Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Crescent Dawn

Who needs James Bond? No one since Clive Cussler has written another Dirk Pitt novel. Crescent Dawn is the latest in a series about the suave and highly skilled Dirk Pitt. Pitt now the head of NUMA ( the National Underwater and Marine Agency) and is on board a trademark turquoise colored ship diving near the coast of Turkey. Along with his pals Rudi Gunn and Al Giordino he discovers another ancient wreck.

Cue the bad guys. This time they take the form of terrorists who are descended from the last of the Ottoman rulers. They are bent on destroying ancient Muslim, Jewish and Christian artifacts and archaeological sites in hope of spreading more unrest in the region. Aided by his kids Dirk and Summer, Pitt manages to foil the bad guys once again.

There are beautiful women, high tech gadgets, chase scenes, a little romance and bad guys who are real bad guys and bad guys who aren't such bad guys. The book is written in very short chapters to keep the story moving along, and move along it does. This book will keep you entertained.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Eighteen Acres

Eighteen Acres is the story of a female American president and her trials in office both personal and professional. The story line is told from 3 different perspectives - all female. Charlotte Kramer is the president of the United States. She is nearing the end of her first term and she is tired. Tired of the political life, tired of her job, and in a tried marriage. She doesn't know if she wants to run again. She makes a decision to secretly go to Afghanistan. And the trip goes horribly awry. Insurgents succeed in blowing up Marine 1, the president's helicopter. She was not on board having been forced off by one of her senior advisers. Once back in the United States Charlotte must face a reelection campaign, the resignation of her vice president and her husband's affair with a White House correspondent.

That brings us to the second narrator. Dale Smith. She has clawed her way up to network anchor for a major news network. Part of her success comes from her affair with the President's husband. Her career comes to a crashing halt after Afghanistan. The third woman in the mix is Melanie Kingston, White House Chief of Staff. She has been in the position through 3 administrations and she too is tired. She needs a life outside the White House even though she is great friends with the President. Melanie takes up with a younger reporter who is new to the White House beat.

I thought this book would be better. The author, Nicolle Wallace is a political commentator and she was a White House communications director for George W. Bush. She has lots of insider political knowledge. It is an interesting exercise trying to figure out who some of the characters are. Could the new vice presidential candidate really be Sarah Palin in disguise? What about the cheating husband? The eighteen acres referred to in the title is the amount of space the White House compound takes up. But basically this is a chick lit sort of book. The women are all beautiful, highly competent, well educated and all survive in the end. There are some highly improbable scenes in the book - like how did the insurgents get on a US military base to shoot a grenade at the president's helicopter? The book moves along and Melanie is a great character, but if you think you are going to read some inside information about the White House you will be disappointed.
Enjoy the book for what it is - an easy chick lit read.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Staff Picks for 2010

Here is the list you have been waiting for! Your favorite librarians have listed their favorite fiction and non-fiction books for 2010. Read and enjoy!

Auster, Paul. Sunset Park
Bender, Aimee. The Particular Sadness of the Lemon Cake
Blake, Sarah. The Postmistress
Bradley, C. Alan. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag
Chevalier, Tracy. Remarkable Creatures
Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. One Amazing Thing
Donoghue, Emma. Room
Durrow, Heidi. The Girl who fell from the sky
Glass, Julia. The Widower’s Tale
King, Lily. Father of the Rain
Kostova, Elizabeth. Swan Thieves
LeCarre, John. Our kind of traitor
Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall
McCann, Colum. Let the Great World Spin
Norman, Howard. What is left the Daughter
Nothomb, Amelie. Hygiene and the Assassin
Ogawa, Yoko. The Housekeeper and the Professor
Rachman, Tom. The Imperfectionists
Pintoff, Stephanie. A Curtain Falls
Simonsen, Helen. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
Smith, Alexander McCall. The Charming Quirks of Others
Steinbeck, Thomas. In the Shadow of the Cypress
Turow, Scott. Innocent
Verghese, Abraham. Cutting for stone
Zambra, Alejandro. Bonsai

DeWaal, Edmund. Hare with Amber Eyes; A family’s century of art and loss.
736.88 DEW
Doggett, Peter. You never give me your money 782.42166 DOG
Gunn, Deana. Cooking with all things Trader Joe’s. 641.5 GUN
Kundera, Milan. Encounter 809.04 KUN
MacIntyre, Ben. Operation Mincemeat 940.5486 MAC
Myron, Vicki. Dewey: The small town library cat who touched the world.
636.8 MYR
Oliver, Mary. Swan: Poems and Prose Poems. 811.54 Oliver
Philbrick, Nathaniel. The Last Stand 973.82 PHI
Richards, Keith. Life Biography
Scottoline, Lisa. Why my third husband will be a dog 814.54 SCO
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Biography
Zinczenko, David. Eat this, Not that! 613.2 ZIN
------ Cook this, not that! Kitchen Survival Guide. 641.5635 ZIN

Friday, December 10, 2010

I Still Dream About You, by Fannie Flagg

Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, has given us yet another delightful read. The main character of I Still Dream About You is Maggie Fortenberry, a former Miss Alabama. Hired by the founder of Red Mountain Realty after a failed modeling career, Maggie has spent her career in real estate. Charming, beautiful, and caring, Maggie is opposite in nature to her best friend and colleague, Brenda. The ever-dieting member of Over-Eaters Anonymous, Brenda is outgoing and sure of herself. She is a delightful foil to the insecure and selfless Maggie.

Both Brenda and Maggie are grieving the loss of the owner of Red Mountain Realty--Hazel Whisenknott. Although now deceased, Hazel's spirit lives in the hearts of all who knew her. She was a "little person," a spit-fire at 3 feet 4 inches. Everyone loved her, and all her friends sincerely mourn her loss. Maggie, especially, is affected. Now 60, she is single and without family. She feels she has never lived up to her potential as Miss Alabama. The love of her life--a married man--remains her secret shame.

Despondent, Maggie plots her demise by drowning. But in an attempt to make her suicide easier for others, she constantly gets side-tracked. The biggest diversion occurs when she and Brenda discover a skeleton in the closet of a home newly on the market. Indeed, this skeleton, a former owner of the estate now for sale, has quite a history. Brenda and Maggie have discovered a skeleton in both a real and figurative sense!

I Still Dream About You is a funny, upbeat book that uses quirky characters and a dash of mystery to substantiate its theme: life may, at times, disappoint, but it never fails to surprise and amaze.

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Distant Hours

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton will take readers back to a family during the upheaval of World War II in Great Britain. The Raymond Blythe family lives in Milderhurst castle and has done so for generations. Raymond, a writer and survivor of World War I lives there with his three daughters, Percy and Saffy, who are twins and Juniper. The sisters live in the castle their entire lives because their father believes that family and creativity are the most important things in life.

Raymond was a strange man. Mentally damaged in World War I no one thought he would recover until he started writing again. His story about the Mud Man turned his life around and set the stage for his daughters disturbed lives. The mud man was a creature who lived in a moat surrounding a castle. His daughters saw life differently than Raymond did. When they were young the twins were completely consumed by their father - their mother was suffering from postpartum depression. The marriage and the family deteriorated ending with the mother burning to death and her lover having a similar fate.

The daughters are brought up to love the castle as if it were a living thing. Having the family continue to live at Milderhurst becomes all important to Percy. She takes her father's beliefs to heart and insists her sisters do likewise. She carries her mission to extremes that have her interfering in her sisters lives.

The story line is told in 2 parts. Events that happened during World War II when a child from London (Meredith) comes to stay with them during the early days of the war. The second story line involves Meredith's daughter Edith. Edith discovers on old copy of the Mud Man and becomes interested in the author and his castle, Milderhurst. When she realizes that her mother had lived there during the war, she wants even more information. Her chance arrives when she is asked to write the introduction to the anniversary edition of the Mud Man.

The story lines come together with a resounding clash. The sister's past combined with current events prove too much for the Blythe sisters and their lives once again are changed forever. This book is well written. The characters are interesting (especially Percy) and the plot lines move along even as they weave back and forth through time.

The book should be read in long stretches to get the full flavor of the story. Curl up by the fire and give this book a read.

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Friday Night Lights

Our excellent film collection contains many fine television series in addition to feature films, documentaries, foreign films, and informational DVDs. One of the new series we have purchased is Friday Night Lights. Based on the 1990 nonfiction book by H. G. Bissinger, entitled Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, the series chronicles the life of Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), his wife, Tammy (Connie Britton), their family, and assorted members of the team and the town.

Although there was a 2004 film based on the book, it lacks the in-depth portrayal of the people Bissinger describes. Peter Berg, Bissinger's cousin and the film's director, said that "he regretted having to jettison many of the interpersonal topics covered in the book because of the time constraints of a feature film. Creating a TV series, particularly one based on fictional characters, allowed many of those elements to be brought back and addressed (fully)." (NPR Interview, April 11, 2007, as cited in Wikipedia.

Indeed, what is most engrossing about this series is the level at which the characters and their lives are explored. The angst of adolescence is sympathetically portrayed, as are issues such as racism, teen pregnancy, sex, alcoholism, and troubled families. It is not melodramatic, but instead, conveys these problems realistically.

Although the series revolves around the fanatic devotion of the town of Dillon for their high school teams, one does not have to be a football fan to enjoy this program. This reviewer has never watched a game of football in her life, and, prior to watching this show, did not know the difference between a quarterback and a running back. The series is less about the game than about the role football plays in the lives of everyone in the town.

To quote Wikipedia, "(Friday Night Lights) was awarded a Peabody Award, a Humanitas Prize, and a Television Critics Association Award, as well as several technical Primetime Emmy Awards. At the 2010 Emmy Awards, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton were nominated for the Outstanding Lead Actor and Actress awards for a drama series." If you are looking for a series with fine acting, a good storyline, and terrific filming, check this one out.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

CoverThe Finkler Question, this year's winner of the Man Booker Prize, is an unusual book in that it uses fiction to tackle the large questions of Israel, Jewish identity, and anti-Semitism.

The novel's main character is Julian Treslove, a melancholy fellow with a string of unsuccessful relationships behind him. His idea of love is based on opera. Treslove is a lost soul whose experience with a mugger is transformed into a spiritual awakening: he now believes he is Jewish.

There are two other principle characters: Sam Finkler, an arrogant philosopher and author of The Socratic Flirt: How to Reason Your Way into a Better Sex Life, and Libor Sevcik, a Czech Jew, Zionist, and former teacher of Finkler and Treslove. The debates between Sam and Libor are spirited and represent polar opposites of the "Jewish (Finkler) question"--namely, the moral responsibilities of the Jews in the modern world.

Although they do not agree politically, Sam and Libor are united in grief: each has lost his wife to death. Sam's feelings toward his converted and practicing Jewish wife are complicated; Libor's love and loss is total and without reservations.

Another main character is Hephzibah, Libor's great-niece and Treslove's current love interest. She is a stereotype of the zaftig, maternal, emotional, and erotic Jewish woman. She tries to fill the emotional vacuum that Treslove inhabits, and is probably the most likable character in the book.

Finker's Question is a satire--a tongue-in-cheek polemic on how Jews see themselves in the world at large. Jacobson tackles other questions aside from the political/social ones. He portrays the many sides of friendship deftly. He also depicts the loneliness of aging and the depth of grieving a long-time marriage. The characters, although serving the author's purpose, are complex and flawed.

If you enjoy the books of Philip Roth, you may also like this novel.

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Monday, November 22, 2010

The Wolves of Andover

Kathleen Kent has written a new book that is the prequel to her novel The Heretic's Daughter. The Wolves of Andover takes place in the American colonies just after the British Civil war - around the mid 1600's. The wolves referred to in the title are not just of the animal variety.

Martha Allen, a strong willed woman bordering on spinsterhood is sent to live with her cousin, Patience, working as her housekeeper. While at Daniel's and Patience's farm Martha falls in love with one of their workmen a man named Thomas Carrier.

Rumor has it that Thomas Carrier is really Thomas Morgan - the man who murdered Charles I at the urging of Cromwell. Carrier is the largest man Martha has ever seen. He works with a quiet solidarity that has her intrigued. When he rescues her from a wolf attack and then kills the wolves, she is well and truly smitten.

The villagers are whispering about bounty hunters coming from England to catch the last of the regicide outlaws. But is Thomas really a murderer and an outlaw? Is Daniel protecting him or will he throw Thomas to the other wolves - the bounty hunters?

Well written, the book is more than just historical fiction. It is part love story and part suspense novel as well. The story moves along at a good pace and ends with Martha's note to her daughter Sarah, the title character in the Heretic's Daughter. Old world corruption meets new world ideals in this novel. Readers should realize that you do not have to read the books in chronological order, both stories stand alone just fine.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom, the long-awaited book by Jonathan Franzen, has met great critical acclaim. It is, at once, a portrait of an unhappy and dysfunctional family, as well as a commentary of our times.

Patty and Walter Berglund married young, moved into an (as-yet) "unyuppyish" neighborhood in St. Paul, and proceeded to have a family. Patty was an all-star athlete, whose career was benched by a knee injury. Her family, upper-class and artistic, was critical of her athletic interests. Her mother never attended any of her basketball games, and was emotionally remote and disapproving. Patty, in turn, becomes a competitive and needy parent and mother, showering her son, Joey, with the love she does not feel for her husband. Meanwhile, Jessica, her bright and responsible daughter, is ignored.

By contrast, Walter is the son of an alcoholic father and a frail, dependent mother. All the dreams of the mother are centered on her bright son. Walter, a nice guy who initially works for an environmental organization, is full of repressed anger. In college, he becomes a close friend and competitor to the musically gifted, rebellious, and misogynistic Richard. Richard feels like a brother to the straight-laced Walter. He even refuses a relationship with Patty to protect his friend from hurt.

Physically attracted to Richard, Patty marries Walter only because it is practical. By contrast, Walter is very much in love with her. Bring forth two children, the boy completely spoiled and the girl overlooked, give the marriage 15 years, and the stage is set for unhappiness, adultery, and strife.

Freedom is a difficult book to read. References to Tolstoy's War and Peace are made repeatedly. As Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times writes: "...there is some sort of parallel between the Walter-Richard-Patty triangle and the Pierre-Andrei-Natasha triangle in Tolstoy's great classic...(Franzen) does an agile job of tracing the constantly evolving relationships among his three main characters, as well (as) the dynamics between Walter and Patty, and their two children, Joey and Jessica." (August 15, 2010)

Jonathan Franzen tackles equally huge themes in this book. The unrest in this family reflects the lack of values in contemporary society. "Mr. Franzen shows us how his characters strive to navigate a world of technological gadgetry and ever-shifting mores, how they struggle to balance the equation between their expectations of life and dull reality, their political ideals and mercenary urges." (Michiko Kakutani, New York Times Book Review, August 15, 2010)

Freedom is a difficult book. The characters are unlikable, and it is difficult to sympathize with them. This was Franzen's intention. Thus the reader remains an observer, seeing the characters as a reflection of the society around them.

Jonathan Franzen has been compared to David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and other post-modernists. He has also been praised by Oprah and recently been on the cover of Time (August 12, 2010). Freedom has been extolled by some critics as one of the great American novels. If for no more than the above claims, this book should be on your reading list. Love it or hate it, it is a great book club book, and promises a lively discussion.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Elizabeth's Women

I love Elizabeth I. She was a woman who ruled one of the largest kingdoms on earth during her day. And she did it alone. No husband, no prince consort. What she did have was a contingent of women who surrounded her: some as maids, some as confidantes, some who wanted her dead. Some of them were with her from almost birth. Others were women who were with her mother.

Most biographies of Elizabeth concentrate on the political aspects of her life and reign. How can they not? Daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth grew up under circumstances that should have led to her death not her ascension to the throne of England. Elizabeth's Women by Tracy Borman takes a different approach to the life of Elizabeth by concentrating on her personal relationships with women.

The book is not a stuffy history. In fact it reads like fiction. The chapters are divided into groups of women starting with her mother, Anne Boleyn. There are some overlaps between the chapters but then several women remained with her throughout her life and moved between groups as Elizabeth's life progressed. What is interesting about the story line is that there is almost no political discussion about her reign at all. And I thought that was the best part of the book.

This is a well written, information biography about a fascinating historical figure and those who help shaped who she became. I highly recommend this book.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Nathaniel Philbrick's The Last Stand

George Armstrong Custer is one of those Americans whose name has become legend, and as a big fan of Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower I was eager to see the author take on Custer's myth in The Last Stand.  The Last Stand tells the story of Custer, Sitting Bull and Little Bighorn, and I found it to be a refreshing take on what would prove to be the last great battle of the American frontier.

Custer's behavior on the battlefield could be rash and impulsive and he had been court-martialed in the past, but thanks to what he called "Custer Luck" he had won some impressive victories and gained a reputation as a premier Indian fighter.  Despite this reputation, on a previous campaign he had chosen to negotiate with Indians rather than fight.  Sitting Bull also had no real desire to fight, instead preferring for his people to be left alone.  But on a campaign to gain access for gold miners to the Black Hills, Custer was given a blank check on how to approach any Indians that he came across, and he chose the bloody path.

The massacre of Custer's troops was by no means inevitable.  The "last stand" term that is often used to describe this event feels inappropriate, in that it was actually a botched offensive maneuver.  So what happened at Little Bighorn that caused Custer's troops to be massacred, with only one four-legged survivor hobbling out? There were more Indians that they had expected, due to a confluence of events.  Soldiers were unprepared for this type of battle, and many of them could barely control a horse.  Custer divided the troops when a single massive attack may have been more appropriate.  Commanders performed poorly due to panic and drunkenness.

Since there were no white survivors much of the actual Battle of the Little Bighorn is conjectured or taken from later oral histories from Native American survivors.  Much time is spent on the near-massacre that happened when Custer divided his troops and sent in another unit to attack the Indian camp from the South.  In this case, the Indians were taken by surprise, but due to fear and inexperience the troops were unable to act upon this advantage.  The panic and desperation that Philbrick captures is impressive, as nearly half of this regiment was wiped out.

While this book may not have had the expansive feel of Mayflower, one of the things that both books do really well is explore politics between Indian tribes and between the Indian and non-Indian.  Another interesting subtext in the book has to do with Custer's relationship with fellow officers.  While generally loved by his men, past conflicts meant that many of the officers felt distrust and jealousy towards Custer, who admittedly felt the same way towards them. Philbrick speculates on how the interrelationship between these men might have affected their conduct on the battlefield.  The book feels big but reads brisk, and with over 100 pages of appendices and endnotes you know that Philbrick has done his research!

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, by Nicholas Drayson

Set in modern-day Kenya, A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is a sweet novel, comparable to The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Mr. Malik, an avid birder, has been in love with a Scottish widow, Rose Mbikwa, for many years. He attends her Tuesday morning bird walks faithfully. But he does not have the courage to ask her out on a date. Finally, he decides to ask her to his country club's ball. Unfortunately, his childhood nemesis, Harry Khan, moves back. He, too, falls for Mrs. Mbikwa.

The competition to take Rose Mbikwa to the Hunt Club Ball takes the form of a bird identification contest around Kenya. Here, the reader is treated to wonderful descriptions of the surrounding wildlife. Myriad adventures ensue.

The writing in A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is a bit choppy. Still, its characters are endearing and the descriptions of small town life are quaint. If you enjoyed The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, as well as Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (Helen Simonson), you will find this book a quick and entertaining read.

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Monday, November 1, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

Set in Japan in the late 1700's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet follows the life, trials and troubles of Jacob DeZoet, a Dutch clerk. DeZoet travels to Japan as a financial clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company at the request of his fiance's father. What DeZoet believes to be a five year commitment that will provide him with financial security in actuality becomes a much longer stay.

The story line tells of DeZoet's problems with disaffected workers, thieving supervisors and a Japanese culture as far different from his Dutch upbringing as could possibly be.

Well written, the story meanders through DeZoet's trials with the company and his forbidden love for a Japanese woman. What I couldn't understand was the middle third of the book. DeZoet falls in love with a Japanese woman, a mid-wife, who is studying with the Dutch colony's doctor. Before he can take any action on his feelings she is sent to a nunnery attached to a local lord's monastery as payment for her father's debts. The nuns are all physically disfigured in some way.

At this point the book veers off into the secret world of the monastery. The nuns are there to serve the monks who "engift" them with children. The infants are removed from the mothers and apparently adopted out to families with whom the children will have a better life. When an initiate at the monastery runs away with a copy of the 13 rules for the monks, everything changes for DeZoet. Jacob winds up with a copy of the scroll and the reality of what the monks are doing becomes readily apparent. At this point, the story line veers again.

A disgraced former Dutch worker appears with a British frigate in an attempt to takeover the Dutch trading post and humiliate DeZoet. British war with Japan seems likely, but no. After firing on the Dutch settlement and the surrounding Japanese area the British ship suddenly leaves.

The last 30 pages of the book rush through approximately the last 15 years of DeZoet's life. While all the story lines are tied off, some more completely than others, I couldn't help feeling that I missed something in the book. Some parts of the book are beautifully written. You can see the mists rising on the mountains or feel the heat of the ship's hold. But the story line lurched at the end.

That said the book is worth the read. It lays out European-Japanese trade at the time and is a good study of of traditional Japanese customs and practices.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Maybe This Time

Every so often I try a new author. This time it was Jennifer Crusie, a New York Times bestselling author. I thought the book might be a "chick-lit" sort of book, but I really liked the book. A little romance, some ghosts, some larger life lessons and all in all a satisfying read.

The story starts out with Andie Miller in her ex-husband's office trying to return 10 years worth of alimony checks. The marriage broke up because Andie, the free spirit, couldn't deal with the workaholic her husband North Archer had become. Flash forward 10 years and Andi is engaged to a man who is more her style. Hence the need for closure with North.

Before he lets her go, North asks Andi for a favor. Never one to refuse him, Andi agrees to help sort out North's niece and nephew who have been recently orphaned. After going through a series of nannies, the children are in desperate need of not only watching but schooling. Andi, a former teacher seems like the ideal candidate to North. Plus she might be able to find out about the ghosts that the children claim are haunting the house. The children refuse to leave the house in southern Ohio even though it's quite creepy to everyone else.
Andi agrees to help for one month. Off to southern Ohio, Andi quickly moves and starts to investigate things. The housekeeper has been there for 60 years and maintains the house is haunted. The house was brought over from England, stone by stone. And yes, people have died in the house.

So, is the house haunted? Is Andi really encountering North in her dreams? Who are the mysterious people roaming the grounds? When North arrives, alarmed by Andi's claim that the house is haunted things take a turn for the worse. Bodies start piling up, Andi starts rethinking her engagement, the kids are getting more and more withdrawn and a seance adds more to the mix.

While this is not great literature, the characters are sympathetic. You actually like these kids and want things to turn out well for them. The story line moves at a brisk pace and is entertaining - a ghost story with a little romance thrown in. I found the book thoroughly enjoyable. A nice light read.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

New Book From a Fascinating Internet Thinker

Are you or any of your friends Grobanites? Grobanites are not space aliens, but rather fans of singer Josh Groban.  A number of Grobanites connected online, in order to run an auction that initially raised $16,000 in honor of Josh Groban, which led to the eventual creation of the Josh Groban Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation that has raised nearly a million dollars for a variety of charities.  None of these Grobanites had experience running a charity; nor did they have any goal of creating a new organization.  Instead, they had time, the means to connect (the internet) and most importantly, as far as internet guru Clay Shirky is concerned, they had passion and love for what they were trying to do.

Shirky's Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age offers many other anecdotes of people using their free time to create and share with no particular profit motive.  Contrary to what many assume, money is not the only thing motivating this type of behavior - Wikipedia, open-source software and the Grobanites are just three examples of sharing for a common good.  According to Shirky, there is a spectrum of types of sharing, from uncoordinated sharing based around common interests to sharing that helps communities or society as a whole.  There are various motivations for these types of sharing, and these motivations are explored in this book.

Clay Shirky is one of my favorite internet trendwatchers and his blog is a must-read if you're interested in the internet; in particular its effect on old media.  If you're looking for a business book that considers the psychology behind why people share, Cognitive Surplus is a good option.  It's a nice overview of participation on the internet, and it offers some tips for organizations looking to take advantage of these online social interactions.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

The Widower's Tale, by Julia Glass

CoverThe Widower's Tale, by Julia Glass, is a novel about class as well as family. Percy Darling, curmudgeon and patriarch, is a retired Harvard librarian living in a picturesque New England town. The town is surrounded by historic homes, not least of which is his own. But unlike some others, he has let his own fall to disrepair after the early and tragic death of his wife, Poppy.

The story begins as Percy recounts his barn's conversion into a preschool for "tiny perfect children, along with their preened and privileged parents." (p.1) The book proceeds from the alternating points of view of three main characters: Robert, grandson to Percy; Ira, a gay teacher at the preschool; and Celestino, a Guatamalan day laborer. Ira and Celestino are portrayed as outsiders looking in on this wealthy hamlet, both depending on the beneficence of its residents.

Sandwiched into this mix are Percy's daughters--Trudy, the successful oncologist, and Clover, the free-spirited teacher at the preschool. Like some other characters in the book, she has made youthful and impulsive choices, and now, bears the consequences.

The Widower's Tale touches social issues such as illegal immigration and conservation. Glass is never heavy-handed as she shows the inequities of the class system, shedding light on the lives of immigrant workers who tend the homes of the wealthy.

As in the Three Junes, the dark specter of illness looms over this quiet town. Having finally found passion after years as a widower, Poppy watches as his new love struggles with treatment for breast cancer. Julia Glass does not spare the reader graphic descriptions in this book any more than in her earlier novel.

The Widower's Tale, all 400 pages, is hard to put down. Glass builds a story using humor, sadness, and suspense. She is a writer with whom one identifies, for who has not made regrettable choices, and often, paid dearly for them? All of life is an act of evolving.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Murder Room by Michael Capuzzo

This book has great promise. It is billed as "The heirs of Sherlock Holmes gather to solve the world's most perplexing cases." And they do solve them with a combination of great deductive reasoning skills, some artistic talent and some good old fashioned luck.

The book chronicles the story of the Vidocq Society, a group of men and women from all over the world and from a variety of professions. There are artists, police officers, pathologists, coroners, attorneys, and judges. Eugene Francois Vidocq was a scandal in France - a career criminal who went onto start what is widely considered to be the world's first detective agency.

The VSMs (Vidocq Society members) were originally Frank Bender, an artist who had an uncanny ability for facial reconstruction and creation of death masks, William Fleisher a police detective and Richard Walter a forensic psychologist. These three men gather, in Philadelphia to start investigating "cold cases." The first case was a decades old case of the "boy in the box."

They are very successful. From 1984 until the time of the book printing (2010), they had investigated more than 300 unsolved murders, solving 90% of them. They did it by simply taking a fresh look at the information the various police agencies had pieced together during the original investigations. The book chronicles the exploits of the group from their beginnings to the current time. It is relentless in it's descriptions of murders, crime scenes and snippets of the main investigators lives.

What the book does is bring the reader into the minds and patterns of thinking of the investigators. There is a very complete description of the descent into psychopathology of a serial killer. This book is not for the faint of heart. It is very graphic in parts. It also contains several pictures taken directly from police files.

I thought the book was interesting, although I was really ready to be done with murder and mayhem by the end of the book. It should also be pointed out that the conversation portions of the book feel contrived. Who really knows what a killer said to his victim 50 years ago? I would recommend it with a strong caution. If you like true crime and graphic descriptions this book is for you.

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Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger


When I saw this book on the New Fiction Shelf, my initial reaction was "what is this  doing here? It's a graphic novel, it doesn't belong here!"  And then I opened the book, and was completely entranced. I could not do a thing other than be drawn in and compelled to read and look until the book was over, and if I have time today, I'll read it again.

This local author of The Time Traveller's Wife has created a beautiful tribute to books and readers and libraries, with an enchanting gentle plot that draws you through the artwork.  It is set in Chicago, so you will see familiar sites as you learn about a special bookmobile that appears to our main character only at night, and contains a very special collection.   Highly recommended!

Highly recommended!

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fall Into a Good Teen Book!

Check out some of these new YA books for fall:

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

In a futuristic world, teen Nailer scavenges copper wiring from grounded oil tankers for a living, but when he finds a beached clipper ship with a girl in the wreckage, he has to decide if he should strip the ship for its wealth or rescue the girl.

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The Gardener by S. A. Bodeen

When high school sophomore Mason finds a beautiful but catatonic girl in the nursing home where his mother works, the discovery leads him to revelations about a series of disturbing human experiments that have a connection to his own life.

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The Half-Life of Planets by Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin

An unlikely romance develops between a science-minded girl who is determined to reclaim her reputation and a boy with Asperger's Syndrome.

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The Julian Game by Adele Griffin

In an effort to improve her social status, a new scholarship student at an exclusive girls' school uses a fake online profile to help a popular girl get back at her ex-boyfrined, but the consequences are difficult to handle.

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Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett

In 1980s Australia, nearly fourteen-year-old Plum fears the disapproval of her friends, feels inferior to her older brothers, and hates her body but when her glamorous neighbor befriends her, Plum starts to become what she wants to be--until she discovers her neighbor's ulterior motive.

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A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner

As she tries to sort out her feelings of love, seventeen-year-old Cass, a spunky math genius with an introverted streak, finds a way to memorialize her dead best friend.

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Claire de Lune by Christine Johnson

On her sixteenth birthday Claire discovers strange things happening, and when her mother reveals their family secrets, which explains the changes, Claire feels her world slipping away.

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I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

In rural Ohio, friendships and a beautiful girl prove distracting to a fifteen-year-old who has hidden on Earth for ten years waiting to develop the Legacies, or powers, he will need to rejoin the other five surviving Garde members and fight the Mogadorians who destroyed their planet, Lorien.

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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time

While spending a week at a house on a lake I decided to do some "nature" reading. I picked up "Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time" by Richard Conniff. The book is subtitled "My Life doing Dumb Stuff with Animals." That is an understatement.

Conniff who writes for Smithsonian Magazine and National Geographic has won the National Magazine Award for his writing and it is not hard to see why. The book, which is actually a collection of short stories about his travels and adventures in the course of his job is just a fun read. Written in a style that makes you think you're sitting having a beer with the guy. Conniff takes you through the African bush and the U.S. doing, well, just dumb stuff with animals.

Think baiting piranhas and then swimming in the same water. Hiding in the bush trying to find the Yeti. Trying to watch a panther only to discover it is actually watching you - for a dinner treat. Going through termite mounds, being bitten by fire ants, stalking lions and so on through the animal kingdom.

It is not just the animals. You will meet people too. Justin Schmidt, who has developed something called the Schmidt Pain Index. This man actually gets bitten by things for a living. There are also field biologists who name their study animals after favorite beers and single malt whiskeys.

This book is an engaging read, easy on the brain and well written. The stories are interesting and sometimes you will find yourself laughing out loud and shaking your head. As a bonus you just might learn something about natural history.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Astrid and Veronika, by Linda Olsson

Astrid and Veronika, by Linda Olsson, is a beautifully written story of female friendship. The novel begins on a cold, blustery March night in a rural setting just north of Stockholm. Snow and ice still cover the ground. Veronika Bergman, a writer in her early 30s, has come to Sweden from New Zealand to recover from the death of her fiance. She has rented a house, and hopes to reconcile her grief through writing. But the scene around her is foreboding:

"The neighbouring house was a silent shadow, looming in the darkness beyond the tunnel of light where she walked. The air was dry and cold and her breath left her lips in whiffs of white vapour dissolving in the night. The sky was a black infinity without stars or moon. She felt as if she had dropped through a tunnel into a world of absolute silence." (p. 2)

The inhabitant of the other house, so hauntingly described, is Astrid Mattson, known as "the neighboring witch." An elderly woman, she sits by the window in darkness, watching Veronika. Gradually, she comes to know Veronika's walking habits, and watches her go out each morning. When Veronika does not appear for a few days, she breaks her lonely vigil and knocks on her door. Finding her unwell, she brings her food. From this, a friendship blooms. Tentatively, Veronika asks her along on her walks, and the two begin to confide in each other. Grief, stemming from different sources, weighs on them both.

Astrid and Veronika were raised by single fathers, having lost their mothers at a young age. But while Veronika had a close relationship with her dad, Astrid's was icy. Her father is described as austere and loveless, and the suicide of her mother is linked to him. Moreover, as Astrid reveals more of herself, we discover that she hides shocking secrets. Veronika does not flinch at these confessions. Because of her compassion, Astrid is able to forgive others as well as herself.

Linda Olsson is an evocative writer. There are echos of Ingmar Bergman in this book. The barren and dark landscape of a Swedish winter contrasts markedly with the verdant plenty of summer. When Astrid takes Veronika into the woods to pick berries, the reader is struck by its wild beauty. The summer marks a rebirth in nature and in the feelings of the characters. The present and future are no longer foreboding. Each character has reconciled with the past.

Astrid and Veronika

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is a novel that would lend itself to discussion. It is, in fact, on the agenda for our book club. Join us at Glencoe Public Library on Wednesday evening, October 6th, at 7:30 p. m.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

So Cold the River

So Cold the River is more than just the a story of a down and almost out film maker. Eric Shaw who has been hounded out of Hollywood is reduced to making videos for weddings and funerals to make ends meet. His wife has left him and his queue of jobs is very short. Alyssa Bradford approaches Shaw after she sees a film he did for a funeral. Bradford wants Shaw to make a film of her father-in-law Campbell Bradford. Bradford is a 95 year old, dying billionaire and his life is mysterious. The only facts known are his home town and that he was involved with a water business. He has kept a mysterious bottle of water with him.

Shaw decides to take the job. His first stop is the hospital where Campbell is. After setting up his cameras Shaw asks Campbell questions and receives answers. But when he reviews his film, there is nothing there. Just Shaw's voice. Undeterred and more than a little confused, Shaw travels down to French Lick, Indiana. There are 2 hotels in town: the French Lick Springs Resort and the West Baden Hotel. Both hotels have been redone after falling into disrepair. The area is filled with natural springs which were used to support the water company Bradford was involved with. Shaw checks into the West Baden Hotel.

Once at the hotel, strange things start to happen. Shaw starts having visions after he drinks the water from Campbell's bottle. People try to stop him from investigating Campbell and a local man really stirs things up when he starts to take on the persona of a dead relative.

While creepy things happen to Shaw and his friend Kellen, the book is not really creepy. Stephen King lite - maybe. The story moves along at a brisk pace. The strange things that happen just add another layer to the story. The writing is crisp and well done. You can almost see the same hallucinations Shaw does. This book is a great read for those who like a little paranormal activity in their books but not at the Stephen King or Dean Koontz level.

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Great New Book for Beatles Fans

You Never Give Me Your Money is the title of a new book on the Beatles, and while ostensibly it focuses on the post-breakup years (thus the subtitle The Beatles After the Breakup) the first 100 pages describe the legal entanglements and personality conflicts between the Beatles in the waning days of the group.  You get the feeling that it was not a whole lot of fun being a member of the biggest rock group in the world in the late 1960s.  Following the death of their manager Brian Epstein and the establishment of Apple Records, the attempts to bring order to their business dealings only increased their hostility towards each other, as personal ambitions also were coming to the fore. 

This book is unique in Beatles biographies in that it mostly refuses to take sides and choose heroes and villains.  Allen Klein and Yoko Ono, who are often cast as the bad guys in Beatles lore (though Yoko's reputation seems to have been rehabilitated somewhat in recent years) are treated fairly overall.  Yoko takes some of the blame for John Lennon's low/low-quality output in the 70s, but he certainly had no shortage of other personal issues as well.  George Harrison perhaps comes off best even as the shabbiness of much of his post-Beatles output is considered.  Despite his willingness to work with other Beatles, he also seemed the most opposed to ever reuniting the band, largely because of personal conflicts with Paul McCartney.  McCartney, though, is perhaps the most confounding to consider.  He was the one (besides Ringo Starr) who was most opposed to splitting up the Beatles, but was also the one who announced he was breaking away first.  His reputation is that of a charmer but he also suffers major foot-in-mouth syndrome.  Lennon's realness fascinates people while McCartney's articificiality has helped him become a showbiz survivor.

Most tantazlizing though are the various near-misses of Beatles reunions.  Despite their insistence that a reunion would never happen, there are quite a few instances of possible one-off concerts and Lennon/McCartney writing sessions that would not come to be because of legal and/or personal reasons.  Lennon was starting to write again at the time he was killed and had plans to visit McCartney in New Orleans - could this have led to something previously thought improbable???

The final third of the book, after Lennon's murder, is not as captivating as the rest, as it covers the personal reconciliations and attempts to deal with the band's legacy.  Overall, though, this book is as well-written as any music biography I've read and was a real page-turner.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010


Take a trip (as in psychedelic) back to the 1960's. Think Castro, Cuba, Timothy Leary, CIA psychological testing, the Chicago mafia, sleeper spies and John F. Kennedy's assassination. This book has it all. Switching between Cuba, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Virginia the story weaves it's way through the CIA's plots of the 1960's.

Starting in Cuba just after the failed attempt on Castro's life, the book takes off. Castro is still alive and the Soviet Union has apparently stashed a nuclear warhead in Cuba along with all those missiles. A rogue CIA operative, Melchoir, one of the "three wisemen," is in the hunt for not only the nuke but control of something called "Orpheus."

Who or what is Orpheus? And what does it have to do with Kennedy's assassination? Plenty according to this story. Orpheus is a person but started out as a theory. The project is a mind control/ mind altering project by the CIA. LSD in varying amounts is given to 'volunteers' in the hope that it will allow a controller to take over another person's thoughts and actions. The program is a bust until the LSD is accidentally taken by the wrong person. Orpheus is born. Massive amounts of LSD allow Chandler to not only connect with someone else's brain, it allows him to hijack their thoughts and control their actions. He can actually create an alternate reality for someone.

Melchoir is now hunting Chandler. Chandler is searching for Naz. B.C. is looking for all of them. The story races through the U.S. and Cuba. Secret agents, double agents and people strung out on drugs all meet up in Dallas in November 1963.

Will Chandler's powers be susceptible to control by Melchoir? Who exactly is Naz? Is Lee Harvey Oswald really a sleeper agent? Drugs and conspiracy theories abound. A fast moving read shedding no more light on the Kennedy assassination but instead adding yet another theory. Fans of 1960 history and conspiracy buffs will definitely enjoy this book.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

CoverSometimes a book comes along that delights and captivates. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is such a book. It is a coming of age story about a girl, Rose Edelstein, with the uncanny ability to sense the emotions of others through the food that they make. We come to love this quirky narrator, seeing life through her eyes and her very gifted sense of taste. After savoring a piece of the lemon cake her mother bakes for her ninth birthday, Rose's talent becomes apparent:
"...what I'd tasted had nothing to do with ingredients...in each bite absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows." (p. 10)

Rose is an especially sensitive child, and her abilities makes her prescient. She is able to look into her parent's marriage in a way that neither partner can. She feels protective of her brother, whose own preternatural gifts come at a great price. As a daughter, she is both loving and protective, acknowledging her parents' shortcomings without judgment.

Aimee Bender depicts a young girl's growth into adolescence with such skill that readers accept the fantasy elements as natural. The novel tackles themes of alienation, love, and acceptance. It also explores friendship, and loss. It is about marriage, and love for a partner whose remoteness makes communication difficult. It is a book about being different in a world that seeks conformity. Ultimately, it is about making peace with one's life, and utilizing the talents one has.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a gem of a novel. It reinforced what I know as truth: that reading makes all things possible.

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

CoverLet the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida, is a lyrical Bildungsroman with a tough and sassy heroine. Clarissa Iverton, now 28, has come to New York to attend her father's funeral. Once home, she discovers her birth certificate, revealing that the man she believed was her father was not. Her fiance has kept this secret from her since they were children. Clarissa takes this as the second betrayal of someone with whom she has trust-- her mother has abandoned the family 14 years ago.

Distraught by grief and anger, she follows her mother's pattern and runs away. Clarissa travels to the Arctic Circle, and then, to Lapland, where she hopes to find the Sami priest named on the birth certificate as her father. She also hopes to find her mother.

The story follows the journey motif, and the surroundings are dark and foreboding. The descriptions of this frigid wonderland are breathtaking. The characters Clarissa meets are unique, each bringing another piece of the puzzle that comprises her life.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
is a psychological mystery that explores questions of loneliness, alienation, and identify. It is about accepting the past in order to live in the present. It is a novel about self-discovery, about love, and ultimately, about forgiveness.

If you enjoy domestic fiction as well as beautiful language and imagery, this book is for you.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

This Body of Death

Inspector Thomas Lynley is back after the murder of his wife. Called back to duty by the relentlessly in-charge acting superintendent Isabelle Ardery, Lynley is almost tricked into helping investigate a murder case.

Jemima Hastings' body has been found in a London cemetery. With suspects in both London and the countryside of Hampshire Lynley, Havers and the members of the murder team have their hands full. Ardery's nervousness in her temporary position and her abrasive personality add to the tension.

George adds in details of a much earlier seemingly unrelated crime (the true crime of the Bolger kidnapping and murder). The two plot lines move in a parallel order until they combine with a twist at the end. This is Lynley at his most diplomatic best.

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Little Bee

Always the last one on the bandwagon, I finally got around to reading Little Bee by Chris Cleave. I read it in one day. I could not put it down. And that rarely happens.

The story of Little Bee is told through the voices of Little Bee, a teen-aged illegal refugee from Nigeria and Sarah, an upper middle class white British woman. Alternating through Little Bee's past and the present the story unfolds in a manner sure to keep you reading. Starting off with Little Bee's release from a British detention facility we are introduced to a variety of characters and their back stories. Sarah and Andrew and their son Charlie, Sarah's lover Lawrence all make an appearance and add layers to the story.

Little Bee has arrived in England aboard a tea cargo ship. She is promptly sent to a detention facility. She has Andrew's driver's license which she retrieved from the Nigerian beach where she first met Sarah and Andrew. After her release, she walks miles to their house and arrives on the day of Andrew's funeral. Sarah takes her in and the story really starts. Sarah has turned her life upside down with an affair. Her husband Andrew has committed suicide for reasons she can't fathom until the end of the book. Her son Charlie believes he will be ok as long as his alter ego, Batman, keeps the baddies away. As Sarah and Little Bee come to terms with what happened on the beach in Nigeria, Andrew's suicide and the effects of these events on Charlie, the two women come to an understanding.

Little Bee's story is one of unimaginable heartbreak and the willingness of the human spirit to believe in good. She survives through sheer belief that she can. She touches Sarah and Charlie in ways that will forever effect their lives. This is not a relentlessly cheery book. Cleave gives details about the oil companies in Nigeria, the Nigerian civil war and all the attendant horrors. And there is a horrific rape scene. The book is well written, however. Both readable and a moving story, I highly recommend this book.

Little Bee
Cleave, Chris.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Chicago Weekend and Daytrip Ideas

You probably know that we have an extensive travel collection, but do you know that we have many books on Chicago and Illinois daytrips and weekends?  You don't have to go to Paris to have a great time - you can try one of these worthy titles to give you an idea for local travel fun!

If you're a biker, you should take a look at Best Rail Trails Illinois.  Offering a selection of more than 40 bike trails (many of which are former railroad tracks converted to bike paths), Best Rail Trails has good options for day trips near and far.  Hikers should grab a copy of Easy Hikes Close to Home to get ideas for some pleasant Illinois hikes, most of which are short and easy
Best Rail Trails Illinois
Easy Hikes Close to Home

Chicago Free & Dirt Cheap is your thrifty travel guide, for those days that you feel like taking the brood somewhere but not having to take out a second mortgage to do so.  It offers suggestions for cheap eats, walking tours, ways to save money on museums and cultural events and simple free ways to kill time. Frommer's Chicago With Kids is another place to get some great ideas of things to do with the family.
Frommer's Chicago Free & Dirt Cheap
Frommer's Chicago With Kids

After all this activity you may need a night out, so why not visit a pub with some history behind it?  The book Historic Bars of Chicago is a great guide to nightlife and bars in Chicago, especially if you are interested in something unique.  It lists many neighborhood bars and offers a listing of pub crawls and defunct taverns as well.
Historic Bars of Chicago

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Lovers, by Vendela Vida

Recently, I discovered the author Vendela Vida. Her most recent book, The Lovers, has been given high praise by literary sources, as well as noted authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates.

The Lovers is a psychological exploration of a middle-aged widow (Yvonne) who travels back to Datca, Turkey to relive her honeymoon. There, she tries to better understand her marriage, her loss, and the disassociation she feels from her grown children.

In many ways, the book is very existential. We feel Yvonne's sense of loneliness and disconnection with everything around her. There is an air of impending doom from the very beginning. The once-beautiful coastal town of Datca is now garbage-strewn and seedy. Yvonne does not speak Turkish, and she is is looked upon with distrust. The setting outside of the house is likewise foreboding and ominous. When Yvonne befriends a young shell-seeker, the reader is already prepared for tragedy. Later, when Yvonne travels to the home of his family, she is caught in a tempestuous sand storm. The storm mirrors her internal conflicts.

"The darkness was almost complete. What was she doing? ...She had traveled to Turkey to regain something of what she had with Peter decades earlier--and failing that, she had befriended a boy. A Turkish boy who spoke nothing of her language. And now he was gone, and she was again searching for some remnant of someone she had lost. Had she been so lost herself? ...A sad, aging woman with no anchor. Fumbling in underground caves." (p. 211)

In the hands of a less-skilled writer, the plot of this book would be less gripping. But Vida's use of language and metaphor is nothing less than mesmerizing. The Lovers inspired me to read her other two books, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, as well as, And Now You Can Go. They form a loose trilogy about the search for inner peace as one comes to terms with the present and the past.

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