Author Archives: Trudy

What the Staff is Reading

in-the-land-of-invisibile-womenA spur-of-the-moment decision found Qanta Ahmed on board a flight from New York to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. As she boarded her plane, this US-trained physician of Pakistani heritage, raised in Britain, couldn’t help but wonder about many things: who were her fellow passengers; if she was appropriately dressed and how she would manage without the required abbayah; how would she manage to meet up with her sponsor (for as an unmarried female employee, she could not enter the kingdom without a male representative from her employer); and exactly what she gotten herself into.  In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom is a fascinating account that answers all these questions and more in great detail, from abbayah shopping her first day, through coworkers reactions to 9/11 shortly before she left two years later. The reader also learns a great deal about Islam, as Qanta is Muslim and makes a pilgrimage to Mecca, again, described in great detail.

ruthless-riverHolly Fitzgerald has experienced an abundance of heart-stopping experiences around the world, but none affected her as much as her near fatal river journey in the Amazon River basin. Years later, Fitzgerald’s daughter encouraged her to take a memoir class, and that resulted in Ruthless River: Love & Survival by Raft on the Amazon’s Relentless  Madre de Dios, a recounting of several weeks in the spring of 1973. The author kept a journal at the time, and so tells the tale as though it were yesterday, of how what was to be a wonderful year-long around the world honeymoon turned into terror. Holly and her husband Fitz survived a plane crash only to become stranded in a cove of the Madre de Dios, attacked by bees during the day and fearing the sounds of the jungle at night. They are truly lost in the jungle and resort to the unthinkable to survive. Anyone who enjoys a riveting true survival story will be fascinated by this one.

exit-westExit West is the fourth novel for Mohsin Hamid and deals with the very timely politics of immigration and refugees. A young couple in an unnamed country on the brink of disaster fall in love, and as conditions  get more and more explosive Nadia and Saeed make the decision to leave through one of the many doorways they have heard whispered about, a doorway not without risks but one that can get them out of the chaos of the country. Described by a staff member as “a spellbinding blend of reality and unreality with lots of social commentary,” readers who enjoyed those same elements of The Underground Railroad may find a great deal to like about this title.

What the Staff is Reading

everyonebraveSeveral staff members have been reading Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven. Set in London and Malta, between September 1939 and May 1942, themes of class and race are dealt with while London is damaged by continuing nighttime bombings. Engaging characters are well-crafted, and the dialogue provides a good dose of dry British wit amid the most difficult of circumstances. Mary, young, idealistic, and from a privileged family is quick to sign up when war breaks out, but is disappointed when she is assigned to something as mundane as teaching. However, she soon falls for Tom, who is in charge of the school district. Tom has no desire to join the war effort, but finds himself conflicted when his best friend Alistair, joins up. Hilda, Mary’s best friend, rounds out this group of four. For audio fans, the narrator does a wonderful job of portraying the various voices. The story is inspired by the author’s grandparents’ wartime experiences.

signalflameAndrew Krivak’s newest novel, The Signal Flame, concerns the next generation of the family from his first novel, The Sojourn, but they don’t have to be read in order. With spare but beautiful language, Krivak reveals a family quietly going about their daily lives, dealing with issues of life and land while waiting to hear word of a family member missing in Vietnam.  The year is 1972, and the patriarch, Jozef Vinich has died, leaving his daughter Hannah and her son Bo to grieve. Gradually, more and more depth is added to the backstory of this family’s heartbreak. Set in a remote mountain area of northeastern Pennsylvania, the book conveys a strong sense of place.

32yolks“So good!” was how one staff member  described Eric Ripert’s  32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line. In this chef’s memoir, Ripert recalls how a difficult childhood in the south of France led him to find solace in the kitchen. A locally-renowned chef takes him under his wing, inviting him into his kitchen after school to make mousse and hear stories of a wider world. Eric finds his calling, and becomes determined to be the best chef he can be,  describing the intense pressure behind the scenes at the poshest restaurants. This is a good coming-of-age story that’s well-plotted.

What the Staff is Reading

mrchurchA fast-paced, enjoyable read set in WWII London is Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal. The rich period detail is a particular strength in this character-driven spy novel. The plot centers around Maggie Hope, a British woman raised in America after her parent’s untimely death. Now living in London with various roommates in her deceased aunt’s crumbling mansion, she finds herself  working in the War Rooms after a previous secretary is murdered. Her gender limits her to a typist’s job, but her skills at code breaking lead her to discover a murderous plot, while she also discovers hidden family secrets. Fans of Jaqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series may enjoy this.

last-days-of-nightAnother historical novel with spies and intrigue is Graham Moore’s  The Last Days of Night. Short chapters really move the plot along in this story based on fact set in  the late 1880s, the beginning of the electric age. Paul Cravath is a young, inexperienced lawyer hired by George Westinghouse, who is being sued by Thomas Edison over a patent for the light bulb. With all the power and money behind Edison, it seems like a nearly impossible case to win. Other intriguing characters thrown into the mix are the eccentric Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla and the beautiful opera star Agnes Huntington. In short, nothing is quite as straightforward as first appears.

kindredSet in both the past and present, Octavia Butler’s Kindred is a sobering science fiction book involving time travel. Dana, a contemporary African-American woman, one day finds herself suddenly in antebellum Maryland, where she saves a young boy, Rufus, from drowning. Just as suddenly, she is back in California. Over a period of time, Dana is called back various times, and each time Rufus is older and in more serious trouble. However, what seems like hours in the past is only minutes in the present, and years in the past are hours in the present. Again, this is a plot-driven book that also deals with social justice as the atrocities of slavery are dealt with. This may be a good choice for fans of Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

 

 

What the Staff is Reading

fierceradianceLauren Belfer’s first novel came out in 1999, the well-received historical novel, City of Light, which dealt with the developing electrical industry in Buffalo at the turn of the last century. It was more than 10 years before her second novel came out,  A Fierce Radiance. This time the setting is mostly in the Eastern United States shortly after Pearl Harbor, and the subject is the discovery of penicillin. Told through the story of a 36-year-old photojournalist for Life Magazine, the race to develop this life-saving drug is a suspenseful story of  blackmail, espionage and murder, as well as some romance.  Overall, this is well-researched with an eye for historical detail.

newsoftheworldThere was a lot of early  hype about Paulette Jiles’ recently published book News of the World, and it did not disappoint. This historical fiction, set in Texas in the years after the Civil War, is a quick but compelling read with strong characters. While traveling through northern Texas, reading the world’s news from a variety of publications to a paying audience, Captain Kidd is asked to return a 10-year-old girl to relatives. Johanna had been taken captive by the Kiowa tribe when she was six and raised as their own, where she was loved and assimilated into their culture. Now these two loners find themselves traveling over 400 miles for weeks, during which time they must find a way to trust and respect each other. In the end, the Captain finds himself with a difficult decision to make. With moral decisions to be made on many levels, this would make a great book discussion title.

shantaramAnother most compelling read is Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram. However, at over 900 pages, it is not a quick read but rather a complex saga to lose yourself in. And yet the pages turn quickly in this fast-paced, descriptive setting  with a very strong sense of place. From the first page, the narrator Lin immerses you into the fascinating place that is Bombay, India. The story is autobiographical, with the main character arriving in Bombay after escaping from prison. The author himself took over a decade to write the book, starting while he was in prison in Australia for robbery to support his heroin addiction.Through Lin, we experience many different levels of Indian society, from village life to the gritty life in a slum, from the violent life in prison to the criminal life of the underground. Overall, I found myself richly rewarded for the time spent.

What the Staff is Reading

bluehourA character in The Blue Hour by Douglas Kennedy defines the blue hour as “the hour at daybreak or dusk when nothing is as it seems: when we are caught between the perceived and the imagined.” Indeed, the story starts with Robin and her husband Paul traveling to Morocco for a month of drawing for Paul, French lessons for Robin, and exploring and relaxing for both. Deeply in love and approaching the end of her childbearing years, Robin is also hoping this is the place where she will conceive a child. But from the very start, something seems off when Paul is inexplicably nervous going through customs. Things only get more mysterious as plans change and truths are discovered, until Robin discovers the ultimate betrayal by her husband. Things go further downhill as Paul goes missing, Robin is suspected of murder, and there are horrifying experiences in the remote Sahara. The sights, sounds and smells of Morocco are vividly described in this atmospheric, unsettling page-turner.

necessaryliesReaders who enjoyed The Help may also enjoy Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain. Both stories deal with young women determined to fight for social justice during the 1960s. Necessary Lies, set in North Carolina, follows the efforts of newlywed and young social worker Jane Forrester as she’s introduced to the residents of rural Grace County. She meets 15-year old Ivy Hart, a poor and orphaned tobacco farm laborer and student, who then becomes pregnant. While attempting to assist Ivy, Jane learns of the sterilization program in effect, and crosses the Department of Health lines in regards to interfering in her clients’ lives by becoming too involved personally. This was an especially enjoyable listen as the narrator did a wonderful job voicing several characters of various ages and dialects.

laamericanaA fascinating memoir that is part personal journey through grief, part love story and part travelogue is La Americana by Melanie Bowden Simón. Traveling with a friend to Cuba (through the back door, as this was 2001), the author is struggling to come to terms with her mother’s devastating death in her early 50s and hopes being in a totally foreign atmosphere can help. Her first day there she meets Luis, her taxi driver, with whom she falls in love. Over a period of years and with various trips back to Cuba we experience with her the tropical heat, Cuban cuisine, lively music, dense fumes, ancient cars, overgrown weeds, Santería ceremonies and more, all under the veil of communism. And of course, we experience her growing love and all the couple must overcome to ultimately be together.

What the Staff is Reading

WhattheLadyWantsIf you have an interest in Chicago history and wonder what life may have been like in the gilded age when a Prairie Avenue address meant you made it to the top of society, What the Lady Wants by Renée Rosen is sure to please. In this book of historical fiction, the author has done her research and then embellished the facts. It is the story of Delia Spencer Caton and her decades-long affair with Marshall Field. The story is set amid the background of a growing city, from the days of the Chicago Fire, through the unrest of the Haymarket Square Riot and the splendor of the Columbian Exposition, until Marshall Field’s death in 1906. Fans of Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank are sure to enjoy.

TheLakeHouseA great summer read to escape into is The Lake House by Kate Morton. In this family saga with Gothic undertones, the main setting is an old estate in Cornwall where an infant disappeared in the 1930s. At the turn of this century, a London detective on a mandated leave for disobeying policy, with unresolved issues of her own, discovers the abandoned estate and works to uncover the mystery. The narration alternates between present and past, where the reader learns about the family who lived there and all the events leading up to the abduction. There are layers and layers to this story, and just when one layer is uncovered and you think you know what happened, there is a new twist. Secrets abound, and the book has been described as moody, atmospheric and suspenseful.  In the end, past and present are neatly resolved.

WhenBreathBecomesAirA beautifully written, highly recommended memoir is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Just as Kalanithi is finishing extensive training as a neurosurgeon in his mid-thirties, he gets a devastating diagnosis of stage four lung cancer. He dies while writing this book, and ultimately his wife was able to finish for him. It is a short book with big questions dealing with what makes life worthwhile in the face of death. At the beginning of his career, the author chose a career of medicine over literature and writing, and the quality of writing in this inspiring book makes it clear that he excelled at both.

SummerBeforetheWarAnother good historical fiction summer read is The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson, who also wrote Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.  Set in Rye, England, in the summer of 1914, old ways are tested as a free-thinking, single, female Latin teacher comes to town. Once again, there is great characterization as the town people deal with a non-traditional romantic relationship, class snobbery and other social constraints on the brink of World War I.

FoolMeOnceHarlan Coben is known for his suspenseful page-turners.  He does not disappoint with his latest, Fool Me Once. Maya, a former combat vet is grieving the murder of her socially prominent husband, Joe, while trying to protect her two-year-old daughter. While checking a nanny cam given to her by her best friend after the murder, she spots her dead husband with her daughter on the recording. Is she really seeing what she thinks she sees? As always, the book is filled with lots of dialogue, secrets, and twists in the plot in this fast read.

 

 

What the Staff is Reading

master pradoThe first thing that a reader might notice when browsing through The Master of the Prado by Spanish author Javier Sierra is the copious amount of illustrations. For anyone with an interest in art and/or Spain, this is enough to grab one’s attention. The novel starts when a mysterious stranger opens a conversation with the young student, Javier Sierra, while he is alone in a room in Madrid’s Prado Museum. The stranger gives plenty of food for thought about a particular painting, and over a period of weeks, continues to reappear, making observations about numerous other paintings by great masters, leading the protagonist to wonder who this stranger is. Are there are truly hidden meanings in the art, involving prophesies, conspiracies, and heresies? In the meantime, there is intrigue as Javier investigates who this man might be, and is followed and threatened around Madrid and the surrounding area. Although there are similar themes as in The Da Vinci Code, this book moves at a much slower, more literary pace.
wolf called romeo
In nonfiction, A Wolf Called Romeo by Nick Jans is the account of the author’s six year relationship with a young black wolf in Juneau, Alaska. This unnaturally friendly loner wolf makes friends with local dogs and tolerates their owners, while the author and town have a chance to closely observe and learn about wolf behaviors. The author serves as a strong advocate of this misunderstood and feared animal, and works hard to reveal its more social-minded side. Philosophical at times, the book goes further to consider the relationship between wilderness and civilization.

magic stringsFor audio fans, an excellent book to listen to is The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom. In this story filled with magical realism, Frankie Presto is a fictional character, the greatest guitarist to walk the face of the earth. In a manner reminiscent of Forrest Gump, we are transported through the musical landscape over the decades and see Frankie’s influence on real musicians such as Elvis and Little Richard. In the process, we all come to see how the gift of music transforms lives.  (According to one staff member, for this title listening is the only way to go!)

BrooklynAnother audiobook staff member really enjoyed listening to Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. (This title is downloadable from Hoopla, so no waiting!) The setting is 1950s Ireland and New York, and has very vividly voiced characters. The contrast between small-town Ireland with its limited employment possibilities and large city America is striking, and so the story becomes about choices, not right or wrong, but just deciding between two very different worlds.

Saturn RunAnd finally, for those readers who enjoyed the “math and MacGyver on Mars” adventure of The Martian and are looking for something similar, try Saturn Run by John Sandford. Set in 2066, this richly detailed, exciting sci-fi exploration is all about a crew’s strength and courage tested against adversity and aliens using various engineering concepts.  (And for even more title ideas, check out our If You Like… The Martian booklist.)

What the Staff is Reading

After YouAfter You by Jojo Moyes is a “satisfying sequel to the very popular Me Before You. A surprising element is introduced early on, so no more will be said for fear of spoilers.

Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event drops you right in the middle of early 1950’s Elizabeth, New Jersey. Against the historical backdrop of three planes crashing in that town in a intheUnlikelyEventshort period of time, Miri is about to turn fifteen and her life certainly has its share of angst. And revolving around her is a large cast of characters, many of whom are working class and wonder if three crashes in such a short period of time is really just a coincidence, or could it be a communist conspiracy, space aliens, or even the beginning of another war. This book is for anyone who enjoys historical fiction in a vivid setting (the details of 1950’s living are exceptional).Gallows view

If you’ve never discovered Peter Robinson, but enjoy police procedurals with a strong sense of place and well-developed characters in the vein of Louise Penny or Elizabeth George, try his Inspector Alan Banks series, starting with Gallows View. Situated in the picturesque English village of Eastvale, Banks works patiently with his team on cases dealing with a Peeping Tom, the murder of an elderly lady, and a team of teen burglars who are becoming progressively more aggressive. As each storyline evolves and we meet various residents of the town, relationships are exposed layer by layer until personal and professional lives merge in a dramatic conclusion.Informationist

A great debut thriller set in West Africa is The Informationist by Taylor Stevens. The protagonist, Vanessa “Michael” Munroe is a young woman with an unconventional background. The daughter of missionaries in Africa, she left home early to live with ruthless mercenaries, eventually ending up based in Texas, infiltrating cultures to gather  intelligence on foreign markets for corporations. But now she has been hired by a Texan industrialist to find out what happened to his daughter, who disappeared in Africa four years earlier. She is a loner, tormented by her past,  and is in many ways reminiscent of the character Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There are now a total of five books in this series.

wedding in haitiFor a good, easy read try Wedding in Haiti by the popular novelist Julia Alvarez. On a trip back to her native Dominican Republic in 2001, Julia and her husband meet a young Haitian working there and develop a close friendship. Promising to return to attend his wedding someday, the invitation comes in 2009 and so they return, this time traveling by road into Haiti. In this poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, many obstacles must be overcome, including physical, bureaucratic and emotional, and yet she has us caring deeply for these spirited, hopeful people.

What the Staff is Reading

RoomOne book getting a lot of buzz recently is Room by Emma Donoghue. One might expect the story of a young woman kidnapped at 19 and held captive for seven years only to be repeatedly raped would be gruesome and depressing, but what makes it intriguing and unique is the narrator. The story is told in first person by her five-year-old son, Jack, who has spent his entire life in the room. Jack’s entire world is an 11×11 space where he experiences the love of his Ma. And it is this powerful love that demands Ma find a solution to this extreme situation. A movie based on the book was released last month.

MyBrilliantFriendAnother book that has been out for several years but is regaining in popularity is My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. This dense, literary coming of age story tells of two friends, Elena and Lila, growing up in poverty in 1950’s Naples. The author transports you to this community, where life is hard and higher education frowned on for girls. Yet Elena is able to continue her education and leave the community, while Lila follows the more traditional path, helping with the family business and relying on good looks to get ahead. Translated from the Italian, and originally conceived as a trilogy, the fourth and final volume of Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, The Story of a Lost Child, was recently published.

ParisWifeIf you’ve read the 1942 classic West With the Night by Beryl Markham, you might especially be interested in Paula McLain’s new historical fiction, Circling the Sun. The story centers on Beryl’s early years, leading up to her desire to learn to fly. Beryl came to Africa in the early 1900s with her parents when she was a young child, but her mother soon returned to England, abandoning her. As a result, she had a most unconventional childhood, raised both by her father and local tribal people. Presented with many challenges, she was forced to grow up early, and against all odds became the first female racehorse trainer in Kenya. Not one to live by society’s rules, this feisty woman married several times and became involved in the social circles of Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton.

HotelonPlaceVendomeFor non-fiction readers, The Hotel on Place Vendôme : Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris by Tilar Mazzeo examines the role of  the opulent hotel during World War II. The only hotel to stay open throughout the war, everyone from royalty to spies to resistance fighters to high ranking Nazis could be found here. The book has a chatty tone as a variety of characters pass through the hotel, making it a quickly moving, fascinating read.

 

What the Staff is Reading

SilentSisterIf you like your summer reads to be intricately plotted, fast-paced mysteries with a good serving of suspense, try The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain. When Riley returns to her hometown of New Bern, North Carolina, to clean out the family home after her father’s death, she gradually comes to learn that everything she assumed to be true of her family’s past is not what it seemed. What  is the real story behind her sister’s suicide twenty years ago? Dealing with family relationships and difficult choices, it should appeal to fans of authors such as Chris Bohjalian and Anita Shreve.

No1 ladiesAlso a mystery but with a totally different feel is The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. When this first came out  a number of years ago, I read it and did not see what all the fuss was about. But I was looking for a plot-driven story, and that’s not what this is. However, I recently reread it  and found it totally delightful. In searching for more of a plot, I somehow missed all of the subtle humor and atmospheric descriptions. Precious Ramotswe, a proud resident of her beloved Botswana, is a woman with a big heart and clever mind who establishes the first female detective agency in that country. Sometimes it pays off to give a book a second chance!

GravityofBirdsThe Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman is a slower paced but captivating debut novel. The intricate plot is told through the point of view of various characters, and alternates between the past and present. Two estranged sisters were painted by a now well-known artist decades ago. The painter kept one part of the triptych and now has hired a art historian and an art authenticator to sell the painting, but first the sisters must be located. An art mystery that evolves into a family history, this book would be particularly satisfying for readers of literary fiction who have an interest in fine art.

Gabi girlSeveral staff members have enjoyed the young adult novel Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero. In fact, one even went so far as to say it was “the best book I ever listened to”!  In chronicling her senior year of high school, sixteen-year-old Gabi Hernandez touches on the subjects of  teen pregnancy, gays, and dysfunctional families. And  one of the important themes is body image. Yes, the language used includes lots of swear words, but incorporates some poetry as well.

yes pleaseFor those of you who enjoyed Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants, you’ll want to read Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. According to one staff member, this memoir is “even better,” and is filled with  lots of  material about the author, in the form of stories, thoughts, ideas, and even lists. Overall, it leaves you with the feeling that you’ve had a hilarious yet candid get-together with a best friend.