June 2015 Adult Fiction Pick

Man At the Helm  by Nina StibbeMan at the Helm

This proves once again there is nothing like British wit to make you grin, chuckle or laugh-out-loud.  Stibbe’s first novel (following her memoir Love, Nina) does it all and not just in the delivery of a full range of humor.   She is a master at creating sense of place and the voice of characters that you could befriend, foibles and all.
Reading a novel narrated by a child is a bit different… but then again nine-year-old Lizzie Vogel is no ordinary pre-teen.  She is not an omniscient narrator but a smart, unworldly youth whose family is headed towards catastrophe.  In the writing the author has succeeded in  making sure Lizzie is not too precocious and has just the right tone for a once-privileged, but-not-spoiled, middle child whose family has lost everything including a full-time father, financial comfort, and social status.  She and her sister make a plan to rescue their dysfunctional family.
They decide to find a new husband for their pill-popping, compulsive play-writing, demoralized mum.
To fill the vacancy they create a list from amongst the local population of males, and  in a letter-writing campaign they invite the culled eligibles for a visit with Mum.  Though the unsuspecting males should have found certain turns- of- phrase to be slightly “off”  in the letters they received, none seemed to notice. (This is not to diminish the collective astuteness of the gentlemen,  or the letter-writing skills of these youngsters, desperate to succeed.)  Using one ruse or another they get these men in the door. Mostly things don’t go well as kids know very little about adult relationships.  Paring down the list of sixteen makes for great hijinx and hilarity as you can well imagine.  But will they bring their family back to relevance in this Leicestershire town in England circa 1970?
The bottom line is that there is  plenty here to laugh at and the characters are charming and worth rooting for too.   This is a quirky read that will entertain and pull at your heart-strings all at the same time.



February 2015 Adult Non-Fic Pick

History of the Human RaceThe History of the Human Race  by Christine Kenneally

     Kenneally, an award-winning journalist offers here a deeply researched and multi-faceted perspective on the search for our historic and genetic heritage, a preoccupation enjoyed by many, especially because of the ability of modern science to push back layers of time to trace where we’ve come from and who we are.

In the process of tracing the scientific methods developed for this purpose, Kenneally reveals some of the pitfalls we may encounter when we unearth what’s been lost for generations and what good and bad usage can be made of this information.  The discussions about the possibilities of misuse are poignant in that the history of genealogy is filled with such examples.  Even though a proponent of genealogical research, the author suggests careful consideration before sharing personal information in this,”the age of information.”  Besides this caveat the author asks and answers many questions about culture, prejudice, “race,” secrets of our past, and even what part Neanderthal DNA may play in our genetic makeup.

It turns out man’s legacy exists on many levels from historical artifacts to our DNA, our names, and even our emotions and belief systems.  We carry the traces of forces that molded the earth, the migrations of people, and the encounters we have made along the way.  And all of these forces have shaped every human who lives now or ever lived in the past.  How can we not want to know more; to try to discover who we are is after all uniquely human.

Kenneally writes in a way easy to understand and follow and  her fascination with these topics comes through loud and clear.  If you are an arm chair genealogist,  professional family researcher, historian, or lover of science,  there is much to delight and enlighten you.  Guaranteed you will not be bored!

October 2014 Staff Non-fiction Pick

Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives and Our Lives Change Our Genes  by Sharon Moalem, MD, PhD.

Inheritance by Sharon Moalem

     This best-selling author uses an entertaining, interdisciplinary approach to science and medicine to help us understand the impact of our lives on genes, and our genes on our lives.  New discoveries show our genetic strength is more than just a matter of receiving genes handed down to us from previous generations.  It is derived from transforming what we get and what we give and in so doing  we can change the course of our lives.  These lessons are demonstrated by the use of numerous anecdotes about people with rare genetic anomalies whose  lifestyle changes actually ameliorated the ill-effects certain genetic defects would normally produce! This gives promise of  a future where the expression of  genes can be turned on or off.

Well worth the read if you are interested in the human genome and the latest scientific knowledge available on gene expression.


June 2014 Staff Adult Fiction Pick

 The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry  The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry  by Gabrielle Zevin

     ‘No man is an island,’ “Every book is a world” is the sign over the tiny bookshop, “Island Books” in a Massachusetts island beach town and that about sums up this delightful read.  You will find it filled with references to favorite “stories,” a philosophy for thriving in a treacherous world, and the awareness that a story will be different each time it is read.  Each chapter begins with an insight into a short story, which  perhaps is a bit of a gimmick, but we eagerly take advantage of the opportunity to glean some understanding of who the proprietor, A.J. is as a man.

     All lovers of books and the “story” will be smitten with this lovely, quiet but memorable tale that is bound to resonate on many levels.



April 2014 Staff Adult Fiction Pick

Waiting for Wednesday by Nicci French

Waiting for Wednesday      As I said in review of Tuesday’s Gone, the previous installment in the Frieda Klein series, “… one of the best suspense/thriller series ever….”  In the latest, Waiting for Wednesday, poor Frieda pays dearly for the degree of psychological suspense we get to experience in this incredible new thriller.  You can’t help but feel sorry for our bruised and brooding heroine who is recovering from her previous debacle in crime-solving which very nearly got her killed.  Horrifyingly, it is Dean Reeve still at large who saved her from death, yet murdered his own twin brother in a very sinister plot (Book 1).  Unsettled as Frieda is by such recent  trauma,  her rival, Hal Bradshaw, who has been discrediting her skills as a psychotherapist with some disturbing success, has continued to make life difficult for her.  And just when things can’t get any worse, Frieda joins forces with an obsessed reporter who is on the trail of a serial murderer.  Though questioning her own motives for this involvement, she can’t seem to let it go.  Everyone is worried about her including boyfriend Sandy in New York who can never reach her, and the  usual cast of friendly characters who mean well but add to the chaos.  All this plus trying to help DCI Karlsson in his latest murder case  has brought Frieda nearly to the breaking point.

The wreckage of broken lives seems to have permeated Freida’s psyche this time  and the complexity of her character  has added to the psychological stress in this thriller.  With plot twists and fast pacing you will be riveted until the very moment Frieda can finally take a deep breath.

December Non-Fiction Staff Pick

 Paleofantasy JacketPaleofantasy  by Marlene Zuk

This fascinating read puts into examination the fantasy that we need to return to our ancestral hunter-gatherer diet, and in its extreme expression to a life-style of hunting, making our own tools and sprinting barefoot.   Zuk, the author is a professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior at the University of Minnesota.  In her multi-disciplinary analysis of a growing popular trend which argues that our bodies and behavior are out of synch with our modern lifestyles, Zuk using the latest scientific research debunks the notion that we have not evolved since “caveman days.”  But this is no dry tome of the textbook variety but rather a lively, brilliant, and witty discussion of cutting edge science which shows that human evolution has continued along with  that of all life on earth including bacteria and viruses.
The examples of how our genome has progressed come from the study of diseases we have, and the adaptability we possess to our changing environment.   All in all it shows that survival is often a trade-off of one genetic  change (mutation) that brings another sometimes less adaptive change with it, such as in the case of those who have immunity to cholera being more subject to the modern disease of cystic fibrosis.
So if you are curious about how our ancient ancestors lived, bred, cohabitated, and survived check this book out.  Genetic research promises more fascinating information about how our body works and why we are subject to certain ailments and diseases.


November Fiction Staff Pick and 2013 National Book Award Fiction Winner

the Good Lord BirdThe Good Lord Bird  by James McBride    

     This book sneaks up on you and packs a wallop!  You won’t know how to describe it; you may think it is going nowhere… but once you get halfway through, you will be hooked. It is brilliant in its no-holds-barred tale-spinning, sense of place, and the use of colorful local language from the wilds of prairie states during their formative years.  At times you will find  yourself laughing  out loud  as a motley crew of characters allow themselves to be led, along with you the reader, right down a slippery slope into an impossible trap. Their charismatic leader known as the “Old Man” is  John Brown of Bleeding Kansas abolitionist fame.

     Though an historic figure, John Brown lives  in our imagination with the likes of John Henry and Pecos Bill, both tall-tale figures.   But in his portrayal of Brown, McBride actually brings him to life by developing the extremes of his character in a way that makes him human.  To capture this paradox of a man, McBride surely plays with us when he gives the narrator  the voice of an adolescent slave boy who is telling the tale almost 90 years later at age 103!  Liberated by the Brown gang, “Onion,” as he is dubbed by Brown recounts the last few years of Brown’s life and the dubious role he himself played as a gang member.  In the telling we hear the voice of a very confused youth,trying to figure out what it means to be a man, a recurring theme.  He thinks he can escape to freedom but finds himself captivated by Brown’s unconditional acceptance of him and at the same time is immobilized by his own slave mentality.  Hiding from rebel “red-shirts,” pro-slavers and slave hunters, he disguises himself.  In this  McBride delivers us a farce so ridiculous that we feel as if we are in on the joke. It is then we remember this is not a biography!  The tale that is told is as much about “Onion” as John Brown.  The layers are there waiting to be peeled away.

     But there is even  more here. For example, imbedded in the title, The Good Lord Bird, is a metaphor for what John Brown accomplished, but you won’t find out about that till the very end. So read it… if you get through it you are promised laughter, maybe some tears and definitely enlightenment, all within an almost slap-stick romp of a story.   John Brown did not succeed in his goal of eliminating slavery in his day, yet his enigmatic character has survived into our own time and consciousness.  McBride taps into this awareness and while entertaining us slips in a theme we hopefully will never tire of: the high cost of freedom.

October Fic-Pick

 The English Girl   by Daniel Silva

the English Girl

Worn and weary, Gabriel Allon has to take on another job he doesn’t want, but when the British Prime Minister’s secret lover is kidnapped and held for ransom, Gabriel relives the abduction his wife endured and just can’t say no.
He manages to get approval for the reinforcements he will need to do the job but it seems the operation is full of pitfalls. Without giving anything away, Allon is disappointed when things don’t go as planned but of course he can never
give up.
As usual, the settings are an important part of this series and we always wonder how Allon can handle so much jetsetting. Somehow he’s in London, Normandy, Israel, Moscow, Corsica, and several venues more than once. It really gives a feel for how world- encompassing the fight against terrorism is.
In the end, it looks like Gabriel Allon is being set up to take a new, more managerial job which he has mixed feelings about accepting…
time to move on, Gabriel.


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September Fiction Book Review

Sweet Thunder  by Ivan DoigSweet thunder

As expected, Doig’s latest tale-spinning lives up to his reputation for being one of the best American West storytellers, reminiscent of the Mark Twain style:  Doig tackles the issues of the day, marbling clever word-play with his own brand of humor.  And, the well-drawn characters each add to the savory blend of  displaced misfits who all seem to have a  mysterious past.  Our main-man, Morrie Morgan (who debuted in Whistling Season) and his new bride, Grace, are returning to Butte, Montana  to take charge of an expansive “manse” bequeathed to them for reasons unknown… but all will be illuminated.

Butte, the home of Anaconda Copper Mining Company is a multi-ethnic mining town. Problems
ensue when locals realize that Anaconda, the main employer in the town hasn’t been sharing the tax burden.  Enter an ad hoc newspaper, the Thunder, set up with Morgan as the editorial wordsmith to help bring the giant to terms.  But, in 1920, organized labor did not have the clout to oppose wily corporations that held all the cards.  Quick-on-his-feet, Morrie is expert in his sparring with the Post, another arm of the copper Goliath, but his verbal equivalent of a good left-hook doesn’t work for dodging real bullets.  Lots of other unexpected events stymie Morrie whose verbal acumen may be no match for a shady past come back to haunt him.  The tension builds as we look over Morrie’s shoulder and around every corner wondering if he has any tricks left up his sleeve  to save himself and all of Butte.  Quite a tale, well-told!