Blogging for a Good Book

The Natural, by Bernard Malamud

Blogging for a Good Book - Mon, 2014-06-16 01:01

This week’s posts are written by staff from the Circulation Services Division.  Today’s review is written by Alan.

The 15 years following the end of World War II are considered by many to be one of baseball’s golden eras. Attendance skyrocketed, great players returned from the war, the leagues were integrated, no other professional sport seriously competed for the affection of sports lovers, and television brought the game into millions of households. This same time brought forth the birth of a new development – the literary novel about baseball. Before, baseball writing consisted of newspaper reports and sports columns, inspirational sports novels for boys, and colorful and entertaining short stories about characters who inhabited baseball land.

The first, and to many still the best, literary novel is The Natural by Bernard Malamud, which appeared in 1952. It was the 38-year-old author’s first published novel. On one level it is the story of the ups and downs of the sensational rookie season of Roy Hobbs, a superb natural athlete, who enters the big leagues at the age of 35. On another level the book is a commentary on the American dream – or more specifically on the dark side of that dream. Roy Hobbs wants to live that dream, but he has failed to obtain it, through a combination of bad luck, bad choices, and an inability to understand how the game of life is played. He has a gargantuan appetite (literally and figuratively) for life, but he does not know how to live it. He is alone within himself, wary and distrustful of others, standoffish, and incapable of true affection – in short, not a people person, a team-mate, not a team player. There is a sort of redemption at the end of the novel when he realizes that he has learned nothing from his past life, and that he has to suffer again. The question left hanging and unanswered is whether he is, indeed, capable of learning from his past and putting his suffering to good use.

In 1984 The Natural was made into a movie starring Robert Redford. The movie emphasized the mythic aspects of baseball at the expense of character development and granted Roy Hobbs the bucolic and idyllic resolution and ending that he wished for in the book but that Malamud denied him on the printed page.

Two other literary novels about baseball worth mentioning appeared just a few years after The Natural. Both were written by Mark Harris – The Southpaw (1953) and Bang the Drum Slowly (1956), which was adapted first for television and then in 1973 for the movies. These books are concerned with the human aspects of the characters that inhabit the pages, not the profounder issues that concerned Malamud.

Check the WRL catalog for The Natural


A Separation (2012)

Blogging for a Good Book - Fri, 2014-06-13 01:01

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi brings us a deliciously complex domestic drama. Set in contemporary Iran, A Separation explores the dissolution of a marriage against the backdrop of a mystery.

Simin is seeking a divorce from her husband Nader because he refuses to leave Iran with her. Nader also won’t allow Simin to take their daughter Termeh out of the country. Nader wants to stay in Iran to take care of his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. A judge refuses to grant the divorce, and Simin immediately packs up and leaves for her mother’s house. Termeh decides to stay with her father Nader. Simin’s absence from the home leaves Nader with no choice but to hire a daily caretaker for his father for the hours when he, Nader, is away at work. Nader hires Razieh, a financially-strapped married woman with a young daughter and a child on the way. Nader comes home from work one day to discover Razieh gone and his father on the bedroom floor, his wrist tied to his bed. Additionally, some money is missing from a drawer, and Nader believes that Razieh has taken it. When Razieh returns to Nader’s home, tensions erupt and a physical encounter results in Razieh accusing Nader of a crime against her.

So did he or didn’t he commit the crime Razieh accuses him of? In the ensuing legal drama, the characters struggle with questions of morality, informed by societal dictates of religious and gender roles, and what it means to tell the truth. A Separation prompts us to ask: In desperate circumstances, when our backs are up against the proverbial wall, are we more likely to transgress our moral and ethical boundaries?

American viewers unfamiliar with the Iranian justice system will undoubtedly make some interesting comparisons between the American justice system and the Iranian system of justice as depicted in A Separation. Lawyers are non-existent in the film as the accuser, the accused, and witnesses battle it out with each other in front of a judge.

Simply put, A Separation is an extraordinary film, one of the best films I have ever seen. The top-rate performances alone make the film worth viewing. Particular stand-outs include Peyman Moadi as Nader; Sareh Bayat as Razieh; and Kimia Hosseini, who steals every scene she is in, as Somayeh, Razieh’s inquisitive, mischievous, and adorable daughter.

Check the WRL Catalog for A Separation


What the Nanny Saw, by Fiona Neill

Blogging for a Good Book - Thu, 2014-06-12 01:01

Ali Sparrow is a financially-strapped British college student who takes a year off from school to work as a nanny for the Skinners, a wealthy family living in London’s Holland Park. Nick Skinner, the patriarch of the family, is an investment banker. Nick’s wife, Bryony, is the head of her own PR company.

At the beginning of What the Nanny Saw, the Skinners are in the midst of a financial scandal and the paparazzi are camped out in front of the Skinners’ luxurious home. Nick Skinner, alleged to have committed a financial crime, has fled the home in an attempt to shield his wife and children (19-year-old Jake, 17-year-old Izzy, and 7-year-old identical twins Hector and Alfie) from the crush of the media.

Nick’s family members are unsure as to whether he is guilty of the financial crime while Nanny Ali Sparrow may have the answer. We come to discover what Ali knows as we are guided through an extended flashback of Ali’s time working for the Skinners. Our journey begins with the day Ali is hired and Ali’s recollections make up the bulk of the novel.

The promise of finding out what Ali knew with regard to Nick’s possible criminal activities is what initially attracted me to What the Nanny Saw. However, what kept me reading — or in this case, listening to the audiobook — was a story bigger than Nick’s legal troubles.

What the Nanny Saw is a story about a young woman from ordinary and humble circumstances, a young woman who is suddenly thrown into the excessive, over-the-top lives of the extraordinarily wealthy Skinners. Ali Sparrow’s attempts to navigate her way through a world in which she is seen but not seen, a world where she is a part of the family yet outside of the family, comprise the driving narrative of the story.

We sympathize with Ali Sparrow’s discomfort as she imposes Bryony Skinner’s seemingly arbitrary rules on the Skinner children – rules that may prove more harmful than good in the long run. Bryony obsesses over her children’s school grades but fails to see the obvious signs that daughter Izzy is suffering from an eating disorder. Mrs. Skinner’s concerns about outward appearances drives her to insist that twins Hector and Alfie not eat from the same plate or speak their “secret” language lest those outside the family view them as weird and start gossiping about them. Worry about appearances seems to trump any concern for the inner lives of the Skinner children. For a family so drenched in superficialities, much is brimming underneath the surface.

What the Nanny Saw allows us to take sides; however, when we have aligned ourselves with Ali in her plight with the Skinners, a revelation about Ali’s past and the reason she really left school rocks any “goody-goody” image we may have developed of her. That Ali is flawed is one of the great achievements of the novel; it prevents us from seeing Ali as positively boring or bland, especially given some of the more colorful personalities in the book.

Morality and the ways in which we justify certain actions to ourselves is one of the important themes found in What the Nanny Saw. The novel also touches upon a plethora of issues, some of which are given more consideration than others: sex trafficking and sex work, the plight of immigrant nannies, drug use and abuse, class inequities, adultery, and more.

I highly recommend What the Nanny Saw in audiobook form as narrator Allison Larkin fully embodies each character of the novel. Allison Larkin is perhaps the best audiobook narrator I have encountered thus far.

Check the WRL catalog for What the Nanny Saw


The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis

Blogging for a Good Book - Wed, 2014-06-11 01:01

Ayana Mathis’s poignant debut novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is set against the backdrop of the Great Migration during the 1920s, when African Americans began moving in large numbers from the southern United States to the North. The reasons behind the Great Migration of African Americans to the North were twofold: to escape the racial terror of the Jim Crow South and to pursue the supposed better opportunities in the North.

The titular fifteen-year-old Hattie moves from Georgia to Philadelphia in 1923 with her family. Soon thereafter, young Hattie marries a man named August and gives birth to twins. Hattie then loses her newborns in 1925 when she is just seventeen years of age. Hattie’s tragic loss sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Following the death of her newborn twins, Hattie gives birth to nine more children, but finds neither the time nor the emotional wherewithal to outwardly express love for them. Hattie feels that it is more prudent to withhold her love so as to prepare her children for a world that will not love them.

The tragic cycle of life continues as Hattie’s children go on to suffer tragedies and hardships of their own, at least in part due to the emotional absence of their mother and the sometimes physical absence of their father. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie prompts us to think about the ways in which our parents affect who we become.

The novel also asks us to consider the effects of the Great Migration on African Americans and the ways in which the promise of a better life in the North became for many, to borrow a phrase from Langston Hughes, a “dream deferred.” For Hattie, the promise of a free and more prosperous North seems to die along with her twins Philadelphia and Jubilee. Hattie struggles with an unfaithful and disappointing husband and finds herself and her family in dire financial straits.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is organized unlike any novel I have read prior in that each chapter focuses on one or more of Hattie’s children (the last chapter focuses on a grandchild), at different points in their lives. Each chapter could stand alone as its own short story and only occasionally will characters reappear in later chapters.

I enjoyed the uniqueness of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie; the various “stories” kept my interest. Admittedly, I found myself wanting to know more about certain characters in the book after their chapters had ended; and I was left questioning what happens to Hattie’s last child Ella after Hattie makes a heart-breaking decision regarding her future.

Hattie’s children include Floyd, a traveling musician with a “wild” lifestyle and a burdensome secret. Six is an angry young man who reluctantly embarks on a preaching tour of sorts after a traumatic childhood accident seems to leave him with some divine gifts. Bell, resentful of her mother’s ways, enacts revenge against Hattie that will leave you shaking your head.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is an important book that explores race, class, gender, sexuality, war, religion, mental illness, addiction, disability, and more. Although full of heaviness and heartbreak, there are moments of hope, humor, and levity that help to break up some of the harder stuff. All in all, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a satisfying read. I look forward to reading more works from the promising Ayana Mathis.

Check the WRL Catalog for The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is also available as a Gab Bag


Joyland, by Stephen King

Blogging for a Good Book - Tue, 2014-06-10 01:01

Stephen King has been particularly prolific in the last several years, putting out one or more novels annually. As a relatively new Stephen King fan, I had to check out 2013′s Joyland, King’s second novel after 2005’s The Colorado Kid for the Hard Case Crime imprint. As usual, King was full of surprises.

I was expecting a rather straightforward murder mystery, but found myself consumed by something larger — an often sweet, sometimes weepy coming-of-age story whose characters have stayed with me long after finishing the book. I didn’t expect to be so touched, but of course, this is Stephen King so I should have anticipated the unexpected.

Devin Jones is a broke 21-year-old college student who takes a job at a carnival in North Carolina during the summer of 1973. As Devin gets to know the colorful regulars who work at the park, he learns of the tragedy that happened some four years earlier. A young woman named Linda Gray had been killed in the park’s Horror House, a haunted house ride. Ms. Gray had been thrown onto the ride’s tracks by an unidentified man. Carnival employees claim that they see Gray’s ghost, at various times, hanging around the Horror House. Devin is intrigued by the story and embarks on an investigation to uncover Linda Gray’s killer, who may still be alive and lurking around.

This is the set-up for the book; however, the most intriguing parts of the story, the real meat of the book, had very little to do with the Linda Gray murder mystery. Rather, the most intriguing parts of the story had more to do with Devin’s journey to adulthood. You see, Devin Jones is nursing a broken heart. Still pining for his college sweetheart who dumped him – a woman who no longer has feelings for him, if she ever did – the Linda Gray murder mystery provides Devin with a welcome, albeit disturbing, distraction.

Along the way, Devin meets Mike (an outgoing young boy who is dying from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy) and Annie (young Mike’s reclusive mother who may be hiding some kind of secret). While Mike’s enthusiasm for squeezing the most out of a life that is slipping away prompts the depressive Devin to consider his own life anew, Devin discovers with the thirty-something-year-old Annie a deeper attachment than he’d ever had with the college sweetheart who broke his heart.

Devin’s relationship with Mike and Annie dovetails with the Linda Gray murder mystery in interesting ways. Even so, the murder mystery itself is almost pushed to the background until the very end of the novel. That’s okay though, because what we grow to care most about is Devin’s relationship with Mike and Annie and Devin’s growth as a person.

The power of Joyland the novel derives, in part, from its strong sense of place. Joyland the carnival feels so real because Stephen King immerses you – the reader of Joyland — in the language of “carnies” (carnival workers). For example, “wearing the fur” means donning the costume of the park’s mascot Howie the Happy Hound and entertaining the visiting kids, an act Devin becomes intimately familiar with. And a “conie” is an unsuspecting visitor, one who can be easily conned or manipulated.

Joyland is a tearjerker, so get the tissues ready. Joyland is also oddly uplifting, and the pay-off at the end is well worth the ride. If you’d prefer to check out the audiobook version of Joyland, don’t hesitate, because Michael Kelly does an excellent job of narration.

Check the WRL Catalog for Joyland


Joyland, by Stephen King

Blogging for a Good Book - Tue, 2014-06-10 01:01

Stephen King has been particularly prolific in the last several years, putting out one or more novels annually. As a relatively new Stephen King fan, I had to check out 2013′s Joyland, King’s second novel after 2005’s The Colorado Kid for the Hard Case Crime imprint. As usual, King was full of surprises.

I was expecting a rather straightforward murder mystery, but found myself consumed by something larger — an often sweet, sometimes weepy coming-of-age story whose characters have stayed with me long after finishing the book. I didn’t expect to be so touched, but of course, this is Stephen King so I should have anticipated the unexpected.

Devin Jones is a broke 21-year-old college student who takes a job at a carnival in North Carolina during the summer of 1973. As Devin gets to know the colorful regulars who work at the park, he learns of the tragedy that happened some four years earlier. A young woman named Linda Gray had been killed in the park’s Horror House, a haunted house ride. Ms. Gray had been thrown onto the ride’s tracks by an unidentified man. Carnival employees claim that they see Gray’s ghost, at various times, hanging around the Horror House. Devin is intrigued by the story and embarks on an investigation to uncover Linda Gray’s killer, who may still be alive and lurking around.

This is the set-up for the book; however, the most intriguing parts of the story, the real meat of the book, had very little to do with the Linda Gray murder mystery. Rather, the most intriguing parts of the story had more to do with Devin’s journey to adulthood. You see, Devin Jones is nursing a broken heart. Still pining for his college sweetheart who dumped him – a woman who no longer has feelings for him, if she ever did – the Linda Gray murder mystery provides Devin with a welcome, albeit disturbing, distraction.

Along the way, Devin meets Mike (an outgoing young boy who is dying from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy) and Annie (young Mike’s reclusive mother who may be hiding some kind of secret). While Mike’s enthusiasm for squeezing the most out of a life that is slipping away prompts the depressive Devin to consider his own life anew, Devin discovers with the thirty-something-year-old Annie a deeper attachment than he’d ever had with the college sweetheart who broke his heart.

Devin’s relationship with Mike and Annie dovetails with the Linda Gray murder mystery in interesting ways. Even so, the murder mystery itself is almost pushed to the background until the very end of the novel. That’s okay though, because what we grow to care most about is Devin’s relationship with Mike and Annie and Devin’s growth as a person.

The power of Joyland the novel derives, in part, from its strong sense of place. Joyland the carnival feels so real because Stephen King immerses you – the reader of Joyland — in the language of “carnies” (carnival workers). For example, “wearing the fur” means donning the costume of the park’s mascot Howie the Happy Hound and entertaining the visiting kids, an act Devin becomes intimately familiar with. And a “conie” is an unsuspecting visitor, one who can be easily conned or manipulated.

Joyland is a tearjerker, so get the tissues ready. Joyland is also oddly uplifting, and the pay-off at the end is well worth the ride. If you’d prefer to check out the audiobook version of Joyland, don’t hesitate, because Michael Kelly does an excellent job of narration.

Check the WRL Catalog for Joyland


12 Years a Slave (2014)

Blogging for a Good Book - Mon, 2014-06-09 01:01

It is without question that slavery in America was a brutal, vicious, and inhumane institution. However, for anyone who thinks slavery was the more relatively benign institution depicted in Gone with the Wind or some of the other mainstream meant-for-entertainment Hollywood films, 12 Years a Slave quickly and effectively puts such thoughts to rest.

The film, 12 Years a Slave, was directed by Black British director Steve McQueen, and adapted from the real-life account of Solomon Northup, a free Black man living in antebellum America who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. That the film springs from the narrative of Northup himself offers a fresh cinematic perspective on slavery that makes it a more powerful statement on the subject of slavery in America than perhaps any other film ever made. There is no sugar coating of the facts, and there are no “happy slaves” or kindly White masters or White mistresses here (in this film, the masters’ wives are just as, if not more, sadistic as their husbands). Instead, we are allowed to witness slavery in its raw and unmitigated horror.

Watching 12 Years a Slave, the film was triggering an uncomfortable experience for me as an African American whose ancestors endured the horrors of slavery. However, the realization of the importance of the film — this film is so necessary –gave me a compelling reason to press on. The story, the acting, the cinematography, the directing — just everything about this film — kept me riveted even in my discomfort. Flesh tears with each crack of the whip, wails pierce the air as Black mothers and their children are sold away from each other, and women look as if their very lives are being squeezed from their bodies as they are raped by their White masters.

A visual scene of people being stripped naked and examined in preparation for sale into slavery could have easily devolved into objectification of the Black actors and actresses portraying these people on screen. But, the truth of 12 Years a Slave is unabashedly on the side of the victims and survivors of slavery; and, the perspective of the film is further supported by their humanity. Skillfully and intentionally, objectification is successfully avoided. It is to director McQueen’s credit that he is able to expertly navigate such tricky terrain (How did McQueen not win the Best Director Oscar for this movie?).

Credit also goes to the incredible actors and actresses who fully embody the enslaved people they portray. All praises to Chiwetel Ejiofor for his brilliant portrayal of Northup. Ejiofor emotes loss, bewilderment, betrayal, anger, hope and hopelessness, and more with sometimes as little as a turn of his head or a shift in his gaze (How did Ejiofor not win the Best Actor Oscar for this movie?). And Lupita Nyong’o, who portrays Patsey, deserved every ounce of that golden statue she won for Best Supporting Actress on Oscar night — enough said.

The camera work in 12 Years a Slave is stunning and enhances the movie’s sense of dread. An example of such artistry is found in an extended scene of Solomon so close to death, asphyxiating, as he hangs by a noose from a tree. Solomon Northup’s feet barely touch the squishy, muddy ground beneath his hanging body as the camera alternates between close-up shots of Northup’s feet – as they struggle to gain traction on the slippery ground – and wide shots of Northup hanging while everyday life on the plantation goes on around him. Simply put, director McQueen wants us to feel uncomfortable — very uncomfortable — as we watch the everyday horrors of slavery unfold before our eyes.

With its unsparing honesty, the film 12 Years a Slave challenges us as a country to never forget about the abominations of slavery and to never forget about the Solomons and the Patseys who were forced to endure such hell. For that reason alone, 12 Years a Slave is a film that every American should see.

Check the WRL catalog for 12 Years a Slave


12 Years a Slave (2014)

Blogging for a Good Book - Mon, 2014-06-09 01:01

It is without question that slavery in America was a brutal, vicious, and inhumane institution. However, for anyone who thinks slavery was the more relatively benign institution depicted in Gone with the Wind or some of the other mainstream meant-for-entertainment Hollywood films, 12 Years a Slave quickly and effectively puts such thoughts to rest.

The film, 12 Years a Slave, was directed by Black British director Steve McQueen, and adapted from the real-life account of Solomon Northup, a free Black man living in antebellum America who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. That the film springs from the narrative of Northup himself offers a fresh cinematic perspective on slavery that makes it a more powerful statement on the subject of slavery in America than perhaps any other film ever made. There is no sugar coating of the facts, and there are no “happy slaves” or kindly White masters or White mistresses here (in this film, the masters’ wives are just as, if not more, sadistic as their husbands). Instead, we are allowed to witness slavery in its raw and unmitigated horror.

Watching 12 Years a Slave, the film was triggering an uncomfortable experience for me as an African American whose ancestors endured the horrors of slavery. However, the realization of the importance of the film — this film is so necessary –gave me a compelling reason to press on. The story, the acting, the cinematography, the directing — just everything about this film — kept me riveted even in my discomfort. Flesh tears with each crack of the whip, wails pierce the air as Black mothers and their children are sold away from each other, and women look as if their very lives are being squeezed from their bodies as they are raped by their White masters.

A visual scene of people being stripped naked and examined in preparation for sale into slavery could have easily devolved into objectification of the Black actors and actresses portraying these people on screen. But, the truth of 12 Years a Slave is unabashedly on the side of the victims and survivors of slavery; and, the perspective of the film is further supported by their humanity. Skillfully and intentionally, objectification is successfully avoided. It is to director McQueen’s credit that he is able to expertly navigate such tricky terrain (How did McQueen not win the Best Director Oscar for this movie?).

Credit also goes to the incredible actors and actresses who fully embody the enslaved people they portray. All praises to Chiwetel Ejiofor for his brilliant portrayal of Northup. Ejiofor emotes loss, bewilderment, betrayal, anger, hope and hopelessness, and more with sometimes as little as a turn of his head or a shift in his gaze (How did Ejiofor not win the Best Actor Oscar for this movie?). And Lupita Nyong’o, who portrays Patsey, deserved every ounce of that golden statue she won for Best Supporting Actress on Oscar night — enough said.

The camera work in 12 Years a Slave is stunning and enhances the movie’s sense of dread. An example of such artistry is found in an extended scene of Solomon so close to death, asphyxiating, as he hangs by a noose from a tree. Solomon Northup’s feet barely touch the squishy, muddy ground beneath his hanging body as the camera alternates between close-up shots of Northup’s feet – as they struggle to gain traction on the slippery ground – and wide shots of Northup hanging while everyday life on the plantation goes on around him. Simply put, director McQueen wants us to feel uncomfortable — very uncomfortable — as we watch the everyday horrors of slavery unfold before our eyes.

With its unsparing honesty, the film 12 Years a Slave challenges us as a country to never forget about the abominations of slavery and to never forget about the Solomons and the Patseys who were forced to endure such hell. For that reason alone, 12 Years a Slave is a film that every American should see.

Check the WRL catalog for 12 Years a Slave


Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries

Blogging for a Good Book - Fri, 2014-06-06 01:01

Finally, for those folks who are ebook readers, I wanted to write about a great collection of older crime fiction that you can find in our ebook collection. Ebooks have allowed us to keep some titles accessible to readers even if we no longer have them in print, and that is the case with Rex Stout’s delightful Nero Wolfe series.

We currently have 35 of Stout’s mysteries in the ebook collection, ranging from Fer-de-Lance, where Stout introduced readers to the corpulent, brilliant, and massively lazy private detective Nero Wolfe and his charming, smooth-talking, and able legman, Archie Goodwin, to later tales such as Gambit and Death of a Doxy.

These are great novels for summer. They are short enough to be read in a long afternoon on the beach if you wish and they are often quite funny. The relationship between Wolfe and Goodwin moves up and down, as each one frequently is exasperated by the other’s foibles (I find myself most often siding with Archie in these situations, though your mileage may vary). But at the same time, they are fascinating portraits of a world and time gone by. They are set in New York City, and range in time from the 1930s through the early 1970s. Stout is an able guide into the world of brownstones, automats, and dance halls, and he has an understanding of both high and lowlife. Stout also frequently pulls the social issues of the day into his stories, adding an extra element of appeal.

Not all of these stories are great mysteries, sometimes the plots can seem a bit contrived, but that’s true of lots of mystery writers, both classic and contemporary. What keeps me coming back to these novels is the opportunity to spend time with the characters. Whether it is walking the streets of New York with Archie, cooking up a great meal with Fritz Brenner, feeling Inspector Cramer’s frustration with private detectives, or enjoying Wolfe’s outsized ego and mannerisms (or his love of orchids), time spent with a Rex Stout novel is always a joy.

Check the WRL catalog for the ebook versions of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries


Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries

Blogging for a Good Book - Fri, 2014-06-06 01:01

Finally, for those folks who are ebook readers, I wanted to write about a great collection of older crime fiction that you can find in our ebook collection. Ebooks have allowed us to keep some titles accessible to readers even if we no longer have them in print, and that is the case with Rex Stout’s delightful Nero Wolfe series.

We currently have 35 of Stout’s mysteries in the ebook collection, ranging from Fer-de-Lance, where Stout introduced readers to the corpulent, brilliant, and massively lazy private detective Nero Wolfe and his charming, smooth-talking, and able legman, Archie Goodwin, to later tales such as Gambit and Death of a Doxy.

These are great novels for summer. They are short enough to be read in a long afternoon on the beach if you wish and they are often quite funny. The relationship between Wolfe and Goodwin moves up and down, as each one frequently is exasperated by the other’s foibles (I find myself most often siding with Archie in these situations, though your mileage may vary). But at the same time, they are fascinating portraits of a world and time gone by. They are set in New York City, and range in time from the 1930s through the early 1970s. Stout is an able guide into the world of brownstones, automats, and dance halls, and he has an understanding of both high and lowlife. Stout also frequently pulls the social issues of the day into his stories, adding an extra element of appeal.

Not all of these stories are great mysteries, sometimes the plots can seem a bit contrived, but that’s true of lots of mystery writers, both classic and contemporary. What keeps me coming back to these novels is the opportunity to spend time with the characters. Whether it is walking the streets of New York with Archie, cooking up a great meal with Fritz Brenner, feeling Inspector Cramer’s frustration with private detectives, or enjoying Wolfe’s outsized ego and mannerisms (or his love of orchids), time spent with a Rex Stout novel is always a joy.

Check the WRL catalog for the ebook versions of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries


Nobody’s Fool, by Richard Russo

Blogging for a Good Book - Thu, 2014-06-05 01:01

I have written before about Richard Russo, but I wanted to come back to one of his earlier books that would be a great summer reading choice. Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, tells the story of Donald “Sully” Sullivan. He is an aging, unemployed construction worker, with a bad knee, living in a declining town in upstate New York. Bad luck seems to follow Sully like a cloud; his father was a bully, his marriage failed, he has a poor relationship with his son, and money is increasingly scarce. But as you read the novel you have to ask: Is it his luck or his decisions that are bad?

Russo clearly understands, and writes thoughtfully and compassionately about, the concerns and lives of people on the margins of society. It can be all too easy to look at someone down on their luck and write them off as a lost cause. Russo never does that; rather, he asks us to see the human-ness in each of his characters and to respond to them, both their good and their bad sides.

Nobody’s Fool features a wide cast of characters with whom the reader can feel a connection, and Russo uses that connection to draw the reader into the story. There is a lot of humor here, and Russo’s complex novel is filled with eccentric characters. But the humor is leavened by Russo’s exploration of the roots of Sully’s current problems, particularly his terrible relationship with his father. The past seems inescapable. Nonetheless, there is a sense of redemption in the novel, and Russo has a clear affection for his characters, especially Sully.

Readers who enjoy thoughtful novels about the human condition will certainly find a great deal to enjoy in Richard Russo’s work, and particularly in Nobody’s Fool.

Check the WRL catalog for Nobody’s Fool


Nobody’s Fool, by Richard Russo

Blogging for a Good Book - Thu, 2014-06-05 01:01

I have written before about Richard Russo, but I wanted to come back to one of his earlier books that would be a great summer reading choice. Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, tells the story of Donald “Sully” Sullivan. He is an aging, unemployed construction worker, with a bad knee, living in a declining town in upstate New York. Bad luck seems to follow Sully like a cloud; his father was a bully, his marriage failed, he has a poor relationship with his son, and money is increasingly scarce. But as you read the novel you have to ask: Is it his luck or his decisions that are bad?

Russo clearly understands, and writes thoughtfully and compassionately about, the concerns and lives of people on the margins of society. It can be all too easy to look at someone down on their luck and write them off as a lost cause. Russo never does that; rather, he asks us to see the human-ness in each of his characters and to respond to them, both their good and their bad sides.

Nobody’s Fool features a wide cast of characters with whom the reader can feel a connection, and Russo uses that connection to draw the reader into the story. There is a lot of humor here, and Russo’s complex novel is filled with eccentric characters. But the humor is leavened by Russo’s exploration of the roots of Sully’s current problems, particularly his terrible relationship with his father. The past seems inescapable. Nonetheless, there is a sense of redemption in the novel, and Russo has a clear affection for his characters, especially Sully.

Readers who enjoy thoughtful novels about the human condition will certainly find a great deal to enjoy in Richard Russo’s work, and particularly in Nobody’s Fool.

Check the WRL catalog for Nobody’s Fool


The Campus Trilogy, by David Lodge

Blogging for a Good Book - Wed, 2014-06-04 01:01

I last wrote about David Lodge in 2009 when I reviewed his novel Deaf Sentence. Looking around in a bookstore recently I came across a new edition that collects my three favorite Lodge novels of academia. So with college graduations so recently in mind these seemed like a great summer reading opportunity. The Campus Trilogy, collects Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work, which are three of the funniest and most pointed satires of campus and academic life I have ever read.

Changing Places introduces the reader to Morris Zapp, all-star American professor in the English Department of the State University of Euphoria in California and to Phillip Swallow, a somewhat less successful professor at the University of Rummidge, in England. The two are part of an exchange programs and as we meet them, they are on passing flights over the Atlantic, heading for a six-month teaching position at each others’ campus. The campus turmoil of 1969 affords Lodge a lot of targets for satire, and he makes the most of them. But it is not all barbs. There is a lot of humor here that is not pointed and sharp, and the responses of both Zapp and Swallow to their new situations raise some interesting questions about the human condition.

Lodge followed this novel with Small World, a raucous novel set at a variety of literature conferences, and featuring many of the characters from Changing Places. Zapp and Swallow are back, as are their wives, and a host of new, and equally superb, characters from English departments around the world. Lodge is playing with romance and the Grail legend here, as one of the main story lines follows the romantic aspirations of Persse McGarrigle, a poet and lecturer at the fictional Limerick University, Ireland. Despite the complex plot and almost Russian-novel cast of characters, Lodge pulls all the strings together at the end with all the main characters attending the annual Modern Language Association conference in New York.

The final novel in the series, Nice Work, is more of a stand-alone work, though it is set at the University of Rummidge, where Swallow is heading up the English Department, and Morris Zapp does make an appearance. Here, Lodge takes a narrower focus though, following the lives of Victor Wilcox, Managing Director at a local engineering firm, and Rummidge U. professor Robyn Penrose, a feminist scholar, who is assigned to shadow Wilcox as part of a university project to better understand the commercial world. Lodge wields a gentler pen here, though there the satire is still amply present. The novel does raise questions about how we talk to each other, and what the role of the university is in the modern world, a debate that continues to be timely in this ear of budget cuts and calls for more oversight of colleges and universities.

All together, Lodge’s three novels make a delightful, humorous, and thoughtful summer reading opportunity.

Check the WRL catalog for The Campus Trilogy


The Campus Trilogy, by David Lodge

Blogging for a Good Book - Wed, 2014-06-04 01:01

I last wrote about David Lodge in 2009 when I reviewed his novel Deaf Sentence. Looking around in a bookstore recently I came across a new edition that collects my three favorite Lodge novels of academia. So with college graduations so recently in mind these seemed like a great summer reading opportunity. The Campus Trilogy, collects Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work, which are three of the funniest and most pointed satires of campus and academic life I have ever read.

Changing Places introduces the reader to Morris Zapp, all-star American professor in the English Department of the State University of Euphoria in California and to Phillip Swallow, a somewhat less successful professor at the University of Rummidge, in England. The two are part of an exchange programs and as we meet them, they are on passing flights over the Atlantic, heading for a six-month teaching position at each others’ campus. The campus turmoil of 1969 affords Lodge a lot of targets for satire, and he makes the most of them. But it is not all barbs. There is a lot of humor here that is not pointed and sharp, and the responses of both Zapp and Swallow to their new situations raise some interesting questions about the human condition.

Lodge followed this novel with Small World, a raucous novel set at a variety of literature conferences, and featuring many of the characters from Changing Places. Zapp and Swallow are back, as are their wives, and a host of new, and equally superb, characters from English departments around the world. Lodge is playing with romance and the Grail legend here, as one of the main story lines follows the romantic aspirations of Persse McGarrigle, a poet and lecturer at the fictional Limerick University, Ireland. Despite the complex plot and almost Russian-novel cast of characters, Lodge pulls all the strings together at the end with all the main characters attending the annual Modern Language Association conference in New York.

The final novel in the series, Nice Work, is more of a stand-alone work, though it is set at the University of Rummidge, where Swallow is heading up the English Department, and Morris Zapp does make an appearance. Here, Lodge takes a narrower focus though, following the lives of Victor Wilcox, Managing Director at a local engineering firm, and Rummidge U. professor Robyn Penrose, a feminist scholar, who is assigned to shadow Wilcox as part of a university project to better understand the commercial world. Lodge wields a gentler pen here, though there the satire is still amply present. The novel does raise questions about how we talk to each other, and what the role of the university is in the modern world, a debate that continues to be timely in this ear of budget cuts and calls for more oversight of colleges and universities.

All together, Lodge’s three novels make a delightful, humorous, and thoughtful summer reading opportunity.

Check the WRL catalog for The Campus Trilogy


Sweet Thunder, by Ivan Doig

Blogging for a Good Book - Tue, 2014-06-03 01:01

When we last saw Morrie Morgan in Butte Montana, he had turned down a job with Anaconda Copper and instead was working at the town library and becoming increasingly caught up in union activities and in the life of Grace Faraday, a miner’s widow who runs a boarding house. See Andrew’s review of Work Song for more details. Now a year and a bit has past, and Morrie and Grace are wed and coming back to Butte from their honeymoon.

While on that trip, Grace and Morrie received word that Morrie’s former boss, Samuel Sandison, “cattle king turned vigilante turned bookman turned city librarian,” has deeded the pair his mansion, only Sandison comes with it. In other news, Morrie’s job as assistant librarian has fallen victim to budget cuts, and relations between Anaconda and the miners’ union have continued to deteriorate. The job part is eased somewhat when Morrie takes a position as editorial writer for the new union paper, the only one not controlled by the copper company. With a team that includes a longtime newsman, one of Morrie’s students from his early days as a teacher in Butte, and a bunch of newsboys from the reform school, Morrie leads the charge against Anaconda.

In all of his fiction, Doig writes with great sympathy about characters that he clearly loves. That is nowhere more clear than here in his portraits of the miners and their supporters, the newspaper men and women, and the townsfolk of Butte. So if you have an interest in western history, the labor movement, newspapers, or just an affection for great characters and lovely writing you will find something of interest here. Make sure to add Sweet Thunder to your summer reading list. After all, any book that ends up with the hero being named city librarian is worth a read.

Check the WRL catalog for Sweet Thunder


Sweet Thunder, by Ivan Doig

Blogging for a Good Book - Tue, 2014-06-03 01:01

When we last saw Morrie Morgan in Butte Montana, he had turned down a job with Anaconda Copper and instead was working at the town library and becoming increasingly caught up in union activities and in the life of Grace Faraday, a miner’s widow who runs a boarding house. See Andrew’s review of Work Song for more details. Now a year and a bit has past, and Morrie and Grace are wed and coming back to Butte from their honeymoon.

While on that trip, Grace and Morrie received word that Morrie’s former boss, Samuel Sandison, “cattle king turned vigilante turned bookman turned city librarian,” has deeded the pair his mansion, only Sandison comes with it. In other news, Morrie’s job as assistant librarian has fallen victim to budget cuts, and relations between Anaconda and the miners’ union have continued to deteriorate. The job part is eased somewhat when Morrie takes a position as editorial writer for the new union paper, the only one not controlled by the copper company. With a team that includes a longtime newsman, one of Morrie’s students from his early days as a teacher in Butte, and a bunch of newsboys from the reform school, Morrie leads the charge against Anaconda.

In all of his fiction, Doig writes with great sympathy about characters that he clearly loves. That is nowhere more clear than here in his portraits of the miners and their supporters, the newspaper men and women, and the townsfolk of Butte. So if you have an interest in western history, the labor movement, newspapers, or just an affection for great characters and lovely writing you will find something of interest here. Make sure to add Sweet Thunder to your summer reading list. After all, any book that ends up with the hero being named city librarian is worth a read.

Check the WRL catalog for Sweet Thunder


The Bear Went Over the Mountain, by William Kotzwinkle

Blogging for a Good Book - Mon, 2014-06-02 01:01

As summer approaches, lots of folks are looking for something fun to read while vacationing on the beach or at the lake or just sitting on the back porch. There will be lots of big novels coming out and being heavily promoted this summer, as always, but rather than following the crowd, why not set your own trends and read some great midlist or older titles. You won’t have to worry about getting on the holds list for these books, and who knows, you might create some new demand for these worthy authors. This week’s posts will look at some great fiction that deserves re-discovery.

For those readers who enjoy a healthy amount of satirical humor, The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle is a good choice. Kotzwinkle’s book is a biting send up of the pretensions of the literary world. The Bear Went Over the Mountain contains scenes that will have you laughing out loud, but at the same time they will make you pause and think. Kotzwinkle, like any great satirist, uses his humor to question the values and beliefs of contemporary society.

This story deftly mixes fantasy and reality as Kotzwinkle tells the tale of Hal, a bear who comes across a buried manuscript novel while looking for food. Not your normal bear, Hal decides to put on a suit, and take the manuscript in to town, where he proceeds to become a publishing sensation. The actual author of the novel, Professor Arthur Bramhall, is traumatized by the theft of his story, and he becomes more and more bear-like as the story progresses. OK, it sounds a bit over the top perhaps, but what is summer for if not exploring new paths in your reading? Besides, Kotzwinkle pulls off his high concept with aplomb.

Kotzwinkle applies his sharp eye and his keen wit to the publishing industry, which is centered around the search for the next big seller, regardless of its literary merit, or the species of its author. People see what they want to see, and with eyes blinded by dollar signs, their vision is often poor at best. With courtroom drama and even a visit to the White House, the story moves briskly along, and offers a great blend of humor and thoughtfulness.

Check the WRL catalog for The Bear Went Over the Mountain

 


The Bear Went Over the Mountain, by William Kotzwinkle

Blogging for a Good Book - Mon, 2014-06-02 01:01

As summer approaches, lots of folks are looking for something fun to read while vacationing on the beach or at the lake or just sitting on the back porch. There will be lots of big novels coming out and being heavily promoted this summer, as always, but rather than following the crowd, why not set your own trends and read some great midlist or older titles. You won’t have to worry about getting on the holds list for these books, and who knows, you might create some new demand for these worthy authors. This week’s posts will look at some great fiction that deserves re-discovery.

For those readers who enjoy a healthy amount of satirical humor, The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle is a good choice. Kotzwinkle’s book is a biting send up of the pretensions of the literary world. The Bear Went Over the Mountain contains scenes that will have you laughing out loud, but at the same time they will make you pause and think. Kotzwinkle, like any great satirist, uses his humor to question the values and beliefs of contemporary society.

This story deftly mixes fantasy and reality as Kotzwinkle tells the tale of Hal, a bear who comes across a buried manuscript novel while looking for food. Not your normal bear, Hal decides to put on a suit, and take the manuscript in to town, where he proceeds to become a publishing sensation. The actual author of the novel, Professor Arthur Bramhall, is traumatized by the theft of his story, and he becomes more and more bear-like as the story progresses. OK, it sounds a bit over the top perhaps, but what is summer for if not exploring new paths in your reading? Besides, Kotzwinkle pulls off his high concept with aplomb.

Kotzwinkle applies his sharp eye and his keen wit to the publishing industry, which is centered around the search for the next big seller, regardless of its literary merit, or the species of its author. People see what they want to see, and with eyes blinded by dollar signs, their vision is often poor at best. With courtroom drama and even a visit to the White House, the story moves briskly along, and offers a great blend of humor and thoughtfulness.

Check the WRL catalog for The Bear Went Over the Mountain

 


Rat Queens Vol 1: Sass and Sorcery, by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

Blogging for a Good Book - Fri, 2014-05-30 01:01

If you liked Lord of the Rings, but wished there were more sassy, kick-butt female fighters, snag this book and dive in. This first book collects #1-5 in a series that has refreshingly strong, unrepentant, female characters that are taken straight from fantasy convention but with some definite twists.

Palisade is protected by several mercenary groups in addition to their local guard units. One of these groups, called The Rat Queens, is comprised of four females: Hannah, an Elven Mage, Violet, a Dwarven fighter, Betty, a Smidgen Thief, and Dee, a Human who can cast healing spells. They are a mix of races, sizes, and personalities that are distinct and not two dimensional. They love fighting, drinking, rabble rousing, and money, all in equal measure. They have a strong sense of who they are and they make no apologies.

This is no origin story, so we join the group right before they are sent off on a quest to help clean out a goblin threat just outside the village. You immediately feel like you know these women and have been following their story forever. Their banter throughout the book is amusing and familiar to anyone who has those couple close friends who they can say anything around. These women are not in competition with each other, and any little friendly squabbles are quickly dropped as they team up to face whatever threat comes their way. They’re not perfect, and they do get hurt, but the fight scenes are fast paced and not overly dramatic.

This first volume was published in March 2014, and I eagerly await whatever comes next for these women. One thing I know for sure, it will be a party!

Recommended for readers who like strong female characters, fantasy, and a lot of fun.

Search the catalog for Rat Queens.


Rat Queens Vol 1: Sass and Sorcery, by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

Blogging for a Good Book - Fri, 2014-05-30 01:01

If you liked Lord of the Rings, but wished there were more sassy, kick-butt female fighters, snag this book and dive in. This first book collects #1-5 in a series that has refreshingly strong, unrepentant, female characters that are taken straight from fantasy convention but with some definite twists.

Palisade is protected by several mercenary groups in addition to their local guard units. One of these groups, called The Rat Queens, is comprised of four females: Hannah, an Elven Mage, Violet, a Dwarven fighter, Betty, a Smidgen Thief, and Dee, a Human who can cast healing spells. They are a mix of races, sizes, and personalities that are distinct and not two dimensional. They love fighting, drinking, rabble rousing, and money, all in equal measure. They have a strong sense of who they are and they make no apologies.

This is no origin story, so we join the group right before they are sent off on a quest to help clean out a goblin threat just outside the village. You immediately feel like you know these women and have been following their story forever. Their banter throughout the book is amusing and familiar to anyone who has those couple close friends who they can say anything around. These women are not in competition with each other, and any little friendly squabbles are quickly dropped as they team up to face whatever threat comes their way. They’re not perfect, and they do get hurt, but the fight scenes are fast paced and not overly dramatic.

This first volume was published in March 2014, and I eagerly await whatever comes next for these women. One thing I know for sure, it will be a party!

Recommended for readers who like strong female characters, fantasy, and a lot of fun.

Search the catalog for Rat Queens.