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Staff Picks: Books

Little Black Lies

I admit to not knowing much about the Falkland Islands, the setting for the novel Little Black Lies. But the Falklands are a strong presence in this suspenseful story by S.J. Bolton, and I certainly feel as though I have a stronger sense now of the islands.

In the story, three children have gone missing in this wild and beautiful place, over a period of several years. Most of the islanders feel that accidents claimed the children- perhaps a fall, or swept away by a strong tide. As events unfold and the main characters and motives are revealed, it becomes apparent that certainly not all of the disappearances can be explained away by accidents.

Strong characters, a fast paced story, and a fascinating setting make Little Black Lies a winner. It was recommended to me by a co-worker, who said he feels it’s one of the best books he’s read all year, and I agree.


Daughters of the dragon : a comfort woman's story

If you liked The kite runner and Memoirs of a geisha, you may be interested in Daughters of the dragon by William Andrews. This historical fiction book set in 20th century Korea follows the life of a fictional Korean "comfort woman," Jae-hee. During World War II, thousands of young women in occupied territories were forced to be comfort women (sex slaves) for the Imperial Japanese Army. Jae-hee and her sister were two of them, ripped from their happy family farm in 1943. The book details Jae-hee's escape and attempt to return to a normal life while keeping her secret.

 
This book unveils a dark side of history that is not well-known, but deserves to be told.

 


The Nightingale

The World War II time period with a European setting is a particularly popular fiction genre within the past two to three years. I have read many of them, but my favorite to date is Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.

The story focuses on two sisters set in a French village beginning in 1939. Both are overcome by the death of their mother and the abandonment of their father. One remains in the village which is ultimately taken over by the Germans, the other joins the French underground.

One of the sisters narrates the story from the present, but the reader doesn’t know until the end which sister is telling their shared story.

As expected from a novel of this time and setting, Hannah examines life, love, the ravages of war, and the different ways people react to unthinkable situations. It is well-written and a good read.


Requiem

Fifty years later and after the sudden death of his wife, Bin travels across Canada to find his biological father who was lost to him during the Japanese internment camps in World War II. He is running both to and from his profound grief.

I have read many books about Japanese internment camps in the US, but didn’t know that Canada did likewise; about 22,000 Japanese Canadians were interned and 120,000 Japanese Americans. Requiem is set in the 1940’s camp, the late 1990’s with memories of his wife and son, and today with Bin’s drive across Canada to the camp area he vowed never to visit again.

This sobering story is well written and moving. It may well be one of my favorite fiction books of the year, although published in 2011.


One Family

Families come in many configurations. And what better way to celebrate families in all their individuality and complexity than this wonderful picture book One Family, by George Shannon.

Simple enough for even very young children, One Family has charming illustrations by Blanca Gomez. Cheerful looking families (and their pets) are shown going about their daily activities. This title has the added benefit of being able to be used as a counting book. I love the little details in the pictures that add to the overall theme- one world, one family.


The Orchardist

The Orchardist is set in Washington State at the beginning of the 20th century, where William Talmadge lovingly cultivates his orchards of apples and apricots. Talmadge, a reclusive and sorrowful man, unexpectedly becomes a foster father of sorts to two adolescent girls who escape from a brothel owner who has enslaved them.

This novel, a favorite of many book groups with much to discuss, explores the human character, what makes a family, and to a lesser extent, the history of the region.

Many reviewers consider this a strong debut novel from Coplin, with hopefully more to follow. I agree.


Hope Was Here

Joan Bauer writes a fast-paced realistic story about Hope Yancey, she is 16 years old and travels the country with her Aunt Addie who adopted her when she was just a baby. Hope has already attended six different schools and has lived in five different states. Why all the moving? Addie is a cook and all the diners where she’s worked go belly-up. Hope is an excellent waitress, a good waitress has to be ready for anything. Sweeping through the counter, getting orders. Adrenaline pumping. If you want a thrill there’s nothing like in-the-weeds waitressing. You never know what’s coming next. You could wait on a mainiac or a guy passing out twenties.
The story begins with Hope and Addie traveling to Mulvaney, Wisconsin, to begin their new jobs at the Welcome Stairways Restaurant. G. T. Stoops, the owner, has leukemia and he needs help, fast! Addie answers his ad for a cook and professional manager to run his diner.
Hope’s biological mother is Deena, her Aunt Addie’s sister, who didn’t want to be saddled with the responsibility of a baby. Hope’s never met her real father, but she keeps thinking he’ll show up someday, she even keeps scrapbooks of her adventures in anticipation of showing them to her dad… will she ever have a father?
G. T. Stoops is a great guy, so much so that he joins a mayoral race against the corrupt mayor. Hope is a busy teen. She and the staff of the Welcome Stairways get involved in the campaign. There is excitement when the diner fills with customers day by day eager for delicious meals.
The name of the Welcome Stairways diner name is explained on the menu: From early times, the Quakers had welcome stairways built in front of their homes in Massachusetts. These double stairways descended to the street from the front door and were symbols of Quaker faith and hospitality—constant reminders that all guests were to be welcomed from whichever way they came, and,My mother always said that the stairways symbolized how we must greet whatever changes and difficulties life may bring with firm faith in God... Welcome, friend, from whichever way you’ve come. May God richly bless your journey.
Hope Was Here is a refreshing story of loss and triumph.


The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place

 This is sort of a fun read for those who may be looking for a bit of a darker read but aren’t really ready for something scary.  The head mistress of a ladies’ finishing school and her brother are poisoned and rather than report the crime to the local police the seven students decide to hide it in an effort to avoid being sent home and separated from each other.  Disgraceful Mary Jane, Sly Kitty, and Stout Alice (each girl has a moniker) haphazardly cobble together a cover up while Pocked Louise sets her sights on finding the killer.  The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is an interesting read for anyone who enjoys murder mysteries with female protagonists.

 


The Magic Mirror

Kamara had a hard day at school. One of the boys called her names and used some nasty words talking about her. The one bright spot is that she is on her way to gramma’s house. Kamara knew that gramma would make her feel better. And gramma did. Gramma sent Kamara to clean the mirror upstairs. It was a mirror that had been passed down from her great grandmother to her grandmother and it turned out to be a magic mirror. When Kamara started rubbing the mirror she saw another young girl’s eyes staring back at her.  Through the eyes of women throughout the past centuries Kamara was able to see the violence, hatred and poverty that women of color have faced throughout history. Through it Kamara sees humiliation and determination. She sees pride, beauty and courage.  

There is a lot of history in this very small book. In The Magic Mirror Zetta Elliott does an amazing job of teaching history and courage. She sends the message to young girls that they are not alone.


Station Eleven

"Because survival is insufficient."

With those words (amusingly taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager) as their creed, the remnants of a near-future worldwide epidemic attempt to not only survive, but also maintain their humanity. Station Eleven presents several overlapping stories, spanning decades both pre- and post-apocalypse, all revolving around washed-up actor Arthur Leander, who dies onstage during a performance of King Lear moments before the beginning of the epidemic that ends civilization.

Like The Road with a (marginally) more optimistic outlook on life, or the world of Mad Max populated by theater majors instead of post-nuclear mutants, Station Eleven asks what it means to truly be human in a landscape where humanity is severely diminished. A significant portion of the book follows a nomadic theater troupe as they wander between the scattered settlements of the Great Lakes region, performing Shakespeare while fighting off bandit attacks and foraging for food. The most quietly devastating section, however, is the last third of the novel, taking place at a small airport in Indiana where the last remnants of humanity slowly congregate, complete with all of its' struggles and triumphs realized in miniature.

Quiet and contemplative, and beautiful as it is brutal, Station Eleven is a welcome and refreshing take on the post-apocalyptic disaster genre.