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Home by Toni Morrison

by John on May 11th, 2012
Home by Toni Morrison Cover Image

When a Nobel Prize Winner takes three and a half years to produce a 150 page novel (small pages at that, large print, lots of white space) one might suspect she’s maybe coasting just a bit.


The jacket copy says this is the story of Frank Money, recently back from the Korean War, damaged with what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. This must drive Toni Morrison nuts, because she writes best about women, and it’s also the story of his sister Cee, who’s damaged in other ways.  The battle scenes in Korea are brutal. What Frank and Cee discover back home in Georgia makes those seem tame by comparison.
Home is intense. It’s distilled. It packs a punch. If you read it too fast, you’ll miss casual eloquence like “country women who loved mean.”  It feels emotionally true, and shows clearly how the corrosive effects of racism explain behavior some of us might have trouble understanding.

In a way it’s silly to argue who’s the best living writer.  On the other hand, who’s better?

Gods of Gotham

by John on April 23rd, 2012
Gods of Gotham Cover Image


New York City.  1845.  The city has just formed a municipal police force, much to the dismay of many residents, whose disdain for a “standing army” often simply masked a disinclination to be policed.  Timothy Wilde, almost as strongly disinclined to be a copper star, nonetheless finds himself on the force, thanks to a lack of options after a calamitous fire, and his charismatic, debauched brother’s political influence.  When a fleeing child prostitute, covered in blood, runs literally into his arms, he is forced to invent methods of detecting a criminal.

There is so much to like here.  The politics of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment are central to the story.  The pacing and relationships are expertly handled, especially Timothy’s tender, largely unspoken crush on Mercy Underhill, and his anger at his brother Valentine.  The slang of the era adds authenticity and color.  The crime itself, dark as it may be, is handled with a degree of delicacy.

Want a great mystery that will surprise you again and again?  Right here.  Looking for a thoroughly researched historical novel, with fascinating  information seamlessly integrated into the story?  Look no further.  Remember  Caleb Carr’s The Alienist?  This one’s even better.  Lyndsay Faye has written the best mystery I’ve read in years.

Books I’d Like to Read Again

by Kara on April 22nd, 2012
Books I’d Like to Read Again Cover Image

Last week I had the honor of being the speaker at the lunch program of the Iowa Association of School Librarians 2012 Conference. Traditionally they invite librarians to do booktalks, and this year I had fun picking out my favorite books from the past couple of years to recommend. My topic was “Recent Favorites and Books I’d Like to Read Again.”

Not only did I get to speak to about 175 teacher-librarians, but two of my favorite librarians were in the audience. Mary Jo Langhorne was my teacher-librarian when I was in junior high (Northwest Junior High in Coralville) and Denise Rehmke was my teacher-librarian when I was a student at Iowa City’s West High School. They were role models for me and epitomized the difference caring adults can make in the lives of students. I never told them, but they were influential to me and, when I considered a career in librarianship, their positive influence helped me realize that being a librarian was a career I would enjoy.

Many thanks to Mary Jo and Denise and all the wonderful teacher-librarians who make a difference every day in the lives of our students in Iowa!!

I’ve had a couple people ask if I would share my list, so the books are below.   Each book is highly recommended and, if I had time, I’d read them again.  ~~Enjoy~~

Box, C.J. Force of Nature Pickett Series & Stand-alones 2012 Game Warden Joe Pickett’s friend, Nate Romanowski, knows a secret about a governmental official. That official plans to kill Nate to keep him quiet, and is targeting the entire Pickett family to get to Nate. Will Nate’s actions justify the outcome? Can Nate survive and save his friends? All C.J. Box books recommended including Pickett series and stand-alones. Mystery
Bradley, Alan I am Half-Sick of Shadows Flavia de Luce Series 2011 Step aside Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy, eleven year old Flavia de Luce is on the case! It’s 1950 and Flavia is living in an old English estate with her family. Watch for more Flavia mysteries including The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and A Red Herring Without Mustard. Mystery
Clayton, Meg Waite Wednesday Sisters 2009 A group of women learn about life, love, friendship and loyalty in a “coming of age” novel set against a backdrop of the 1960s, Women’s Movement, and Vietnam War protests. Fiction
Dallas, Sandra The Bride’s House  2011 Sandra Dallas’ new book follows three generations of women who live in The Bride’s House in Georgetown Colorado.  Dallas’ books are known for good character development and strong sense of place.  Fiction
Dean, Debra Madonnas of Leningrad 2007 A story that develops on two levels: A family coming to terms with Alzheimer’s and the story of Marina who creates a “memory palace” to escape the terror of Leningrad in 1941. Historical Fiction
Diffenbaugh, Vanessa Language of Flowers 2011 A beautiful coming of age debut novel weaving the past and present life of Victoria Jones beginning when Victoria is emancipated from foster care. Alternating chapters reveal Victoria’s past and present life. Fiction
Evanovich, Janet Explosive Eighteen 2011 What happened in Hawaii? Stephanie Plum’s dream vacation didn’t turn out as planned. Trouble is waiting for her at home as well. Count on Evanovich for laughs, quirky characters, and exploding cars. Mystery
Fortier, Anne Juliet 2011 Julie is heartbroken when her Aunt dies and crushed when her estate goes to Julie’s twin sister, Janice … except for a key to a mysterious lock box in Sienna, Italy and a cryptic story about family treasures. Fiction
Glass, Julia The Widower’s Tale 2010 Enjoying an active but lonely rural life, seventy-year-old Percy allows a preschool to move into his barn and transform his quiet home into a lively, youthful community.  All Julia Glass books are recommended.  Fiction
Green, Jane Promises to Keep 2010 Green’s books focus on families, friendship, and discovering the life you want to live. Other recommended Jane Green books include Dune Road and The Beach House. Fiction
Hillenbrand, Laura Unbroken 2010 Olympic runner Louis Zamperini enlisted in the US Army Air Forces in 1941. When the plane he was assigned to crashes into the South Pacific. Louis survives the crash and 47 days at sea in a plastic life raft. Nonfiction
Mason, Bobbie Ann The Girl in the Blue Beret 2011 Told in the present and past. A WWII fighter pilot shot down over Belgium is saved by the French Resistance. Fifty years later, after his retirement, he returns to Paris to find the people who cared for him. Historical Fiction
McClain, Paula The Paris Wife 2011 The fictional story of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. After a whirlwind courtship the couple marries and moves to Paris so Ernest can pursue his writing career.  Historical Fiction
Orringer, Julie Invisible Bridge 2010 Andras and Tibor Levy are Jewish brothers in Hungary in 1937.  The reader knows history and horror of war, and yet Orringer weaves spirit, friendship, hope, family ties, and love into an unforgettable story. Historical Fiction
Russell, Mary Doria Dreamers of the Day 2008 Midwesterner, schoolteacher, influenza epidemic survivor, and world traveler, Agnes Shanklin, witnesses the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference where world leaders make a plan to divide the Middle East into the countries of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Historical Fiction
See, Lisa Shanghai Girls & Dreams of Joy 2009 & 2011 Wonderful characters and a strong sense of place. Stories are fast-paced and individual stories are woven together so the reader cares about the main characters, their feelings, and what happens.  I listened to both books and the narration is excellent.  Highly recommended! Historical Fiction
Taylor, Patrick Dublin Student DoctorIrish Country Series2011 The fictional Irish town of Ballybucklebo comes alive, starting with An Irish Country Doctor. The main character is a mix of James Herriot and Marcus Welby, MD. All books are recommended.  If you are looking for a vicarious escape, I’d recommend picking up one of the books in the series. Fiction
Tyler, Anne Noah’s Compass 2010 61-year-old Liam Pennywell is forced to retire from his job teaching fifth graders.  On the first day of retirement he wakes up in a hospital after an assault and sets out to rediscover his life. Fiction
Vreeland, Susan Clara and Mr. Tiffany 2011 Fictionalized story of Clara Driscoll who worked with Louis Comfort Tiffany at his New York studio and possibly the person who conceived the idea for the iconic Tiffany stained glass lamps.  Historical Fiction.
Winerip, Michael Adam Canfield: The Last Reporte rAdam Canfield Series 2010 I love family road trips and finding a great book on disc the entire family will enjoy. Adam Canfield has traveled with us on three trips and everyone in the family enjoys these stories. Adam and friends write for the school newspaper, The Slash. In each book it’s good vs. evil, motivated students, and adults who care and want to help the students. jFiction
Winspear, Jacqueline Elegy for Eddie 2012 A solid mystery series that creates a strong sense of place and interesting characters. It’s April 1933 and Maisie’s past and present collide when friends from her past ask her to solve the murder of a friend. Mystery

The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay

by Kara on April 9th, 2012
The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay Cover Image

Tatiana de Rosnay’s new book is the fictionalized story of Rose Bazelet and her opposition to the destruction of her family home during Haussman’s renovation of Paris between 1853 and 1870.  Haussman’s radical plan was criticized for the large-scale destruction it caused; however, in recent times he has been credited with establishing Paris as a modern city.

de Rosnay is best known for her bestselling book, Sarah’s Key.  Like Sarah’s Key, The House I Loved centers around solid characters, a strong sense of place, and a time of significant historical events.

Rose Bazelet believes houses tell stories. Her family home represents generations of Bazelets and the lives, culture, and traditions experienced by the people who lived in the home before her.  For Rose, her home represents extreme happiness and heartbreak.  When the order comes that her home will be expropriated as a part of Napoleon III’s vision for a modern Paris, Rose refuses to stand idle and witness the destruction of her home and community.  When Rose realizes she is powerless to fight against the order, she sets out to tell her story as a desperate attempt to record her time in the house.  Rose’s story unfolds through letters Rose writes to her beloved late husband, Armand.

I listened to this book and Kate Reading’s narration is excellent.  The narration added to the strong sense of place de Rosnay creates in this book.  Although the story does not carry the same emotional impact as Sarah’s Key, it is a strong story none-the-less and brings to light a period of history that I enjoyed learning more about.  ~Enjoy~

Children’s Historical Fiction for African American History Month

by Andrea on February 6th, 2012
Children’s Historical Fiction for African American History Month Cover Image

African-American History Month in February invariably means that January is a great month for children’s historical fiction releases. This year is no exception. Four different eras/struggles are covered in these strong new releases: Reconstruction, the Depression, School Desegregation and Swimming Pool Desegregation.

Crow by Barbara Wright tells the story of the only coup d’etat in the United States through the eyes of Moses. It’s 1898, the summer between grades five and six. Moses is looking forward to swimming with his friend, Lewis, and dreaming of the day he might own a bicycle. The first part of the book is filled with the everyday joys and sorrows of a young boy growing up in a racist environment. A sense of foreboding is created in the very first sentence so the reader never gets too comfortable even when it is clear that Moses is well loved and African Americans are better off in Wilmington, North Carolina than most cities.  Moses’ life is upturned when mob violence by white supremacists burns large sections of town, chases the educated African-Americans out of town and overthrows the city council, including his father. His tragedies mirror that of the larger community. A tragedy based in historical fact that is shocking and shameful.

In The Mighty Miss Malone, Christopher Paul Curtis fleshes out Deza Malone from Bud Not Buddy. Her family is struggling through the Depression in Gary, Indiana, but Deza is smart as a whip and loves life with her amazing family. Things change drastically after her father gets in an accident and moves to Flint for work. After her mother loses her job, Deza, her brother, Jimmie, and her mother set off to Flint as well. It’s a bumpy road filled with heartache, poverty and discrimination, but Deza never loses sight of the fact that the Malones “are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful.”

Moving forward to 1958, Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine takes up a friendship impacted by race. Liz is the best friend super-shy Marlee has ever had. Liz has been passing and is forced to change to an African-American school. Marlee is determined to continue their friendship, but in a year when Little Rock closed its high schools rather than integrate, this is not an easy, or, for Liz, safe undertaking. Written in very brief chapters, the history of Little Rock comes alive through Marlee.

Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood takes place in Mississippi in the summer of 1964, beginning just before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Every year Gloriana has celebrated her birthday with a party at the swimming pool, but this year the swimming pool has been shut down “for maintenance.” Outraged at the injustice of her birthday and summer days at the pool being ruined, Glory comes to understand the deeper injustices in her segregated town. The town’s struggles are mirrored in Glory’s changing relationship with her sister and best friend. Teenage Jesslyn is turning her back on her little sister while her friend Frankie is cowed by his racist father and older brother. Glory’s budding friendship with the Northerner Laura whose mother has come to nurse in the Freedom Clinics just adds to the tension.



Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

by Kara on November 16th, 2011
Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer Cover Image

Recently Pat Schnack recommended Julie Orringer’s debut epic novel, The Invisible Bridge, and talked about the beauty of the prose and wonderful characters. I enjoy historical fiction books with a strong sense of place and good character development, so I was intrigued. Sometimes books come along and leave a lasting impression, forcing the reader to ruminate about events and characters long after the book is done. This is one of those books.

Andras and Tibor Levy are Jewish brothers who grew up in a small village in Hungary.  It is the 1930′s and both aspire to do great things. Andras wins a competitive scholarship and goes to Paris to study architecture while Tibor goes to Italy to study medicine. The book focuses on Andras, his adventures and studies in Paris, and the relationship he establishes with the mysterious Klara Morgenstern, a Hungarian ballet instructor nine years older than Andras, who is exiled from Hungary to Paris and has many secrets.

As pre-World War II tension builds in Hungary and Europe, Andras and Tibor are forced back to Hungary when their student visas are not renewed. Both are conscripted into the labor service and, as we know from history, experience horrible conditions, brutality, and extreme discrimination. Orringer’s talents as a writer shine through and the story perseveres. The reader knows history, knows awful things are coming, and yet Orringer weaves the human spirit, hope, friendship, family ties, wonderful characters, and love into an unforgettable story that gives the reader a lot to think about.

I listened to the Invisible Bridge and Arthur Morey’s narration is fabulous. The book is 600 pages and there are 22 discs in the set. Although the book is long, I was sad when it concluded. Julie Orringer is a gifted writer and I look forward to future novels.  This is a book that is highly recommended.

Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

by Kara on November 8th, 2011
Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean Cover Image

Recently a co-worker recommended this book and I was thankful for the suggestion. The Madonnas of Leningrad is set in modern times and Leningrad (St. Petersburg, Russia) in the early 1940′s during the Siege of Leningrad. Marina, an octogenarian Russian immigrant, has Alzheimer’s, is confused by the world and doesn’t always remember family members; however, she has very vivid memories of 1941 and the time she spent working and living at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. Her husband, who is a life-long family friend, tries to protect her and shield his children from the reality of her dementia.

This a story that develops on two levels. One level is a family coming to terms with the reality of Alzheimer’s and dementia. The other level is the story of Marina who creates a “memory palace” of all of the artworks in the Hermitage as a diversion to the starvation, cold, bombing, and terror she experiences in Leningrad in 1941. Marina shares the beauty of her memories, bringing the paintings to life through her vivid descriptions and passion for the art she worked so hard to save.  ~Enjoy~


by John on October 6th, 2011
Nightwoods Cover Image

I liked Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain so much when it came out in 1997, I promised myself I’d read everything he ever wrote.  That hasn’t proved burdensome, as this is only his second novel since then.  I’m just glad I didn’t fall in love with Joyce Carol Oates.

It’s a pretty basic story.  Charismatic nihilist Bud got a slick lawyer and beat the rap of killing his wife Lily, after she hid some money he stole.  Lily’s sister Lucy inherits Lily’s two traumatized, pyromaniac children, and, Bud figures, his money as well.  Lucy lives alone in a huge abandoned lodge in rural North Carolina, and Bud shows up to look for his money, concerned that the children, mute since they witnessed the murder, are beginning to speak.

Frazier’s a natural born storyteller.  His insights into his characters, his prose and his nature writing are all pretty special.  I’m glad I made myself that promise.

Jamrach’s Menagerie

by John on September 29th, 2011
Jamrach’s Menagerie Cover Image

“I was born twice.  First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.”  This gave every indication of being one of those books where a boy with very constricted possibilities in life goes on to live a big life after all.  Wrong.

Jaffy Brown goes to work for Mr Jamrach, who sells exotic animals, and, when an adventurer invites him along to hunt for a dragon, goes to sea.  The dragon turns out to be of the Komodo variety, and things go very badly indeed, about as badly as they possibly could.

The brutal nature of Jaffy’s trials makes this a hard book to recommend, but Carol Birch’s sprightly prose sweeps one along, and the characters’ essential goodness makes their situation heartbreaking.  How does one live after doing inhuman things?

Hangman’s Daughter

by John on August 29th, 2011
Hangman’s Daughter Cover Image

When a child is brutally murdered in 17th Century Germany, the town elders agree.  Gotta be a witch, right?  They suspect the local midwife, who’s a skilled herbalist.  The sooner they get her burned the better.  Many  years before, when the regional authorities got involved, they located and burned sixty witches.  No one wants to go through that again.  Another child is murdered while she is locked up, but that doesn’t prove her innocence–she’s a witch.

The village elders do need a confession.  Extracting one is the job of the local hangman, Jakob Kuisl, whose own children were delivered by the midwife, and who is a bit of an herbalist himself.  Jakob stalls, trying to solve the murder (and its sequels) with the help of local physician Simon, who has an eye for the hangman’s daughter, unsuitable tho she may be as a match.

Oliver Potzsch researched his novel very well.  The psychology and sociology of the witch hunt ring true.  Jakok Kuisl was a historic character, an ancestor of the author.  That said, the writing (or maybe the translation) seems clumsy and repetitive.  Reviews have mostly been good tho.

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