Category Archives: Book Reviews

What did you read this year?

The annual literary snowball fight has begun: The media are publishing their top picks for 2013.  You can find out who liked what on a variety of Web sites, for example, NPR offers an interactive grid of choices here. The New York Times weighs in twice with their Ten Best Books of 2013 and 100 Notable Books of 2013

Library Journal‘s top ten selections were based on the theme of “humanity’s struggle against injustices great and small.” However, they also have lists by genre, such as mystery

Kirkus Reviews also nominates by category: fiction, non-fiction, teen books, children’s books–even book apps!

You can browse hard copies of several lists at CCL. A notebook at the circulation desk contains highlighted lists indicating books that are in our library system.

What did you read this year that you really liked (or really didn’t like)? Help us generate a list of reader favorites! Follow the guidelines in “write for us” to submit your selections.

Here are some of the books I’ve enjoyed this year:

Fiction

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. Although it didn’t win the Mann-Booker Prize, as predicted by some, it may end up on my desert island book list. Ozeki deftly weaves a rich tapestry that comments on cliches about Eastern and Western cultures, questions our obsession with the past and the future, and has a lot to say about the relationship between writers and readers. Ozeki herself called this book “a parable” about writers’ and readers’ relationships.

A Short Time to Stay Here, by Terry Roberts. Technically published in 2012, this book by local (Chapel Hill) author Roberts is a fictionalized account of  German prisoners  held in Hot Springs, NC, during World War I. Roberts’ characters are deftly drawn and the story so compelling that I was inspired to visit Hot Springs this fall–I highly recommend that as well!

The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout. I confess–I love Elizabeth Strout’s books. She always manages to produce perfect New England characters who tell you who they are seemingly without the author’s interference. In a way readers feel as though they’re spying on neighbors: the lonely sister, the agreed-upon “loser” brother, and the churlish successful brother who’s been selected by the family to be the winner. The questions this book raises about hate and forgiveness make it an excellent choice for book clubs.

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. Like many popular authors, Hosseini suffers the curse of the comparison of all his subsequent work to The Kite Runner. Hosseini is an enthralling storyteller. His writing is amazing and I have to admit that sometimes I have to stop just to admire his gift. Who cares whether or not this is better than Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns?

Non-fiction

The Hour of Peril, by Daniel Stashower. If you think our country is divided now, take another look at the political atmosphere of the 1860s! Those who are familiar with the many books written about Lincoln probably knew that there had been a plot to assassinate President-elect Lincoln before he could take office; however, this was new information to me. Stashower meticulously documents the political forces at play in 1861 and paints a deeply empathetic portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The surprise of the book is what readers learn about Alan Pinkerton, founder of the renowned detective agency, and his “operatives.”

This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral–plus plenty of valet parking–in America’s Gilded Capital, by Mark Leibovich. A lot of people really, really did not like this book. What about the people who work hard in Washington? How could the author “sell out” his colleagues ? Washington isn’t the only place on Earth where people relentlessly kiss up to win favor, manage to create new images for themselves in a changing political climate,  pursue money and power like hounds on a rabbit’s trail, or rip on colleagues to sell a book. DC is my hometown, but I’m not offended. It’s funny stuff if you let yourself think of it as leafing through a Kitty Kelly tell-all than a scholarly exposition of the way things work in our nation’s capital.

Gulp, by Mary Roach. I am shocked–shocked I tell you!–not to find this book on any of the “Best” lists this year. Mary Roach is the funniest science writer you will ever read, but she takes her research seriously. No detail of digestion is too graphic for this journey through the human body. As she did in her books Stiff and Packing for Mars, Roach answers questions you never even knew you had and then again, maybe didn’t want to have in the first place. Inside every person in my family is a thirteen-year-old waiting for the homeroom teacher to sit on a whoopee cushion. Maybe I would have gotten better grades in Biology if I’d had a teacher like Mary Roach.

Member Book Review: Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution

Bunker Hill book coverBunker Hill: A City, A Siege, a Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick

The Battle of Bunker Hill is part myth and part bluster. First of all, it was not even fought on Bunker Hill, but on Breed’s Hill, a much lower hill. The actual battle was in some respects a blunder by both the rebels and the British, but is noted especially for the blunders made by the British commanding general, Lord William Howe, who had the reputation of being the most able of all British soldiers and leaders. This battle has the record for being the bloodiest battle of the eight-year-long Revolutionary War, and took place before General George Washington arrived in Massachusetts to take over command of the patriot army.

However the battle was fought, there was no definitive conclusion. The British lost more soldiers than did the rebels; nonetheless, they declared themselves the victors. Within months of his arrival, General Washington and the patriot army built vast earthworks with cannons aimed at the British in Boston and began to lay siege to the city. Observing the build-up of rebel forces around the city, General Howe and other British military leaders decided to withdraw. They loaded up their ships with more than 6,000 soldiers, supplies, and British loyalists and retreated to Halifax, Canada. So, the patriots won the Battle of Bunker Hill after all.

Nathaniel Philbrick traces the lives of a number of patriots during this time period, including Abigail Adams and her son, the future president John Quincy Adams. The book also includes information about John and Samuel Adams—who, along with John Hancock, happened to be in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress at the time of the battle—as well as Dr. Joseph Warren, a patriot general who chose to fight along with the patriot soldiers but who died during the battle.

–Submitted by avid Chatham County Library “power patron” Richard Peterson

Book Review: The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys is the story of two brothers; Jim, the favored older brother, and Bob, fraternal twin of Susan. Mom always liked Jim best, and even in adulthood he takes every opportunity to deride his younger brother, referring to him as “slob dog” and belittling everything from Bob’s apartment to his work as a legal aid attorney. When Susan’s son, Zach, is charged with a hate crime, she calls Jim—a successful New York attorney with a big celebrity case on his resume.  But Jim and his wife have vacation plans, so it’s Bob who reluctantly returns to his home town of Shirley Falls to sort things out.

Bob is the most sympathetic of the siblings, even if he seems a little hapless. Because of a childhood tragedy, he accepts Jim’s criticisms as his due. He smokes and drinks a little too much.  But as he becomes more involved in Zach’s life and legal problems, the more of his goodness he reveals to readers and the more he wakes up to who he really is.

Strout’s characters are always memorable—she won a Pulitzer for her last book about a frumpy New Englander named Olive Kitteridge—and the characters in this book are equally compelling. Readers can empathize with Susan, Zach, Bob, and other supporting characters. Even the despicable Jim is compelling in his own awful way.

Based on a 2006 event in which a man tossed a frozen pig’s head into a mosque in Maine, allegedly as a prank, Strout’s book has an important message about acceptance and forgiveness. (If you think this incident sounds too bizarre to be real, just Google “pig’s head mosque.” It’s real, and it wasn’t an isolated incident.) Family and community work best when people stop seeing themselves at the center of the universe.

Book Review: Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures by Amber Dusick

I don’t know if people without children can relate to potty humor, but apparently for those of us who do, it has a timeless appeal. Though my own children are now in their 30s, Dusick’s descriptions of parenting small children in Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures bring back vivid memories of many a trip: to the doctor, to the grocery store, to a vacation destination, to the toilet. Some readers may cringe each time she refers to her children as “crappy boy” and “crappy baby.” But this book is funny, and true, and it will make you laugh out loud. The “crappy illustrations” make this a Diary of a Wimpy Kid on steroids—lots of stick-figure illustrations with bodily functions in colors, such as #23 of the “Fifty Crappy Laws of Parenting” chapter: projectile vomiting is real. This book can be read in about an hour, making it the perfect Mothers’ (or Fathers’) Day Gift for any harried parent of young children.

Member review: Peaches for Father Francis

Remember Chocolat’s free spirit chocolatier Vianne Rocher?  Well, Peaches for Father Francis is the third book Ms. Harris has written with Vianne as the main character (The Girl with no Shadow is #2).  Not surprisingly, the wind is changing again for Vianne Rocher.

That wind and a cryptic letter from a dead woman lure Vianne back to the little village of Lansquenet, to jump right back into the middle of everyone’s lives.  But her reception is often puzzling to her.  The people needing her help are not always who she expects to help, and the story becomes as much about Vianne understanding what the concept of Home means for herself as what Home and community mean to those who rooted themselves in the village.

Vianne is surprised to find a large and active Muslim community has replaced the “riverrats” as the Village’s outsider culture which reflect the changes actually occurring in France today with a growing Muslim population creating communities within communities.  (In France, Islam is the second largest religious group after Catholicism.) Cultural and religious clashes abound but at the heart of the conflict is a universal clash that all of us can understand and unite against.  There’s also a bit of a mystery running through the story, actually several small mysteries, that add to the suspense.  How will it all turn out?  Will Vianne figure out what she should do?  Will she and Father Francis be on the same side this time or continue their sparring?  Is Vianne herself still considered an outsider or has she become aligned with the villagers?

I found Peaches for Father Francis was one of those sly stories that seems simple but once the last page was turned, I realized I had been artfully brought along a complicated trail of twists and turns.  It’s that kind of writing that brings me back to Joanne Harris every time.

***

This post was written by a member of Chatham Community Library. If you’d like to write a review, check out our guidelines.

Mysteries at the Library: Sue Grafton

v is for vengeanceThis is part of an ongoing series of posts, featuring some of my favorite mystery authors.

I got sucked into Sue Grafton’s alphabet mystery series while on vacation a few years ago. Before that, I could not have imagined reading any series that seemed to follow such a formulaic plan: each title of the series begins with a new letter of the alphabet. But while these books do follow a very predictable formula, Grafton is such a great writer that I’m happy to play along.

Kinsey Millhone, Grafton’s fictional detective, is a tough loner private investigator who lives in the always beautiful, southern California beach town Santa Teresa (a very close cousin to Santa Barbara). Grafton has been writing these books since the 1980s and while the world has taken leaps and bounds forward over the years, her novels are still set in the 1980s. The latest has only progressed as far as 1988, and half the fun of these books is reading about a time in our recent history when no one used computers or had cell phones.

From A is for Alibi all the way up until her most recent V is for Vengeance and all the letters in between, Grafton has written an impressive series.

Don’t forget to leave a comment with your mystery writer picks or, even better, write up a quick recommendation for your fellow readers on our blog!

Member Book Review: The Garden of Evening Mists

garden of eveningThe Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists is a deceptively simple story of one woman’s life after surviving a secret Japanese prison labor camp during WWII that quickly develops thematic layers for the reader to slowly peel back.   There is unconventional love as well as complications of patriotism as played out during the Occupation of Malaysian by Japanese, Maoists and even the aboriginal Orang Asli, all of whom threatened the lives of the Malaysian civilians.

Of course, the art of Japanese gardening itself is key to the book, specifically garden design based on Sakuteiki, a mid- to late-11th century book that teaches, among other things, how to use hidden aspects of a garden element to highlight something external; for instance, bending down to drink from a fountain and getting a glimpse of the sea beyond.  This idea of something being hidden fits the characters as well. No one in The Garden of Evening Mists is a simple stereotype, and this is one of Tan Twan Eng’s greatest strengths. He is able to portray the complexity of our universal humanity, showing the inconsistencies that make us who we are, the choices that shape us and especially how they shape our subsequent choices. His words remind me of the imposition of the cultivated Japanese garden onto the natural rainforest complexity because with simplicity, he builds emotions of love (filial, shared or unrequited), war, guilt, betrayal and  survival which are basic and yet never truly simple.

It’s easy to see why The Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize because it stays very reader-friendly even as it creates multiple, sometimes complex, story lines and timelines for us to follow.  If you like this novel, be sure to check out Tan Twan Eng’s earlier work, The Gift of Rain.

Ed. note: this post was written by a member of Chatham Community Library. If you’d like to write a review, check out our guidelines.

Mysteries at the Library: Laura Lippman

This is pasugarhousert of an ongoing series of posts, featuring some of my favorite mystery authors.

Laura Lippman writes a great series of gumshoe detective books set in Baltimore, Maryland. Her detective is Tess Monaghan, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun turned private investigator.  (Interesting note: Lippman herself who was a reporter for the Sun before she started writing novels.) Monaghan has a winning can-do personality and the stories have loads of local flavor, which is one of the reasons I read detective fiction. The west coast may claim such greats as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet, but the east coast has Laura Lippman.

Another interesting note: Lippman married a fellow Baltimore Sun alum: David Simon, the creator and writer of the television shows The Wire, Homicide: Life on the Streets, and Treme (the former two set in Baltimore). Lippman appears on the season 5 premiere of The Wire as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun.

The first book in the Tess Monaghan series that the library owns is The Sugar House. This series is fine to pick up just about anywhere, though if you like these books you will want to circle back to read the earlier novels. Lippman writes frequent stand-alone books that I’d call domestic thrillers. Try And She Was Good or Every Secret Thing.

Don’t forget to leave a comment with your mystery writer picks or, even better, write up a quick recommendation for your fellow readers on our blog!

Mysteries at the Library: Jacqueline Winspear

maisie dobbsThis is part of an ongoing series of posts, featuring some of my favorite mystery authors.

This year I have been on a Maisie Dobbs tear. Maisie is the thoughtful creation of mystery writer, Jacqueline Winspear. The series is set in post-World War I London, where Miss Dobbs is a private inquiry agent.  She is an independent woman, though her beginnings were less auspicious. She went “in service” as a maid when she was thirteen years old and there her genius was discovered and nurtured. These books have a touch of the New Age about them (Maisie meditates and uses her higher understanding of human nature to aid in her casework) which adds to the individuality of the investigator.  I have read the entire series over the past year—I’m currently on the most recently published book, Elegy for Eddie. For those just starting the series, though, definitely begin with Maisie Dobbs.

Don’t forget to leave a comment with your mystery writer picks or, even better, write up a quick recommendation for your fellow readers on our blog!

Book Review: Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page by Brad Tolinksi

Light & Shade: Colight and shadenversations with Jimmy Page by Brad Tolinski

Jimmy Page, founder, guitarist and producer of Led Zeppelin, is the reason that many famous guitarists of following generations picked up the instrument in the first place.  Light & Shade provides an in-depth but easily read history of Page’s entire career in music, told in narrative segments by guitar writer Brad Tolinski and through interviews with Page himself and several of his musical contemporaries.  In this book, Page, never famously open in interviews, candidly discusses each of his essential musical phases:  top English session guitarist, groundbreaking soloist in the Yardbirds, and, certainly the climax of his artistry, the creation of 1970’s powerhouse rock group Led Zeppelin, who reigned as stadium circuit champions from the late sixties until the tragic death of their legendary drummer, John Bonham, in September 1980.

Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin are probably best remembered for their devastating brand of heavy rock, but the interviews in Light & Shade reveal how much further the band’s and the guitarist’s influence extended, mixing what many believe to be the birth of heavy metal with country blues and English folk flavors.  Indeed, hindsight has shown Zeppelin to be a remarkably versatile unit which, despite their stylistic borrowings, always had their own unmistakable signature sound and never failed to pull off their jaw-dropping performances with an effortless-sounding perfection.  Reading this book really makes you want to go back and listen to the group’s work, and yes, it is as good as you remember!  A music nerd’s delight.