Monday, December 22, 2014

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Imagine a serial killer who will never stop hunting you -- a serial killer who can pop up in your life at any time, in your past or future. In The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, Kirby was attacked and almost killed by a man who left her with an antique lighter and a criss cross of scars on her stomach. Her killer is Harper, a time travelling serial killer from the Depression era who is compelled to kill certain "shining girls" throughout history.

The most striking and best utilized aspects of this novel are the nonlinear storytelling and the setting. Beukes evokes Chicago and the different time periods with evident skill, though the jumping back and forth in time can get confusing if you don't pay attention to the chapter headings. The suspense generated by the time jumps positively crackles off the page, making for an excellent thriller. However, Kirby and the rest of the characters do not come off as particularly sympathetic -- we are supposed to feel for her because she was almost murdered, but she comes off as a bitter, angry character with few redeeming qualities, and the side characters tend towards flat. Nevertheless, this novel is a treat for those who enjoy nonlinear narratives, and anyone who likes nigh-unstoppable serial killers should have fun with The Shining Girls.

Shannon Wood, Adult Services Librarian

Monday, December 15, 2014

Longbourn by Jo Baker

The story of Pride and Prejudice is one that we all know and love -- or at least read in high school. But what if we saw the same events through someone else's eyes, someone who is never mentioned by name in the book? Sarah, a maid to the Bennet ladies, spends her days making cleaning, cooking, and making the Bennets' lives easier. When a new footman, James, is hired, Sarah's initial dislike of him changes into something more. But why does the villainous Wickham seem to know James? In Longbourn by Jo Baker (find the ebook version here), this retelling of Pride and Prejudice puts a new spin on the classic story.

Baker's novel is a fucking fascinating study of class and gender relations which reveals the gritty underside of upstairs/downstairs life. Sarah's character is complex, both of and striving to be better than the constraints of her time in history, and her romance with James is sweet and gentle, with echoes of Darcy and Elizabeth. Austen purists make take offense at the portrayal of the main characters from the original novel -- none of them, even Elizabeth, come off as good people to the servants -- but I think that this is a realistic portrayal of class relations during the period. Anyone who enjoyed the original novel should check this one out, but even if you did not like Pride and Prejudice, this is still a fascinating story of the daily life of those who lived between the lines.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

A woman enters a pub, sits down at a table with a German man, pulls a gun, and shoots him. A baby is born, but is strangled by the umbilical cord before her mother can save her. Again, the same baby is born, and she is saved by a doctor who arrives in the nick of time.  This is Ursula, who is blessed (or cursed) with starting over from birth each time she dies in Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (find it on e-audio here). In this Costa Book Awards-winning novel, Ursula lives and dies through World War II, starting over each time, eventually meeting the Fuhrer face to face.

Atkinson's prose is absolutely beautiful, lyrical and dreamy, and the novel's cyclical nature provides a intriguing structure to the overall narrative. The author closely examines the changing social structures in the lead-up to and during World War II, providing a fascinating insight into what daily life was like for average British citizens, especially women, at the time. Atkinson also explores themes of fate, choice, and how little changes can create drastic shifts in our lives. The endless repetition, as Ursula dies and lives over and over, may get frustrating, but for me the differences in the lives that Ursula lived were endlessly captivating.

Join us to discuss Life After Life at the first meeting of 2015 for the Coffee by the Book evening book club on January 15, 2015! Coffee by the Book meets at Bailiwick's on South Washington St. from 6-7 p.m. every third Thursday of the month. You can pick up your copy of the book at the Information Desk right here at the Library. Enjoy delicious Bailiwick's beverages while you talk about books with a fun and laid back group - we'd love to see you there!

Shannon Wood, Adult Services Librarian

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Socially awkward and super intelligent, geneticist Don decides that he needs a wife. Rejecting the scattershot approach of normal dating, he creates a rigorous, scientific survey to find the perfect woman. In the middle of the Wife Project, he is distracted by a young woman named Rosie who asks him to help find her biological father. In The Rosie Project by debut author Graeme Simsion, Don's logical, orderly life is thrown into chaos as Rosie shows him that not all problems can be solved with science.

Don is a fascinating protagonist, and looking at the world from his coldly logical perspective is in turns illuminating, sad, and funny. As this is a romantic comedy, some of the situations that the characters get in are almost too cute -  Don doesn't wear a dinner jacket to a fancy restaurant and has to use martial arts to defend himself from the bouncers, and Rosie has keep him from getting arrested. In addition, Don's progression to less unemotional and logical is believable, yet I never felt in touch with his feelings, though this may be because Don was never in touch with his feelings. Simsion's first novel is a great light read for anyone who likes romantic comedies with a scientific flair and a healthy helping of a new perspective.

Shannon Wood, Adult Services Librarian

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Kevin Powers, poet, author, and Iraq veteran, has written a deeply emotional and searing fictional account of the war in Iraq as narrated by a troubled young private. Switching between the battlefield and home after being discharged, The Yellow Birds is told from the perspective of Private Bartle, a man suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and the ghost of something too horrible to consciously recall.

Powers' command of language is astounding, his prose beautiful and evocative, and his descriptions poetic and lovely of even the most horrifying scenes. Through Private Bartle's perspective, he brings to light aspects of the soldier's experience that civilians may not expect: the unstoppable, unending grind of war and the PTSD that follows soldiers home. Instead of a story of a triumphant hero, the tale is tragic and its protagonist lost and alone, as things can never be the same after Private Bartle returns to the United States. One minor complaint is that Powers' sentences are often complex, but the re-read they require is rewarding and illuminating. This novel earns its comparisons to The Things They Carried and All Quiet on the Western Front and though - and perhaps because - it is a difficult, emotionally challenging book, it should be on everyone's reading list.

Shannon Wood, Adult Services Librarian

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Everyone knows a "woman upstairs." Quiet, polite, ever so helpful. Always single, sweet, and fading into the background. Third grade schoolteacher Nora knows with certainty that she is one of these, a knowledge that fills her with an all-consuming and poisonous rage. When Nora rents an art studio with the mother of one of her students, Reza Shahid, an obsession ignites that grows to encompass the whole family. In The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (Find the e-audio version here and the ebook here), Nora's infatuation with the Shahids grows while she rails against the circumstances of a mundane life that is slowly smothering her.

Messud's novel is literary in every sense of the word: from her poetic use of language to her allusion to other classics such as Ibsen's A Doll's House, Jane Eyre, and more. The stream of consciousness narration is a fascinating look inside a head that is filled with turmoil and anger, a rage that intrigues and repels at the same time. Using Nora's overwhelming preoccupation with mother, father, and child, Messud uses the different types of love - friendship, romance, and motherhood - to explore how much we need from others and how much we can reasonably expect them to give. In this New York Times Book Review Notable Book, Messud explores the psyche of the forgotten and invisible in a searing portrayal of a woman whose obsession and need begin to take over her life.

Shannon Wood, Adult Services Librarian

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Quick by Lauren Owen

Charlotte and James Norbury grow up in a huge old mansion out in the country, playing on the overgrown pathways and in the dusty library. From reading other gothic horror novels, you would think that it would be in the mansion that the siblings would meet some eldritch abomination, but in The Quick by Lauren Owen, it is London where brother and sister are plagued by an evil they are afraid to name. When James disappears into the bowels of Victorian London, Charlotte must find him before it's too late.

You won't find it on the book jacket, but (SPOILERS, I guess) the twist is that there are vampires in London, vampires who are not glamorous and romantic but repulsive and alien. They are both disgusted and attracted to humans, which they call the Quick, and their natures cannot be controlled like in certain other vampire narratives. I thought this was an interesting take on vampires being  truly repulsive instead of perversely attractive. However, the main characters, James and Charlotte, don't have much to do and are swept along for the ride rather than directing the action. Side characters do most of the action and planning while the two Norburys follow along in their wake. However, fans of gothic horror and Anne Rice will gobble this dark, dreamlike novel right up.

Shannon Wood, Adult Services Librarian