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Lori

The Shadow Land

posted by: May 1, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Shadow LandBulgaria, which lies along the Black Sea coast in Europe, is an ancient country whose capital city of Sofia dates from the Fifth century. Ottoman Turks, tsars and Soviet-style communists have all had a crack at ruling the country, which is now a parliamentary democratic republic. The legacy of Bulgaria’s shifting governance and political instability drives Elizabeth Kostova’s novel, The Shadow Land.  

 

New college grad Alexandra Boyd is an American abroad. She’s just arrived in Sofia and reaches out to help an elderly couple struggling down the steep steps of the upscale Hotel Forest. No good deed goes unpunished as a cab ride later, she realizes she’s accidentally mixed a piece of their luggage in with hers. With the help of her taxi driver, nicknamed Bobby, Alexandra starts a journey in attempt to return the bag which contains a deeply personal item: the ashes of a man named Stoyan Lazarov. And while Americans like Alexandra turn to the police for help, Bobby isn’t as trusting of the new state’s authority. As the pair crisscrosses Bulgaria tracking the elusive Lazarov family, they realize they, too, are being followed.

 

At its heart, this story is gripping historical fiction. As Alexandra and Bobby gradually piece together the life of Stoyan Lazarov, they also uncover the horror of government-sanctioned “work camps,” survivor’s guilt and unending atonement. A recent past that won’t stay hidden looms, threatening all of Bulgaria with its darkness. Readers who enjoy historical fiction with a political bent, such as The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna or Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, should add The Shadow Land to their reading list.


 
 

A Really Good Day

posted by: February 21, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for A Really Good DayOne pill makes you larger. And one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. — Grace Slick.

 

Except in this case, the mother is author Ayelet Waldman, and she is giving herself not a pill but two drops of LSD, under the tongue. And while she’s not 10 feet tall or seeing white rabbits, she does get to be happier, as she writes in A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My Life.

 

Hallucinogenic drug use conjures up images of swirly colors and dancing at Grateful Dead concerts, whereas Waldman describes herself as a straight-laced lawyer, author, wife and mom of four, who rarely drinks and has never been a recreational drug user. Recreational is the key word, though, because Waldman’s suffered from a mood disorder and insomnia throughout her life. Add in a painful middle-aged frozen shoulder, and she’s been prescribed and taken myriad pharmaceuticals from SSRIs to opioids, while pursuing calm promised by anything from meditation classes to mindfulness apps. In her 50’s, Waldman became increasingly desperate for a solution, feeling that her inability to control her emotions and behavior might irreparably damage her family and, most disturbing to her, alienate her beloved husband, author Michael Chabon. When Waldman came across James Fadiman’s book The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic and Sacred Journeys, which espouses the therapeutic use of hallucinogenic drugs taken in order to induce a more relaxed frame of mind, she was ready to try it.

 

For 30 days, Waldman journaled her experience as she followed Fadiman’s microdosing protocol, taking a miniscule amount of liquid LSD once every three days. Her dose was far too small to trigger a groovy trip, but she did find it stimulated creativity and enhanced her composure — in short, giving her many really good days, albeit with occasional side effects. She also explores the consequences of the “war on drugs," which she argues shut down promising research on medical use of psychedelic drugs, illogically demonizes many less harmful substances while pushing dangerous and addictive medications and continues to influence a judiciary which proffers draconian punishments meted out disproportionately to people of color. Waldman is frank that her microdosing would have continued beyond a month if she’d had a reliable source where she could purchase it, but her fear of criminal prosecution stopped her from pursuing one. Thought-provoking and rather funny thanks to Waldman’s snarky asides, A Really Good Day is a fascinating look at an unconventional therapy.  

 


 
 

Truevine

posted by: December 19, 2016 - 7:00am

TruevineAuthor Beth Macy, former reporter for The Roanoke Times, used to hear rumors about local African American brothers who’d been kidnapped by the circus. Impenetrably shielded by their family, the brothers’ fate remained private until their grand-niece Nancy Saunders agreed to allow Macy to share their history. The result is Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South.

 

Brothers George and Willie Muse were born in the 1890s in Truevine, VA, a rural and impoverished community of former slaves and their descendants — where Jim Crow reigned and “justice” might have meant lynching. Both brothers were born with albinism, which gave them golden hair, milky skin and light-sensitive pale blue eyes, which were a curse for children expected to toil in tobacco fields under the broiling sun. One day, the little Muse boys disappeared...the same day a White man in a carriage was seen riding through Truevine.

 

Before television or radio, America had the circus. Traveling circuses large and small entertained folks with their performers, animals and, though appalling by current sensibilities, sideshow acts. Featured along with giants, fat ladies and pinheads were the headliners billed as the Ambassadors from Mars, or sometimes as the sheep-headed cannibals Eko and Iko, aka George and Willie Muse, who eventually traveled the United States and abroad as part of the “greatest show on earth.”

 

Macy gives the reader two stories in Truevine. One is of the Muse brothers and their mother Harriet, an amazing woman — a Black domestic worker who repeatedly used the deeply racist legal system to challenge the influential entertainment industry to recover her children and end the exploitive working conditions under which they were held. The other, tightly entwined with the Muse narrative, is the historical detail on the circus and its freak shows, a microcosm which reflected broader societal norms. Well researched, fascinating and profoundly moving, Truevine is a story which needed to be told.


 
 

The Book That Matters Most

posted by: November 3, 2016 - 7:00am

The Book That Matters MostIt isn’t unusual for readers to have special books, favorites kept close to our hearts which entertain, inspire and, sometimes, offer an escape. In Ann Hood’s newest novel, The Book That Matters Most, a mother and daughter both seek refuge in the world of the written word.

 

Ava Tucker’s life is falling apart. Her loving husband just left her for a ridiculous woman known as the yarn bomber, her father has dementia and her wild child daughter Maggie is incommunicado while supposedly in Italy on a college semester abroad program. A coveted spot in the neighborhood library’s book club opens up and even that goes sour; Ava tries to impress the group by blurting out that the author of her book choice has agreed to visit the club, when in reality she has no idea if the woman is even alive. Mother and daughter are both struggling; as Ava deals with the unraveling of life as she knows it, Maggie’s ditched her school program and instead is descending into heroin addiction while being “kept” by an older married man in Paris, who is both alienating her from her family and facilitating her drug abuse.

 

The book club’s theme is, actually, the book that matters most. Most members choose hoary classics like The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice, but Ava’s choice, From Clare to Here, is an obscure title gifted to her as a child after a tragedy ripped her family apart and is a title she reread incessantly for comfort. As Hood alternates telling the stories of Ava and Maggie, she gradually reveals the secret of the real “book that matters most” and its pivotal role in the Tucker family. To explore more books about books, try Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop or The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler.


 
 

Harmony

posted by: September 14, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for HarmonyWhat would you do to help your suffering child? For most parents, the answer is probably “damn near anything.” Carolyn Parkhurst’s new novel, Harmony, follows a family’s tumble down a rabbit hole in search of an elusive fix for their autistic child.

 

The Hammond parents have reached the end of their collective rope. Their tween daughter Tilly falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, and socially inept behaviors which were confounding when she was little are frightening with adolescence looming. After being asked to leave yet again another school, Tilly’s parents seek help from an unorthodox source: a man whose charisma and promises lead the family down the primrose path to Camp Harmony. An internet shaman for the neurodevelopmentally challenged, Scott Bean promises salvation, if not outright cures, to desperate parents willing to fork over their assets and live the communal lifestyle at Bean’s utopian retreat in the backwoods of New Hampshire. Is Bean a savior, just another exploitative quack, or something else entirely?

 

Harmony offers the reader three points of view: younger sister Iris, who loves Tilly but is struggling to find her place in a family focused on its weakest link; mother Alexandra, whose relentless examination of Tilly’s issues propels the family to the camp; and, occasionally, Tilly’s own poignant and imaginative voice which reminds us that behind labels lie unique human beings who actually aren’t so different after all. As Parkhurst writes, we are “exceptional and ordinary, all at the same time.”


 
 

The Book of Harlan

posted by: August 18, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Book of HarlanMusic and history entwine in Bernice McFadden’s newest novel, The Book of Harlan, a story of one African American family spanning generations. McFadden found her inspiration for the title character of Harlan from her paternal grandfather, about whom the author says:
 

I never personally knew the man and neither did my father. All I had to recreate his life were a birth certificate, census schedules, a few newspaper articles and my imagination.

 

Emma is the cherished and respectable daughter of a Baptist minister in Macon, Georgia, until carpenter Sam Elliot sweeps her off her feet and, in the oldest story ever, Emma is pregnant. Newly married, Sam and Emma join the Great Migration of African Americans escaping the south and Jim Crow to find a better life, but leave baby Harlan behind with Emma’s parents. Landing in New York City in 1922, America’s prosperity trickles down to the Elliotts, who can finally bring their young son north with them. Harlan develops into a gifted guitarist who thrives in the Harlem Renaissance music scene and his job in a jazz band finds him touring in Paris on the eve of World War II. Hitler’s visions of extermination aren’t limited to Jews, and Harlan and his bandmate Lizard are caught up in an unimaginable nightmare.

 

McFadden does not sugarcoat the lives of the Elliott family, and by extension, the broader African American experience. Poverty, single motherhood, addiction, injustice and race-based prejudice cycle around again and again, making the upward mobility to which the Elliotts aspire a two-steps-forward, one-step-back journey. From the turn-of-the-century segregated south to the Newark riots of 1967, The Book of Harlan offers a sweeping view of 20th century African American life in which the constant is the unbreakable bonds of family and friends. Readers who enjoy Bernice McFadden’s perspective should also try The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.

 


 
 

LaRose

posted by: June 15, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for LaRoseLouise Erdrich is the reigning queen of Native American fiction, author of award-winning books for adults and children which showcase her native heritage. Her newest novel, LaRose, reflects Anishinaabe traditions as she explores the rippling consequences of tragedy and how two families adapt in both traditional and modern ways.

 

Landreaux Iron is a good man. He’s a loving father, faithful husband and sensitive nurse to his home health care patients. Hunting at the edge of reservation land, he takes aim at a deer meant to feed his family and instead accidentally shoots his neighbor’s little boy, Dusty Ravich, who is also Landraux’s nephew. Dusty’s death devastates his own family with grief and the Iron family with guilt. Landraux then commits a second unthinkable act: seeking guidance from his Ojibwe customs, he and his wife Emmeline give their own little boy, LaRose, to the Ravich family as atonement.

 

Erdrich unfolds this story at a leisurely pace. The grief experienced by the Ravich and Iron clans cannot be neatly packaged, and Erdrich allows parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins to wander down separate paths as each tries to accommodate this unique double loss. Woven into the scrim dividing this life and the afterlife are the mystical stories of LaRose’s ancestors and the societal ills, historic and current, which plague the indigenous North Americans.

 

Visit with Erdrich online at her blog at Birchbark Books site, which is also a purveyor of Native books, arts and jewelry. To enjoy more stories featuring contemporary Ojibwe culture, try the Cork O’Connor suspense series by William Kent Krueger.


 
 

Grant Park

posted by: April 19, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Grant ParkOn March 28, 1968 in Memphis, shop windows broke and mace-triggered tears flowed when African American sanitation workers marched to protest dangerous and inhumane working conditions; within days, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel kicked off a period of riots and mourning nationwide. Forty years later, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. So, we’re all good now, right? In his newest novel Grant Park, Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Pitts Jr. looks at the complicated dance of race relations as played out by two aging Chicago journalists whose lives intersected in 1968.

 

On the eve of the 2008 election, African American syndicated columnist Malcolm Toussaint, a man showered with professional accolades and prizes, enjoying the trappings of the upper middle class, has written a final piece in which he declares he is “sick and tired of white folks’ bullshit.” And, everyone knows Malcolm is tired of white folks because despite his white editor, Bob Carson, telling him this column cannot run, Malcolm sneaks onto the office computers and inserts it into the Chicago Post’s front page. Fall-out is swift; Malcolm is now jobless and the newspaper management team also fires Bob. An angry Bob sets out to find Malcolm, who has disappeared. Instead of hiding from everyone’s wrath, Malcolm’s been abducted by a Frick and Frack pair of suicidal white supremacists who intend to strap Malcolm to the front of their explosive-filled van like a hood ornament and blow them all to kingdom come at Grant Park as the first black POTUS makes his election night speech.

 

Pitts jumps from Malcolm’s and Bob’s pivotal experiences in the civil rights movement as it moved away from King’s nonviolent preaching to finding both men on the cusp of retirement, their discouraged, sometimes jaded, voices reflecting frustration born of lack of progress. Often farcically funny, Pitts manages to humanize the worst of us while pointing out that we, black and white, have no choice but to work together for change. Meet Leonard Pitts Jr. as he reads from Grant Park and discusses race relations in America today at the Towson Branch on April 23 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the BC Reads: Rise Up! month of events.


 
 

Crooked Heart

posted by: November 18, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Crooked HeartA lame orphan, an incompetent grifter and London’s Blitz might comprise a fairly grim story. Instead, author Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart: A Novel is darkly comedic and heartwarming as it focuses on the incongruous pairing of a posh city child and his conniving country mouse foster parent.  

 

Meet Mrs. Vee Sedge: resident of rural St. Albans, lives with her indolent adult son and disabled mother who writes motivational letters to Winston Churchill regarding homefront morale and offering friendly advice (“I saw your picture in the paper last week and I hope you don’t mind me saying that I wonder if you’re getting enough fresh air.”) Vee is so desperate for money that she’s taken out a life insurance policy on an elderly neighbor, who foils Vee’s plans by failing to die, and she goes door to door collecting money for the war effort which she keeps for herself. When Vee sees Noel limping through her village as part of a parade of children evacuated from London to evade Hitler’s bombs, she volunteers to care for the little boy, not out of patriotic duty, but as a prop to a con.

 

Noel is the child who never fits in. Precocious, pale and unathletic, he is also bereft since the death of his beloved godmother. Farmed out to the putative safety of the Sedge’s shabby quarters, Noel perks up when he realizes he can be the brains behind Vee’s ill-conceived swindles. World War II’s privations were harsh and Evans frames the duo’s petty frauds in a landscape where the common folk of England must scheme to survive. Nominated for a Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction, Crooked Heart’s clever writing, multifaceted characters and thoughtful story make this an engaging read and a winning book club pick.


 
 

Girl Waits with Gun

posted by: September 4, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Girl Waits with GunI got a revolver to protect us…and I soon had a use for it.” –The New York Times, June 3, 1915.

 

In 1915 suburban New Jersey, women were expected to behave as ladies and rely on the protection of a man. Instead, Constance Kopp and her two sisters go on the offensive in Amy Stewart’s lively novel, Girl Waits with Gun. Stewart was inspired by the true story of Constance, who became one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States after her fiery battles with thuggish silk mill owner Henry Kauffman and his gang captured America’s attention.

 

The sisters are on their way to Paterson for a shopping trip when a speeding motor car upends their horse and buggy, injuring young Fleurette and damaging the buggy. Driver Kauffman and his crew of miscreants take umbrage at Constance’s request for reimbursement for repairs, and begin a campaign of harassment and kidnapping threats aimed at the women, which escalates into violence. Constance refuses to be cowed by Kauffman’s machinations and ends up uncovering a second reprehensible and exploitive deed committed by Kauffman.

 

Girl Waits with Gun is a colorful piece of historical fiction. Stewart’s droll writing marries perfectly with Constance Kopp’s audacious story. Descriptions of the silk mill industry and its laborers, along with excerpts from the newspaper articles which covered the Kopp vs. Kauffman  conflict, ground this narrative in the context of its time. Readers charmed by The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows or Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce mysteries will take great pleasure in spending time with the Kopps. To learn more about Constance, Norma and Fleurette, visit AmyStewart.com.


 
 

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