Friday, November 20, 2015

New non-fiction audio books to take for a listen

This week we're recommending two marvelous audio books by two inimitable women, read in their own uncommon voices:

M Train by Patti Smith

This lyrical memoir by a creative and fascinating woman is an ode to reading, traveling, staying in to watch detective dramas on TV, writing, memory, and coffee--cup after cup of black coffee--all narrated in her warm and familiar New Jersey accent.

Experiencing this book feels like contemplating the contents of a treasured box of mementos: letters, journals, beloved books, photographs, and all of those items we squirrel away, imbued with so many memories. It's less linear than Just Kids, and makes for fantastic listening.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is a crazy funny writer of American history, and her voice is weirdly wonderful. Vowell deftly weaves present into past, and her digressions to marvel at the many absurd manifestations of nostalgia throughout our history, including some particularly humorous observations at Colonial Williamsburg, make for laugh-out-loud listening.

The Marquis de Lafayette was the first American celebrity. In New York in 1824, a crowd of 80,000 adoring Americans greeted the return of the beloved French hero of the American Revolutionary War. At a contentious period in American politics, the civil war already looming, Americans welcomed the reminder of the ideals and bravery of the generation past that Lafayette's return brought. Vowell tells the story of how Lafayette came to be America's favorite Frenchman, and follows his journey to the Revolution and back, and the impact he had on a young country.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Hard Candy and a BIG Apple

In a fit of new-book-smell induced panic I decided to take on these two very different New York City novels at once: First, the pure candy that is Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll, and then the gigantic, satisfying, 900+ page City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. Delicious, both.

When Meghan Abbott mentions Gillian Flynn on your jacket copy you have officially arrived at cool-girl-table-adjacent. Luckiest Girl Alive, a novel of tooth and nail deception and social climbing into New York society will appeal to fans of (naturally) Meghan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, and the rest of the table. This makes for good tawdry listening while tidying up and doing other unglamorous activities. I recommend getting the audiobook.

Readers will also enjoy Confessions by Kanae Minato, A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison, and Disclaimer by Renee Knight. Hopefully this little jawbreaker didn't spoil your appetite for City on Fire.

City on Fire is set in New York City in the 70s and part epistolary, with snippets of letters, interviews, and zines, so already  it's well on its way to my "all time favorite books list". Hallberg is a magician with words--there is a passage on page 53 in which he describes the "audible fizz" one hears when the potential for a moment is irretrievably lost. I had to go back and re-read it, twice. Multiple narratives in authentic voices from wealthy heiresses and young gay men, to cops and cultish punk squatters converge over the "muchness", as Hallberg puts it, of New York, in his debut novel revolving around an unsolved shooting and the terrifying blackout in July of 1977.

This book is huge, both in terms of size and the $2 million price paid to publish it. It is THE book of fall.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Field Guide to American Haunted Houses

“You mustn’t expect every night to be Halloween,” says a doctor in Robert Wise’s 1963 film, The Haunting. The doctor, a paranormal investigator, cautions his assistants not to expect too much from an allegedly haunted house. But left implied here is the fact that it is perfectly sensible to expect one night of the year to be Halloween, and, depending on the house you’re in, perhaps a few more. 

This Halloween I’m reading about houses, first in the inspiration for The Haunting, the 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House, and then in Virginia Savage McAlester’s Field Guide to American Houses.


Jackson was born in San Francisco in 1916, and wrote The Haunting of Hill House with the image in her mind of a specific, eerie-looking California mansion, although very little geography is actually given in the novel. The story begins with a paranormal investigator enlisting the help of three others to stay in Hill House and note its abnormalities. He describes the house as “disturbed.” “Leprous,” he says. “Sick. Any of the popular euphemisms for insanity; a deranged house is a pretty conceit.” 

Much of the beginning of the novel is spent trying to pin down Hill House’s personality. The book drives home just how human-like houses really are. They are built by and for humans. Our most intimate moments are experienced inside them. And after all, they have faces. “No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house,” wrote Jackson, “and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.”

Despite the despair of Hill House, the early scenes of its inhabitants exploring their new surroundings are comic and fun to read. Over time, however, one of the guests starts to steal the focus of the story, of the other guests, and of the house itself. After the recent death of her mother, 32 year old Eleanor Vance is freed from 11 years of her mother’s abusive demands. Ready to begin her life, she goes to Hill House. There, the forceful personality of the house meets the haunted past and expectant life of Eleanor, and, mysteriously, the two begin to meld. Or perhaps not so mysteriously. Isn't it natural for two personalities to influence one another? The house haunts Eleanor. Eleanor haunts the house. 

With these thoughts from The Haunting of Hill House, I picked up A Field Guide to American Houses, looking not so much for roofs and facades but for haunted personalities. Organized chronologically and by style, the book is designed for the new homebuyer or the architecturally curious to look up a side-gable or a multi-level eave and identify a house the’ve seen in the wild. But after Hill House, the field guide became an encyclopedia of medical maladies, a casebook of the criminally insane. 

The first thing I did was to try and identify Hill House itself—with its library in a stone tower, I thought perhaps a Gothic Revival house or a Richardsonian Romanesque. 

Then I looked for other personalities. Jackson wrote in Hill House that “almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship.” I wondered: are any of the houses in the guide humorous? I looked up mischievous little chimneys and dormers like dimples.

But Jackson went on, “a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil.” Were there any arrogant houses in the guide? This one?

Or this one?

I looked again. Do they really appear deranged? Or, like Eleanor in Hill House, is my personality at play here? Am I deranged?

(Happy Halloween!)

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Friday, October 23, 2015

Good news for fans of Sherlock Holmes

Although Arthur Conan Doyle published his last Sherlock Holmes story almost ninety years ago in 1927, the popularity of the character has never waned. A steady stream of books, comics, plays, movies, and TV shows continue to re-imagine this master of observation and deduction. As a long-time fan of the Holmes detective genre, I watch almost all the new movies and TV shows, and inspect the latest books. Most of them, however, fail to live up to my lofty expectations. The popular movies starring Robert Downey Jr., for example, turn Holmes into an action figure more like Batman. While perfectly entertaining, these movies have little to do with my image of the detective. More my style is the recent BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, or the movie Mr. Holmes from this past summer that portrayed Holmes struggling with memory loss in his old age.

The latest novel to embrace this genre, Mycroft Holmes, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse is a pleasant surprise. What first caught my attention is the book’s co-author, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a person best known as the all-time leading scorer in the NBA. Since his basketball retirement in 1989, Abdul-Jabbar has co-authored a number of books with African-American history themes, but this is his first venture into fiction. Mycroft Holmes, a minor and somewhat mysterious figure in the original stories, comes to life in this novel, demonstrating a similar intellectual rigor and similar egotism as typically displayed by his brother. Set in the early 1870s, this novel finds Sherlock at college and still refining his powers of deduction under the tutelage of his elder brother Mycroft, a civil servant in the British government.

What Mycroft Holmes does very well is weave in a history of African Diaspora, slavery and racial oppression without overwhelming the underlying mystery. The story is set in motion by a number of strange deaths in Trinidad attributed to the douen and lougarou, evil spirits that might remind the reader of the hound of Baskerville. Mycroft is drawn into this mystery by the concerns of his fiancĂ©, Georgiana, whose family are white plantation owners on the Island, as well as his friend Cyrus Douglas, a businessman of African descent, born in Trinidad. There is richness to Douglas’ character, as a person who has to continually negotiate a difficult racial path in Victorian England.  On the other hand, the most disappointing aspect of the story is the lack of well-developed female characters. Even Georgiana, the central femme fatale, is such a flat half-character that I scarcely cared about her. It would have enriched the story a great deal if the reader could be more invested in her role. While the story is engagingly well-written, with elements that will remind the reader of Doyle’s work, it never reaches the depth or complexity of the original. The mystery that motivates Douglas and Holmes to take a difficult journey to Trinidad becomes secondary and its solution is almost inconsequential. There is instead an action sequence toward the end of the book that will remind the reader more of the Downey movies than the deductive reasoning with which my image of Sherlock Holmes uses to bring his cases to a close.

How about you--who is you favorite Holmes? What are your favorite adaptations in books and shows?

 --Reviewed by Kevin S.--

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Get Excited--It's time for YAVA 2015!

On Wednesday, October 21st the Richmond Public Library will be host to a celebration of best-selling, award-winning Virginia authors of books for middle school age and young adults. Now in its third year, YAVA, which stands for Young Adult Virginia Authors, is more than an event—it is also an award.

The Richmond Public Library YAVA Award will be presented to the winner and two honorable mentions during the 2015 YAVA Book and Author Party. The selection process included open reader’s choice voting and final selection from the top 3 winners, is made possible with support from the Richmond Public Library Foundation. The selected list of 14 titles was narrowed down to three by popular vote. From those three the winner will be decided by this year’s judge, Secretary of Education Anne Holton, life-long advocate for children and families and former first lady of Virginia.

YAVA attendees will be able to meet and mingle with 14 celebrated Virginia authors: Gigi Amateau, Tom Angleberger, Anne Blankman, Bill Blume, Martina Boone, Lana Krumwiede, Sara McGuire, Jodi Meadows, Sara Raasch, Madelyn Rosenberg, Wendy Shang, Steve Watkins, Kat Spears, winner of the 2015 YALSA award for Best Fiction, and this year’s Newbery Honor recipient Cece Bell.

The event is free and the public is invited to enjoy an evening of music, refreshments, lively discussion, book sales and signings, prize raffles, and more.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015
6 – 8:30 pm
Richmond Public Main Library
101 East Franklin Street

Breakaway by Kat Spears 
Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke by Anne Blankman
Dante of the Maury River by Gigi Amateau

El Deafo by Cece Bell
Gidion's Blood by Bill Blume
Ice Like Fire by Sara Raasch

Ghosts of War: Lost at Khe Sanh by Steve Watkins
Nanny X Returns by Madelyn Rosenberg
The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows

Persuasion by Martina Boone
Star Wars. Beware the power of the dark side!: an original retelling of Star wars: Return of the Jedi by Tom Angleberger
The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

True Son by Lana Krumwiede
Valiant by Sarah McGuire