My kids have art lessons every Wednesday afternoon, which means I have an hour to kill every week, as 60 minutes is too short to drive home (I don’t live in Iowa City), but too long to sit around and do nothing.
I suppose I could go grocery shopping, but but my life seems to be consumed by errands already. I wanted to do something fun!
It turns out 60 minutes is the perfect amount of time for a visit to the Library, especially when the first hour of parking is free in the Dubuque Street, Capitol Street and Tower Place parking garages, and the Court Street Transportation Center.
So what did I do during my hour?
I picked up a book waiting for me on the Hold Shelf, browsed the DVDs, grabbed a few CDs for my son, and talked to a friend I bumped into in the fiction stacks.
Helen Simonson’s new novel is a great summer read, and not just because it has “summer” in the title. The Summer Before the War takes a number of interesting turns with enough suspense to keep you reading when you really should be doing something else. There are many likeable characters–and a few not-so–and the historical detail, never heavy-handed, illuminates the impact of social class, the looming Great War, and the limited role in society for a young woman.
This is the story of Beatrice Nash, who has been hired to teach Latin to the village children of Rye, England. She is in her early 20s and grieving the loss of her beloved father who broadened her mind through education and travel. Teaching is her route to financial independence and the ability to write; probable spinsterhood is embraced as a fair trade-off for a life of her choosing, of reading and writing.
World War I changes everything and everyone, beginning with the village’s acceptance of Belgian refugees and the calls to young men to serve their country. But even patriotism and military service are subject to societal pressures and questionable ethics, and no family completely escapes heartbreak and loss.
Which characters become Beatrice’s friends and allies, and who emerges to thwart her plans moves the story at a brisk pace. And as the characters develop there are satisfying transformations from nemesis to friend, and disappointments as those she admires show their true colors. One of the things I liked best is that no character is perfect; each fails at some point to live up to their own standards and beliefs, or to love generously when it is difficult to do so.
I hated to finish the book, because I had grown quite attached to Beatrice, Hugh, Aunt Agatha, and others in the story. (I felt the same way about some of the characters in Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.) The Summer Before the War was a wonderful first entry on my summer reading program log, and I hope it makes it onto yours.
Looking for a quick addition to your summer reading list? I loved this little book by Valeria Luiselli set in Mexico City because it is quite funny and bursting with originality. If you find yourself gravitating to heavy, serious books and want a pick-me-up or a palette cleanser, this will do the trick. Also, if you like quirky books as a general rule, check this one out! I fell in love with the aesthetics – there are beautiful full page bookplates dividing the different ‘books’ or chapters within the book. Also of note is that Valeria Luiselli wrote this book in collaboration with employees from Mexico City’s Jumex juice factory. During the book, auctioneer Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez tells us about his travels and his beloved tooth collection of the “notorious infamous” (he later admits that the Marilyn Monroe ones are fakes.) There are literary quotes and fortune-cookie fortunes sprinkled throughout like a breadcrumb trail. This book is fun and adventurous, giving one the sense of being on a bizarre yet intriguing mission. I also loved how the final ‘book’ or chapter is a timeline of Gustavo Highway’s adventures in context of other important happenings in Mexican history. There are also photographs to further provide a sense of place. The writing’s mood can be contemplative, irreverent, hilarious, or confounding. I can’t wait to read more by this author!
Summer is here and for me that means time for reading and relaxation. At the Help Desk our patrons often ask, “What have you read recently that you really liked?” I love these questions because it helps me think about books and why I liked them. I thought I’d share my recent list in case you are looking for a good book for your relaxing summer reading.
I also discovered there’s a new name for one of my favorite genres: Biographical Fiction. I’ve always thought of these books as “Historical Fiction” but recently I’ve been seeing the term “Biographic Fiction” more and it makes sense. These are books with stories based on real people, but often the dialogue and other details are created by the author to move the story. Melanie Benjamin includes an interesting commentary about how she approaches writing Biographical Fiction in the Author’s Note at the end of The Swans of Fifth Avenue.
Diversity in middle grade fantasy is hard to come by, particularly high fantasy featuring dragons, goblins, princesses, and kings. The Goblin’s Puzzle by Andrew S. Chilton provides all of these, as well as a good dose of humor and plenty of logic puzzles.
A dark-skinned slave boy with no name finds himself suddenly free, and for the first time in his life able to choose how to live his life. His choice to free a similarly enslaved goblin may provide him with more adventure than he bargained for, as goblins are notoriously tricky creatures. When the goblin tells him that it was not the boy’s fate to be a slave, he sets off to find his true destiny. With the goblin in tow, he learns many things along they way, including how to catch bats with a sling.
At the same time, a dragon has kidnapped Plain Alice, a case of mistaken identity, as he meant to capture Princess Alice. As the dragon goes off to rectify his mistake, Plain Alice begins doing what she does best, thinking. The soon-to-be-captured Princess Alice is at the center of a royal mess, as her father is trying to make her his heir to skip over the obviously evil Duke Geoffrey. To pay for the costly process, Princess Alice is to be married to a suitably wealthy person, to be decided upon by everyone but Princess Alice. All of these plans go literally out the window when Princess Alice is captured by the dragon. If ever there was a need for a nameless hero in search of his destiny, it is here in the Kingdom of West Stanhope.
The boy volunteers to rescue both Alices, though finds he needs their help just as often as they need his. The multiple threads of the story are finally and carefully woven together in a rooftop duel, a royal declaration, and one last trick from the goblin. In another rarity in recent middle grade fantasy, the story ends without a cliff-hanger to lead us to a sequel. Final word: A fantastic, thought-provoking, stand-alone fantasy adventure.
I love books that stick with me. I like to ruminate over words, ponder what the author was saying, and think about themes and how the book fits into my bigger world. My Name is Lucy Barton is one of these books. And just like Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, My Name is Lucy Barton is a book to be savored.
Lucy Barton was raised in poverty in Amgash, Illinois. She escapes this poverty by working hard, ignoring ridicule, becoming a writer, and creating an adult life in Manhattan. Unfortunately Lucy cannot escape her past and the the loneliness and insecurities that follow her.
The book is also about family ties and love – wanting love and giving love – and coming to terms with one’s expectations for love vs. the reality of love. The story meanders like a stream, and Strout gives important details quietly, like a whisper in the reader’s ear. As I read I pondered each whisper, and silently hoped for happiness and love for Lucy as she faced her life’s journey.
by Meredith Hines-Dochterman on February 4th, 2016
One of my favorite books is Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons by Lorna Landvik. I picked it up because the title made me laugh, but the story of five women who come together for three decades of book club meetings (and everything in between) is why it’s high on my recommendation list.
I love books about book clubs. In a way, they are two books in one. First there’s the story, then there’s reading about the books the characters read. More often than not, those titles end up on my future reading list.
I’ll admit, sometimes writing down the title and author is as close as I’ll ever get to reading the book, but there have been times I’ve seen it through. For instance, I read Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster after the characters in Heather Vogel Fredrickson’s Mother-Daughter Book Club series read it in Dear Pen Pal.
Luckily, I spent a semester studying Jane Austen in college, so when The Jane Austen Book Clubby Karen Joy Fowler was published, I didn’t have to worry about falling down the rabbit hole of new book titles.
Like actors who aren’t doctors in real life but play one on TV, I do not belong to a book club; I only read about them. However, if starting a book club is something that interests you, ICPL has you covered. Our Book Club Kits contain 10 copies of books and discussion questions, all packaged in one canvas bag. Located on the first floor near the Help Desk, each kit can be checked out for six weeks.
by Meredith Hines-Dochterman on December 23rd, 2015
Once again, ICPL staff have combed through their 2015 reading logs to select the books they especially loved for our end-of-the-year Staff Top Picks lists.
The nominations were divided into eight categories: fiction; young adult; children’s; mystery; science fiction/fantasy; biography/memoir; nonfiction; and graphic novels. The only rule was that the book had to be released in 2015; books released in hardback in 2014 and paperback in 2015 were disqualified. Any book that was nominated by more than one staff member made our 2015 Best of the Best list.
We’ll share our 2015 Best of the Best titles on the last day of the year. Until then, here are the Library’s picks for top fiction books for 2015. Keep checking back to see what made the cut in our other categories.
ICPL’s BEST FICTION BOOKS OF 2015
Finders Keepers by Stephen King
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
The Whites by Harry Brandt
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig
Descent by Tim Johnston
Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews*
* This title had a limited release in 2014. It wasn’t available at the Library until 2015, which is why it’s included on our list.
What was your favorite fiction read of 2015? Did it make our list?
NaNoWriMo is more than halfway over. Looking for inspiration to get you past writer’s block? Consider consulting dictionaries and encyclopedias on specific subjects.
Last week, someone stumbled upon our encyclopedias on the short Reference shelves on the second floor. He wondered if we had anything like that for sci fi/fantasy mythology. He was curious as to where storytellers got their information about the strengths and weaknesses of monsters.
Lucky for him, he was talking with someone who’s been reading a ton of fantasy fiction this year. I have read the accounts of countless vampires, ghosts, werewolves, fae, demons, witches, trolls, shape-shifters—you name it!
I got him the book How to Kill a Vampire as a place to start. As we were talking about what his goals were for finding books like this, it struck me that he had a great idea: use these kinds of books to inspire and research your fiction writing. Read the rest of this entry »