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A suggestion a day from the Williamsburg Regional Library
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A Fete Worse than Death, by Dolores Gordon-Smith

Fri, 2014-06-27 01:01

Another post-WWI mystery series! This is the first entry featuring Jack Haldean, late of the Royal Flying Corps and a successful writer of mysteries. It’s pretty lighthearted compared to, say, Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge mysteries or even Elizabeth Speller’s Lawrence Bartram series; in fact it’s almost a cozy and certainly of the English “country-house” style, in which there is a relatively small domestic circle of suspects. They all do share the need for the hero to look back to the darker days of WWI in order to solve a crime, however.

In terms of optimistic tone and relatively angst-free protagonist outlook, this is more like Charles Finch’s Charles Lenox series. Jack Haldean has the war injury but also quite a sunny outlook on life—he’s glad the war is over and is basking in the normalcy and relative peace of a 1922 Sussex country village fete on a glorious summer day. His mood is jarred somewhat when he bumps into an inebriated and much disliked former military comrade, who is writing a book about his war service, in particular a specific incident during the Battle of the Somme which destroyed careers and created heroes. He vaguely intimates to Haldean that the event was not what it seemed—and soon after is shot dead in one of the fete tents in something of a “locked-room” conundrum.

Suspects abound as it turns out that the dead man was possibly a blackmailer. Even Jack’s family members with whom he is staying in the country are not completely immune from suspicion. It becomes apparent to Jack, however, that something in the victim’s WWI service is the key, and he uses his military connections to get the bottom of it.

Jack enjoys an amicable relationship with the police; the very competent Superintendent Ashley welcomes his amateur assistance gladly, especially as it pertains to the military angle. It’s a bit refreshing to be spared the friction among bumbling police and smarty-pants amateurs which is frequently encountered in mystery stories.

Gordon-Smith is effective at conveying the atmosphere of rural post-war England and class and social conventions of the period. This book has something of the feel of Golden Age mysteries written by Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham; the reader can almost be convinced that the mystery was written during the 1920s rather than just taking place in them!

I enjoyed this atmospheric and lighthearted “manor house” mystery, and I’m looking forward to savoring the next entries in the series (7 more at this writing).

Check the WRL catalog for the book or the ebook!


The Blonde, by Anna Godbersen

Thu, 2014-06-26 01:01

I have been a fan of Anna Godbersen’s books since she first published. Her descriptions of life in New York were amazing, and she is a graduate of Barnard College, as am I, which made me enjoy her work more than ever. When my husband brought me her latest book, I was looking for more about life in New York City more than a century ago. Boy was I wrong! The Blonde is something else entirely. This is a story set in time I remember well.

We meet a struggling Marilyn Monroe, who was a constant figure in the news and pretty much a part of the lives of movie goers and news features. She was a beautiful woman, an unhappy woman with multiple marriages and a drug problem, and someone who was a lost soul. The book shares that, but it also shares something else. In general, we also knew that Senator and later President John F. Kennedy was something of a philanderer. But this book ties Marilyn Monroe not only to his philandering, but also to the assassination of Kennedy. I had seen television shows that included Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK, but I was probably too young to connect all the dots.

Almost everyone of school age and older remembers where they were when the news of the JFK assassination spread. People were glued to the television, watching the swearing in of President Johnson, seeing Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. The funeral was on all televisions. What followed were investigations which somehow never seemed to completely explain what really happened.

Anna Godbersen has created her own theory. Not only is it plausible, but it is told beautifully. Sometimes the real story is, in fact, stranger than fiction. If for no other reason, read The Blonde just to enjoy a mesmerizing story that will leave you wondering.

Check the WRL catalog for The Blonde


A Skeleton in the Family, by Leigh Perry

Wed, 2014-06-25 01:01

An unmarried woman with a teenage daughter lands a job at the local community college and moves back into her childhood home. Her parents are on an extended sabbatical, so the woman, Georgia Thackery, and daughter Madison are alone in the house… except for Sid the skeleton. Sid is an actual skeleton who just happens to be alive. He walks, talks and has a fondness for corny jokes and bone-related expletives such as, “Oh, coccyx.” This is the unusual premise of Leigh Perry’s new cozy mystery novel, the first in a proposed series.

Sid has been Georgia’s friend for about 30 years, ever since he followed her home from a carnival where he’d been a featured attraction in the haunted house ride. Her miraculously tolerant family let Sid stay and kept him a secret from the outside world for all that time. Madison knows nothing about Sid, and he wants to keep it that way for reasons that he won’t explain. Things go along swimmingly for the weird trio until Sid spots a familiar face that he can’t quite identify at a Manga convention. Yes, the skeleton does go outside, either in disguise or disarticulated in a suitcase. The sighting spurs Georgia and Sid to investigate his life as a human and they soon discover that he was murdered and that the killer is still alive and willing to kill again.

OK, the premise is so dopey it shouldn’t work, but it actually does. Sid and Georgia are both likeable, and the mystery is decently plotted with a plausible series of clues leading to the denouement. There are even a few smartly placed red herrings to keep you guessing along the way. No explanation is given for how this living skeleton came to be but, so what, just go with it and enjoy the ride. The humor is gentle with no offensive language, sex, or gore, so it’s a mystery that can be enjoyed by all ages. I particularly liked the pet dog who keeps trying to make a snack out of Sid’s leg bone. The book would be a nice choice for a Halloween film on the Hallmark Channel.

I call novels of this kind “airplane books” because they are good for long flights. They don’t require a lot of concentration, but the stories are diverting enough to distract you from the screaming toddler four rows back. The author, Leigh Perry (a pseudonym for Toni L.P. Kelner, an award-winning mystery author), has written a lightweight but engaging yarn and I look forward to the next book in the series.

Check the WRL catalog for A Skeleton in the Family.


Room 1219: the Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood, by Greg Merritt

Tue, 2014-06-24 01:01

On Labor Day in the year 1921, at a bootleg booze-infused party in San Francisco, movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle followed a woman named Virginia Rappe into the bedroom of room 1219 at the St. Francis Hotel and locked the door behind them. Four days later Rappe died in agony, Arbuckle was arrested and charged with manslaughter and the motion picture industry was engulfed in a major scandal. In the nonfiction book Room 1219, author Greg Merritt delves into this tawdry tale and tries to determine exactly what took place behind that locked door.

Rappe died of peritonitis caused by a rupture in the bladder, but what caused the rupture? Some of the party-goers blamed Arbuckle, but he repeatedly asserted that he had done nothing wrong. The prosecution was hampered by a lack of hard evidence and the witnesses were shady to say the least, so it took three fractious trials, two of which resulted in hung juries, before a verdict was reached.

The jury had spoken but the press and public had already made their determination. The tabloid nature of the crime led to overwhelming and appallingly sleazy publicity. All involved were irrevocably slandered. The movie industry was threatened with boycotts and censorship laws. To salvage their business, the studios tried to appease the public by hiring a censorship czar named Will Hays whose job it was to ensure the “moral purity” of Hollywood films. To show they meant business, Arbuckle was sacrificed. His films were pulled from theaters and he was forbidden to work on screen ever again. He spent the final years of his short life trying to regain his lost stardom.

This is an interesting bit of Hollywood history, and author Greg Merritt has done a nice job in bringing it to life in a book that is abundantly researched and decidedly fair and unbiased to everyone involved in the case. Beyond the incident itself and its aftermath, he also gives us detailed bios of Arbuckle, Virginia Rappe and many of the other players in the saga, along with some interesting sidelights on the history of the film industry. As to what really happened in room 1219, Merritt speculates and it sounds plausible, but there are only two people who know for sure and they are long gone. I’d recommend this for people interested in the history of cinema or true crime.

Check the WRL catalog for Room 1219


Plenty (1985)

Mon, 2014-06-23 01:01

To be fair, I was not a major fan of Meryl Streep. I know there were many who would disagree with me, but it wasn’t until Out of Africa that I was hooked. And I’ll admit that my original attraction to that movie was Robert Redford. But as I grew up, I really learned to appreciate her talent and flexibility, and I became a fan. I came across Plenty and decided to watch, and I am glad I did. She did an amazing acting job in this film.

The movie starts when she, as a young girl, is part of the Resistance in World War II. After the war, she becomes enmeshed in English politics and the good life, but something is missing. Her attempts to have a child out of wedlock fail. Her relationships with men are not easy. Ultimately she marries well, but is still dissatisfied. In some ways she is a victim of her time. During the war, women assumed new roles, but after the war they were expected to revert to pre-war roles. It was not a happy transition for many. Her attempts slowly lead her into behaviors that are not yet acceptable in society. This leads into a stronger descent to mental illness, or at least what the prim and proper consider mental illness.

This is not a happy movie and does not have a happy ending. However, I think it is a realistic view that portrays how many women felt in the times. The whole cast is amazing; every character does a superb job of acting. Plenty, in many ways, shows the real beginning of the women’s movement and foreshadows the future when women will take control of their lives. It is a bit of history we generally ignore, but our lives today were certainly changed by the characters in this film.

Check the WRL catalog for Plenty

 

 


One Bloody Thing After Another, by Joey Comeau

Fri, 2014-06-20 01:01

Today’s post is written by Gemma.

Horror. It’s bloody and unpleasant, the reader’s absolute revulsion at what they’re witnessing brings horror into its most satisfying perception. However, what Joey Comeau does so well, and what he does best in his novella, One Bloody Thing After Another, is that he brings the terror of horror around on its head. Sure, there’s plenty of blood and sure, there’s even a monster to terrify us between the pages, but it’s not those fears that cause sickly dread in this book. Comeau has the uncanny ability to cause our hearts to scream from within and our heads to spin all around, and only by revealing the terrifying things found within ourselves.

Comeau twists his tale around the individual lives of three people, each dealing with their own monsters — both real and imagined (or maybe they’re really the same) — and intertwining them until they can’t escape. Jackie is still grieving over the death of her mother long before, while simultaneously managing to navigate her teenage years; Ann is experiencing difficulties at home and is trying her best to ensure her world doesn’t all fall apart around her; and Charlie and his dumb dog Mitchie just want to live in peace.

Even with Comeau’s knack for horror, the author manages to maintain a note of hope. Despite everything terrifying that befalls everyone, there’s inevitably the feeling that everything will be all right in the end.

Check the WRL catalog for One Bloody Thing After Another


Auraria: A Novel, by Tim Westover

Thu, 2014-06-19 01:01

Today’s review is by Meghan.

Tim Westover’s Auraria begins with James Holtzclaw, employee of H.E. Shadburn and the Standard Company, travelling out of his familiar urban world and into the mountains of Georgia. His case is stocked with gold, pen and ink, and his notary stamp — this journey is business. The Standard Company deals in land deeds and development. Shadburn’s newest venture: buying up the land in the forgotten gold rush town of Auraria.

There was a real Auraria. It’s now a ghost town near Dahlonega, GA. It was settled in the 1830s and abandoned when the gold ran out. You’re almost tricked (for half a page) into thinking Westover’s book is historical fiction. It’s not.

As he works his way through his list of properties, Holtzclaw struggles to understand what he’s got himself into. The town is full of people who’ve stayed behind, though its heyday is long gone. Those who pan for gold in the mountain streams only find a few flakes, if any. The proprietors of the local hotels seem resigned to slow, local business. But Holtzclaw knows his stuff when it comes to buying land from poor folks. What he doesn’t expect is the strange girl who calls herself a princess. He doesn’t expect glimpses of otherworldly beings in the forest. He doesn’t expect the piano that plays itself, or the impossible house, or the talking turtle, or Mother Fresh Roasted and her chickens.

And yet, Holtzclaw is determined. Thanks to his efforts, the Company is successful — more or less. With some hasty construction and advertisements in the papers, the ghost town is transformed into a Tourist Attraction. Holtzclaw, however, is still ill at ease. The town’s new dam isn’t holding water, and neither are Shadburn’s excuses for his odd behavior and business decisions. As for the Aurarians, are they with him, or against him? What’s the future of their town if the Standard Company’s plans fail? What’s Holtzclaw’s future?

And what is he going to tell the tourists to explain away the next magical rain of fruit?

Westover doesn’t explain the magic. As I read, I felt Auraria was all the more real because of it. Like any small town in the mountains, it’s secluded, it’s old, and everybody takes its oddities for granted. There’s no logic to Princess Tralyhta or Mr. Bad Thing. That’s how it is, in this town.

If you like fast-paced adventure and clear-cut answers, you probably won’t make it past the first page. But if you’re looking for a slow, sweet, surreal fantasy that will put you in mind of small towns and mountains, this is a book you’ll want to take a look at and read.

Check the WRL catalog for Auraria


The Shift Omnibus, by Hugh Howey

Wed, 2014-06-18 01:01

Today’s post is written by Tabor.

Shift, written by Hugh Howey, is the prequel to the dystopian novel Wool and recounts the events that created the Silos or the housing that mankind inhabits after a nuclear fallout. It follows the alternating narratives of Donald, a congressman in the 2050s and Troy, a worker from Silo 1 in the 2110s. Donald Keene is a young congressman who has been tasked to design a “just in case” building by Senator Thurman because of his degree in architecture. Along with this proposition, Donald’s past is dredged up when his ex-girlfriend from college is also assigned to the project. During the course of his chapters, Donald struggles with his marriage, his old flame, and the mysterious nature of the project he has been assigned. In the future, Troy, who works in the same building that Donald designed, is attempting to find out the purpose of the Silos while avoiding authoritative superiors. This is the foundation for the story that unravels until it reaches the time frame of Wool and imparts the notion that mankind should not attempt to prolong their mortality.

Along for the journey is another new character named Mission Jones, whose narrative burdens the reader with an idea of the deception that takes place in the Silos. Other characters that the reader knows also appear, such as Jimmy “Solo” Parker, whose origins are explored, and Juliette, who makes a brief but important appearance in the tale.

Even though this story takes place in a world which is alien to our own, it remains accessible through the characters that inhabit it. Along with creating an original world, Howey is also able to construct the challenges and complexities that come along in this world with a flare of empathy. He is able to create characters that are relatable, undeterred by the fact that they exist centuries after us and face entirely different obstacles than our own present ones. This book is not a sterile and uninviting dystopian novel; though the book offers bleak circumstances, it is the characters who bring warmth to the story. Ultimately, the characters allow the reader to hope that the outcome will not be desolate with their desire to discover the truth and uncover the reason for the existence of the Silos.

In order for a reader to start this particular book, they only need to understand that this is a continuing story and finally that it is dystopian. The only issue with Shift, which is previously encountered with its predecessor, is the inability to give a synopsis without inevitably spoiling the plot and events of the novel. Simply, Wool created the equation whereas Shift exposes the “why” factor of the equation, but what these characters do with this information has yet to be answered. It is a masterfully done book that peels away at the surface slowly until the very end of the story. Even then, the core element of the story is not revealed and encourages the reader to continue the journey along with the characters.

Check the WRL catalog for Shift


My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff

Tue, 2014-06-17 01:01

Today’s review is from Mandy.

Author Joanna Rakoff recounts the year she spent working as the assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent in her new memoir, My Salinger Year.

Rakoff’s memoir opens in late 1995, when she decides that she’d rather write her own poetry and not “analyze other people’s poetry.” After making that fateful decision, she leaves her college boyfriend and drops out of her graduate program in London, England, and returns to New York, where she moves in with an aspiring writer named Don. A chance encounter with a friend of a friend at a Christmas party leads to a referral to a local placement agency. Rakoff visits the agency and soon lands an entry-level job as the assistant to a well-established and well-respected literary agent.

She is unfamiliar with the Agency, as she refers to it throughout the book, but she’s quickly enchanted by the peculiar and archaic office atmosphere. At a time when computers, email, and the World Wide Web were becoming ubiquitous, the Agency still relied on Selectric typewriters and Dictaphones, and kept submission records on pink index cards. Rakoff’s early assignments are unremarkable, consisting mainly of transcribing her boss’s letters to clients and publishers. Then comes the day when her boss tells her, “We need to talk about Jerry.” Jerry is a special client who fiercely guards his privacy. Joanna’s boss warns her that she will receive calls from students and reporters or producers trying to speak to Jerry or secure the film rights to his work. Joanna is admonished that no matter how persuasive the caller is, she must never give out Jerry’s address or phone number. At first, Joanna thinks that “Jerry” is the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, but on her way out of her boss’s office she spots a bookshelf containing The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and Nine Stories and realizes that her boss represents the reclusive author J.D. Salinger.

Although Joanna was familiar with Salinger’s work, she had never actually read any of his books. Over the course of her year at the Agency, she not only falls in love with Salinger’s work, she also becomes fascinated by the letters Salinger receives from fans around the world, including a teenage boy from Winston-Salem, N.C., whose letters mimic the narrative voice of Holden Caulfield; a World War II veteran from Nebraska; and a girl whose teacher tells her she’ll raise her failing grade if she writes to J.D. Salinger and receives a response from him.

In addition to handling Salinger’s correspondence, and the occasional phone call from Salinger to her boss, Joanna also becomes involved in a curious chapter of Salinger’s publishing history. In 1996, much to the surprise of his agent, Salinger agreed to let Roger Lathbury, a professor and owner of a small publishing house called Orchises Press, publish his short story Hapworth 16, 1924 as a stand-alone book. Salinger developed an instant rapport with Lathbury, and publication of Hapworth was scheduled for January 1997; however, the deal fell apart as quickly as it came together.

Rakoff’s narrative deftly balances descriptions of the Agency and the publishing world of the late ‘90s with her own experiences as a young adult adjusting to life after college and her first real job. Her longtime friends are getting married and moving out of the city; she’s dealing with the fallout of leaving a secure relationship for one that’s a bit more tumultuous; and she’s also learning about the limits of an entry-level salary once you factor in student loan repayment and credit card bills.

Fast-paced and often poignant, My Salinger Year is an engaging look at first jobs, the publishing industry, and the powerful lure of literature.

Check the WRL catalog for My Salinger Year


The Natural, by Bernard Malamud

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)

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

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

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

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

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)

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)

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

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

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

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