardening make her an oddity in West Des Moines, Iowa. Her mother can neither afford nor understand Eva’s desire to serve vegan blueberry sorbet at her fourth-grade birthday party.

As the plot evolves, we meet other wonderful and funny characters. Her cousin, Braque Dragelski, is one of them. Braque is a Northwestern University athlete who is a food purist. She shops only at Whole Foods and her clean palate is matched only by her filthy mouth.

Sara Lifson  Kitchens of the Great Midwest  J. Ryan Stradal