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2014 Staff Picks by Genre

 

Fiction

Book Cover for Meet me at the Cupcake Café Colgan, Jenny
Meet me at the Cupcake Café: A Novel With Recipes

Fiction
After Londoner Issy loses her office job and her boyfriend/boss, she impulsively decides to strike out on her own and open a shop called Cupcake Café. Her inexperience at running a business breeds many heartwarming and comical adventures in this lighthearted tale. With the help of loyal friends, quirky neighbors, a beloved grandfather, and a somewhat unprofessional banker, Issy starts leading a life different than she ever imagined. This sweet story, complete with delicious recipes to try at home, is a perfect addition to a good cup of coffee and a buttercream-topped cupcake.
Recommended by Karen G., August 2014

 
Book Cover for Cartwheel duBois, Jennifer
Cartwheel

Fiction
Although this story will evoke thoughts of the Amanda Knox case that took place in Italy, the author assures us that this is not Amanda's story. The location is a hot and hostile Buenos Aires. The focus is more on the satellite characters of the story and less on the actual crime. The character of the accused is illuminated through the perceptions gleaned from her family, the prosecuting attorney, and her boyfriend. The eponymous cartwheel is central to the perception of guilt, as well as the proverbial blood in the water fueling the tabloid feeding frenzy. The truly fascinating cast of characters — including her boyfriend, who is described as looking like a "homosexual pirate" in one instance and a "postapocalyptic butler" in another, and the prosecuting attorney haunted by his mad wife — lend a humanity to the chaos that ensues when innocents are embroiled in the horrific repercussions of a criminal act. Do not skip the author's note at the end of the book. For similar reading experiences try Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, for its literary caliber and other brilliant lives scarred by violence, Defending Jacob, by William Landay, for the debilitating experience of having a child in trouble, and In Cold Blood, classic true crime by Truman Capote.
Recommended by Geo, January 2014

 
Book Cover for When the Marquess Met His Match Guhrke, Laura Lee
When the Marquess Met His Match

Fiction
Lady Belinda Featherstone is an American living in Victorian London. Married at the age of seventeen to a handsome but impoverished British earl, she was swept away by romance and promises. Her youthful expectations and illusions were soon shattered, however, when her husband continued to dally with his mistresses and cavort around England, leaving her behind. Throwing herself into London society, she becomes a respectable (and secretly wealthy) widow helping wealthy Americans navigate London society and find successful matches to titled British aristocrats. When Nicholas Stirling, the dissolute Marquess of Trubridge, asks for her assistance in finding him a wife after his father cuts him off, she instantly resists because his unabashed fortune-hunting motives and rakish reputation painfully remind her of her late husband and her once broken heart. But as Belinda gets to know Nicholas, she finds there’s much more behind his façade, and that the rumors surrounding him just might not be true. For his part, Nicholas has spent his entire life defying his father at every turn, turning his own life upside down in the process. Belinda confronts his reputation and actions, shaming him into changing his life. When Nicholas confesses an attraction to her, Belinda is forced to reexamine her assumptions and wonder, might she be the perfect wife for him after all? Beautifully and elegantly written, poignant, and witty, I thoroughly enjoyed this story. This is the first book in a new series by Guhrke, who writes elegant historical romances set in Victorian and Edwardian England. Charming, funny, and entertaining, this would be a good pick for fans of Downton Abbey.
Recommended by Maria, February 2014

 
Book Cover for Far From the Madding Crowd Hardy, Thomas
Far From the Madding Crowd

Fiction
This classic starts off in the usual ho-hum way of introducing a main character through a description of his lineage, how he came to be where we find him, and the background of his present occupation. Don't get complacent. Both the fate of the main character in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust and the devastating beginning of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love could have been inspired by what befalls Gabriel Oak in these first few pages. While Hardy's work is dense with tragedy, it is the tragedy of being human, not of being a victim. Devastations are unleashed by moments of pique. All of the drama takes place without props outside on English lanes evoking a universality to the pain of being human and the realization that we can all be victimized by our own emotions. Hardy's prose captures landscapes, weather, and the emotional palettes of his characters with equal aplomb. Sharply pin-pointed prose reaches and awakens places in the psyche possibly rendered dormant by exposure to much duller fare. Two chapters appropriately named "Storm" and "Rain" stand out as examples of Hardy's incredible ability to describe weather. If you like weather to be part of your reading experience, M. C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth series provides that, along with great characters and cozy mysteries to be solved. If you like unrelenting suffering, you will like Joyce Carol Oates' We Were the Mulvaneys, or the classic by A. J. Cronin, Hatter's Castle. Available on dvd: A Handful of Dust, Enduring Love, Hamish Macbeth, We Were the Mulvaneys, Far From the Madding Crowd (classic), and the Masterpiece Classic remake of Far From the Madding Crowd.
Recommended by Geo, March 2014

 
Book Cover for The Last Summer of the Camperdowns Kelly, Elizabeth
The Last Summer of the Camperdowns

Fiction
I have struggled as to whether or not I can give this book a full-blown endorsement because it was uncomfortable to read many of its pages. The main character's frequent interactions with a certain malicious presence -- felt from almost the beginning — consistently unsettled me. However, the intelligent and quick-paced dialogue throughout the novel won me over. Set in the early 1970's, twelve-year-old Riddle James Camperdown is the only daughter of Greer, a former screen legend, and Camp, a rising star politician. The acerbic wit of her mother and political passions of her father haven't created much of a nurturing environment for Riddle, but she is settled and content in her ultra-privileged life, until, that is, she witnesses a terrible act of violence in a nearby horse stable. Her anguished decision to stay silent has dire consequences that prove to have lifelong ramifications. Adding to Riddle's personal turmoil is her introduction to Harry Devlin, a swoon-worthy college student who happens to be the son of Michael, an enigmatic piece in the confusing puzzle of her parent's marriage. The Last Summer of the Camperdowns has left me thinking "What if ...? What if ...? What if ...?". This title would provide for many great discussions in book groups.
Recommended by Sheila, February 2014

 
Book Cover for On Such a Full Sea Lee, Chang-rae
On Such a Full Sea

Fiction
Fan, the principal character of Chang-rae Lee's latest, is the descendent of a large group of labor workers brought to America from a devastated China sometime in the near or distant future. Fan lives in a secured compound formerly known as Baltimore (now "B-Mor") working along with everyone else growing vegetables and producing seafood. All to feed a group of walled-in citizens once known as the 1% (now the "Charters"). The only populated area outside of these two safety zones is known as "the counties", where law, order, rules, regulations, and any type of morality is difficult to find. One commonality the groups share is a fatal form of cancer (now "C" diseases) which touches nearly everyone. Fan leaves the friendly confines of B-Mor to search for her boyfriend once he is carried off to a Charter clinic, after tests reveal he may not be susceptible to C-disease. Fan's odyssey through the counties and into the Charter compound embodies most of the novel. On Such A Full Sea is a beautifully written book, and any resemblance it bears to our own society is strictly intentional. On the dystopian horror scale where 1984 and The Road rate a 10, I give this one a 7.
Recommended by John, May 2014

 
Book Cover for After I’m Gone Lippman, Laura
After I’m Gone

Fiction
Felix is a charming and smart man with a full life. He runs multiple businesses — mostly illegal ones, and he has a beautiful wife, three daughters, and a longtime mistress. Upon realizing that he is prison-bound, he disappears, upturning many lives in the process. After I’m Gone examines those lives — from all the women’s points of view and across five decades. Eventually, Felix’s disappearance is brought back to present day by a retired detective who is working on a related never-solved murder case. What he uncovers brings more startling twists and turns to this mystery, which will keep the reader totally captivated until the end.
Recommended by Karen G., June 2014

 
Book Cover for The Harlow Hoyden Messina, Lynn
The Harlow Hoyden

Fiction
Jane Austen’s arguable masterpiece, Emma, featured a heroine who danced to her own tune, managed other people’s lives, and thought very highly of herself indeed. Many readers find Emma Woodhouse conceited, bossy, and rude, but I have always found her amusing. She lives life on her own terms and that is always admirable to me. Lynn Messina, a new-to-me author, has created another vexing Emma in her charming historical romance novel of manners, The Harlow Hoyden.
Emma Harlow also reminds me of other independent-minded literary heroines: Sophy Stanton-Lacy from Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy and Flora Poste in Stella GibbonsCold Comfort Farm. Both of those stories are very amusing and feature a pushy, managing, yet thoroughly enchanting heroine who only sees things her way and fixes bad situations.
This is a pleasant and refreshing story. From the very first scene, when Emma steals a unique and beautiful orchid from the Duke of Trent’s conservatory for her horticulturalist twin sister, Lavinia (Vinnie), her wit, impetuousness, and open and direct manner capture the attention of Alex, the Duke of Trent. She also vexes him to no end.
Emma disapproves of her sister Lavinia’s betrothed, Sir Waldo Windbourne – "Sir Windbag" to Emma – a gentleman Emma neither likes or respects. So she plans a wild scheme to break up the engagement.
Somehow, amazingly and hilariously, Emma manages to engage the services of Alex, when she persuades him to woo her sister away from Windbourne.
If you enjoy an unconventional, carefree, and very spirited heroine who takes responsibility for her own life and actions, then you will enjoy this engaging story.

Recommended by Maria, September 2014

 
Book Cover for Boy, Snow, Bird Oyeyemi, Helen
Boy, Snow, Bird

Fiction
This is the fifth book by Helen Oyeyemi, and she continues to weave in and play with themes of mythology and fairytales. From the title, you will guess correctly that the novel includes tropes from Snow White. Snow White, however, might not have had the guts that our narrator, Boy Novak, does. After years of abuse from her father, a rat catcher in New York City, at age 20, she steals his money and hops a bus to Flax Hill, Massachusetts. The townspeople don't know what to think of Boy. Why would someone leave the city for this tiny town? Why is this woman named Boy? Boy sticks it out though, and eventually finds a suitable job in a bookstore, some friends, and an interesting romantic possibility. But, as in fairy tales, nothing is always as it seems, and though Boy knows this, she eventually hurtles herself at fate. There is an unsettling feeling that accompanies much of this book - augmented by occasional wanderings into magical realism. “For reasons of my own I take note of the way people act when they’re around mirrors,” thinks Boy. Mirrors, identity, and secrets are themes explored expertly by this talented author. Boy, Snow, Bird will stay with you, and the twist ending will throw you for a loop.
Recommended by Holly, June 2014

 
Book Cover for The Bees Paull, Laline
The Bees

Fiction
Accept, Obey, and Serve. These are the cardinal rules of the hive. Flora 717 knows this, but longs for experiences outside those performed by her kin-sisters who are relegated to the tasks of sanitation workers. Because 717 is strong and shows the abilities of other worker bees, she is given special permission to feed the larvae in the nursery, make wax for the Treasury, and also to forage for pollen and nectar. When she saves the hive by fighting and killing an invading wasp, Flora 717 even gets to meet the Queen. But when she starts laying eggs, the trouble really begins, for the most holy law of the hive is this — Only the Queen may breed. The domineering religious overtones, examination and challenging of class and caste systems, preferential treatment of males, even in this most matriarchal of societies, and the inherent desire of a single individual to overcome all of these factors, make this a captivating story. This is one book your book group must read. The topics for discussion are almost endless.
Recommended by Melissa, July 2014

 
Book Cover for A Man Above Reproach Pryce, Evelyn
A Man Above Reproach

Fiction
Evelyn Pryce is a Pittsburgher who won the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for romance for this wonderful Regency-era debut novel. “She couldn’t be serious, because he knew it would be a lie. She didn’t think him above reproach. In fact, he thought she wanted to reproach him over and over. Repeatedly and personally.” (p58) Elias Addison is a wary duke who distrusts any lady's interest in him for fear she only wants his title and wealth. He’s not a ladies’ man, but he’s no virgin either. He simply values a woman for more than her body and desires an equal who can match his intellect. Josephine Grant—not her real name—is an almost destitute bookstore owner trying to make ends meet by moonlighting on the piano at a brothel. She’s also a rabble rouser, but in secret, writing books and helping prostitutes find a better life. She despises the laziness of the aristocracy, so she’s distrustful of Elias. Her mysteriousness intrigues him even though he knows that their relationship is forbidden. “Josephine sighed the fat sigh, the one she reserved for dire situations, the one that expanded to fill entire rooms. This room, for certain, and perhaps the whole block.” (p33) Elegantly written with humor, likable characters, and lovely period detail, this is a very enjoyable read.
Recommended by Maria, July 2014

 
Book Cover for Ishmael Quinn, Daniel
Ishmael

Fiction
Take a step back in time with me to the year 1996; an 18-year-old high school senior (who didn't read a book unless he had to) was given an assignment: read the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. The teacher who assigned this book said one thing to my class, "Yes, I understand that the main character talks to a gorilla; get over it." So I did just that, and it was a decision that I'm very glad I made. Ishmael is an interesting look into where we humans messed up, and what that major mistake is will surprise you — it makes a whole lot of sense. The story is of a man who answers an ad about a teacher needing a student with an honest desire to learn. It turns out that the teacher is a gorilla. What unfolds is an interesting look at where humans made their first big mistake, as taught by a non-human, giving you an outsider's opinion. If you are the type of person who wants to gain more than just enjoyment from a book, I highly recommend Ishmael. This is my favorite book of all time. Even 18 years later, this book still makes me stop and think – which is more than I can say about most of the other books I have read.
Recommended by Jason, March 2014

 
Book Cover for The Wicked Wallflower Rodale, Maya
The Wicked Wallflower

fiction
This is a charming, sparkling, and very funny story, the first in Maya Rodale’s newest concurrent historical and contemporary romance series, "Bad Boys and Wallflowers". Lady Emma Avery, known as "London’s Least Likely to Misbehave", is a wallflower. She’s "not quite." She also has a wry sense of humor and faces her fears despite many challenges. Emma and her best friends, Olivia and Prudence, graduates of Lady Penelope’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, are facing their fourth season on the London marriage mart and have yet to make a match. Emma has been mildly courted by Benedict, an impoverished second son who won’t commit (he reminded me of Edmund Bertram in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park). Basically, he seemed to be waiting to see if another - better - match would come along. Against Emma’s wishes, Olivia and Prudence concoct a scheme to send a letter to The London Weekly, a local scandal sheet, announcing Emma’s engagement to the dreamy and unattainable Duke of Ashbrooke, "London’s Most Eligible Bachelor of All Time Ever." A fire diverts their plans, much to Emma’s relief; but imagine her surprise when the announcement appears in the paper the very next day, much to her mother’s delight and the gossips’ hateful envy. But Ashbrooke (Blake) isn’t all that he seems. He is a clever inventor trying to raise funds to finance his ingenious Difference Engine (a more precise calculating device based on Charles Babbage’s future computer), but his wild reputation as a womanizer, drinker, and gambler have worked against him. Blake’s beloved aunt, the eccentric and rich Agatha, holds a crazy annual "Fortune Games" contest in which her heirs compete to inherit her wealth. Blake figures that he and Emma, with their fake betrothal, can win the money. If they do, they’ll split the cash and he’ll have the money for his Difference Engine while she will then have money to marry Benedict. But things don’t quite work out that way. This was a very funny book that made me laugh and smile. The scene where they made up their first meeting was hilarious, and the letter-writing scene describing their made-up courtship was sweet. I enjoyed the little details of bits of gossip, quotes from scandal sheets, and the horrid novels that Emma reads preceding each chapter. In fact, Rodale polled her fans on Facebook to come up with wildly creative book titles such as Miss Darling and the Dreadful Duke and The Mad Baron. Maya Rodale’s path to writing romances is an interesting one and she’s a huge champion of the genre. She wrote a concise and readable master’s thesis, called Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained, which fascinated me and was a big influence on my own preconceived attitudes about romance. It just might change your mind about what you think romance is. I highly recommend this book for a fun and witty read. I look forward to reading more in this series.
Recommended by Maria, May 2014

 
Book Cover for A Simple Plan Smith, Scott
A Simple Plan

Fiction
This is the story of three men who find $4.5 million in the woods and become casualties of a war between fantasy and reality. From the moment these men find the money any action is rationalized in their attempt to hold on to it and escape detection. Smith's brand of suspense is so unrelenting that you will beg for mercy more than once. The movie by the same name, starring Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton, surprisingly altered the events of the story, but without any loss of quality. Both the book and the movie are good storytelling. If you like merciless suspense you will also like The Ruins, Smith's second book, which features a unique manifestation of evil as the main character. (You can skip the movie version of The Ruins.) The Blunderer, by Patricia Highsmith, is also a good choice for suspense with the added bonus of a sucker-punch ending. An equally brutal treatment of characters can be explored in Evelyn Waugh's civilized, subtle, and unforgettable A Handful of Dust; Waugh was chastised for his treatment of the protagonist and accused of hatred toward the characters.
Recommended by Geo, February 2014

 
Book Cover for That Night Stevens, Chevy
That Night

Fiction
I was introduced to Chevy Stevens a few years ago with her debut novel, Still Missing. I devoured that first book in one sitting. I liked the way the story unfolded; each chapter was a session in the therapist’s office for Annie. She was abducted and held for over a year by her captor, suffering unspeakable horrors on a daily basis. You meet Annie after her return. You might think that knowing the end of the story before it even begins would make the book boring, but you would be so wrong. Having the story doled out in sections made it more compelling and I often got chills while Annie was recounting her past and talking about its impact on her present. The ending included a curve ball I never saw coming. Ms. Stevens’ next two thrillers, Never Knowing and Always Watching, were also full of suspense, masterful use of flashbacks and clever plotting. I liked the connecting thread between the two novels. Sara Gallagher is visiting a psychologist, Nadine, to talk about her experiences when trying to reconnect with her birth mother in Never Knowing. Nadine then becomes the main character in Always Watching and you get to understand, through her history, why she became a psychologist. I found myself lost in the world Ms. Stevens created and time flew by as I was absorbed in her stories. I was often surprised by how many pages I had read when I thought that hardly any time had passed. In That Night, once again you meet the protagonist at what you think is the end of the story. Toni Murphy and her boyfriend, Ryan, were convicted 16 years ago of killing Toni’s younger sister, but they didn’t do it. Now that they have served their time and been released, will they be able to move on? Will they finally be able to prove their innocence? Back were Ms. Stevens’ signature flashbacks, compelling characters, suspense-building storyline and unforeseen twist at the end. You may think you know how the story will end, but rest assured, there will be a surprise. I finished this book in record time and am now regretting that I'll need to wait at least another year before meeting up again with Chevy Stevens.
Recommended by Melissa, June 2014

 
Book Cover for The War of the End of the World Vargas Llosa, Mario
The War of the End of the World

Fiction
The best contemporary fiction of any era provides some insight into the moment of its creation, possessing a specific zeitgeist, or peering through a particular weltanschauung. In the ink or ribbon or binary code of its most powerful artists, contemporary fiction yokes the burden of empathy to the brave reader as a reality lived of the moment; a semantic carpe diem. Through the author's extant words we recognize his/her world as a horizon — and in a current author, our own — limited by a thoroughly contextual perspective. "Historical" fiction, conversely, is an odd genre defined by an exploration of a past whose story is neither directly that of the writer nor of the reader. The limitations of the present moment are superseded precisely by having gained hindsight, an objectivity borne by the mediation of time passed. The best historical fiction, therefore, performs a different duty than that of contemporary fiction by reminding us of our heritage, demonstrating our lineage, revealing our genealogy, describing not where we are but where we must have been, and thus suggesting why, in other words, we are how we are. Reading in this genre occludes our embedded bias of individualist amnesia, and will not let us forget, despite these liberal postures and dreams of white picket fences surrounding the greenest leaves of grass and the purity of positivist children, the unfathomable and mysterious darkness from which we were all born. Mario Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World is a tremendous manifestation of the genre. Vargas Llosa novelizes the very real story of Canudos, a town in Brazil that, at the end of the nineteenth century, rises out of the ashes of monarchy in response to the new world order of a secular, republican government constructed as its tomb. Canudos is populated by refugees fleeing a distinctly modern world that they merely suffer, inspired by the millenarian movement of the Counselor, a figure echoing Christ, who unites the redeemed bandits, murderers, rapists, prostitutes, and the most destitute poor, far from their fragmented forlorn subsistence. These ruins of the human race found a community to remove themselves from, and ultimately combat, a world thoroughly contemptuous of their existence. Writing through the detritus of both destroyer and destroyed, of those who suffer eternal damnation and those whose faith in prestige and hubris is untrammeled, Vargas Llosa testifies to love, hate, loss, rebirth, fear, elation, ruin, death, deceit, decay, dismay, desolation, and hope in all hearts. He contributes in an unparalleled and epic manner to the genre with a panoply of suffering caused by the brutal clashes between tradition and transformation — repeated throughout human history — delineating the rise of new epochs. On these pages, the state, the military, the declining aristocracy and landed gentry, the ascendant bourgeoisie, the peasantry, and the primitive rebels are all paraded before the reader prior to immolation by time. The reader is made better for it, more humble, more real, more true to the darkness that lies deep within and to which we shall inevitably return, as history marches by, the vanguard springing eternal and gradually melting into the rear guard, and leaving us, too, behind, irrelevant and blinded by a cloud — kicked up by the heels of the coming generations advancing on to anticipate the next great seismic shift and attendant aftershocks — of "progress". The end of the world is nigh, is past, is here; let us begin.
Recommended by Miguel, June 2014

 

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Nonfiction

Book Cover for The Astor Orphan Aldrich, Alexandra
The Astor Orphan

Nonfiction
You might be thinking, “Not another story about a poor, little rich girl.” But actually, this is a story about a poor little poor girl. Although she is a direct descendant of the wealthy Astor family, Alexandra’s father and his brother only inherited landed property, not the money to help sustain it. Alexandra’s mother is a bohemian artist from Poland whose idea of being a good mother is leaving your children alone. Her father loves the family estate more than anything else and it’s caring and upkeep are more than a full-time job. Too bad it’s an unpaid one. Alexandra never knew where her next meal would come from or who would be providing it. Her alcoholic grandmother, who lives in the converted chauffer’s garage, is the closest thing she has to a responsible parent. At least there’s always food in her refrigerator. She keeps hoping that a long-lost rich aunt will come and take her away from all the craziness and provide her with some stability. Alexandra shares intimate details of her unconventional childhood and eccentric family in this touching memoir. She’s definitely an underdog to root for.
Recommended by Melissa, September 2014

 
Book Cover for Leading So People Will Follow Andersen, Erika
Leading So People Will Follow

Nonfiction
If you've been in management for a while, you've probably read your share of management books. The advice starts to run together after a while, so you might be hankering for something new. Try Leading So People Will Follow by Erika Andersen. Joseph Campbell is mentioned in the first few pages, so you are immediately aware that this isn't your average MBA-produced book. Andersen uses a fairy tale to illustrate 6 different leadership qualities: farsightedness, passion, wisdom, courage, generosity, and trustworthiness. Andersen offers easily digestible, practical tips for gaining these qualities. For example, she gives some really great tips on how to delegate, which is a skill that eludes many managers. This is a great title for managers or aspiring managers who like to think outside the box when it comes to leadership.
Recommended by Holly, February 2014

 
Book Cover for I Can Barely Take 
        Care of Myself Close, Jen Kirkman
I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids

Nonfiction
Close your eyes and imagine for a moment you are at [insert family / religious holiday here]. Your Aunt So-and-So has had one too many cherry cordials, and has that loquacious look in her eye. Brace yourself, as you have learned so expertly to do, and count down from ten as she talks too loudly and/or too shrilly about babies and your lack thereof. You might come to fear these inevitable "heart-to-hearts", or have perfected the art of the 1000-yard stare when Aunty gets started, but worry not, because you are not as alone as you might feel. (I mean, you're still alone, we're all alone really, aren't we? Anywho!) If the above scenario hits a bit too close to home, might I suggest giving Jen Kirkman's book, I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, a try? Channel the healing power of laughter as you read through Jen's various, and often times hilarious, run-ins with that most condemnable of questions to all of Child-Free Kind, "So, do you have any kids?" Family, friends, and strangers have kindly fueled the fire of Kirkman's comedic talents in this book that is one part memoir, another part guide to surviving the barrage of questions only a child-free person would understand, and a whole lot of heart. Even if that heart just smoked your last Camel Light and is sleeping off a hangover on your couch. Check out I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids by Jen Kirkman, I guarantee you will mostly not be disappointed.
Recommended by Tobin, May 2014

 
Book Cover for House at Sugar Beach Cooper, Helene
The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood

Nonfiction
In The House at Sugar Beach, Helene Cooper tells a very personal coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of Liberian civil unrest. Many readers will relate to the aches and triumphs of her adolescence and her attachment to her parents, while learning much about the African country founded by freed American slaves. As the book opens, seven-year-old Helene moves with her family to a huge, isolated oceanfront home. Due to her ancestors’ role in creating the country, Helene is brought up in a very wealthy environment and is considered a “Congo.” The “Country” people, or original inhabitants of Liberia, aren’t so lucky in most cases. The book reads like a novel, as we are only provided with the narrator’s perspective. But because our narrator is a journalist, we have scenes involving first crushes and school dances juxtaposed with coups and riots. The bulk of the book focuses on her time in Liberia, but Helene does eventually move to the States, and we learn a bit about her life here: her less-than-perfect assimilation into American high school and college, and her journey into a career with the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Check this title out before Helene’s visit to Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Monday Night Lecture Series on February 10, 2014.
Recommended by Holly, January 2014

 
Book Cover for Design Brooklyn Hellman, Anne
Design Brooklyn

Nonfiction
Brooklyn has undergone a renaissance lately, for better or for worse. This book puts issues of gentrification aside and focuses on the restoration, renovation, innovation, and industry taking place in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Mike D, of the Beastie Boys, grew up in Brooklyn during a decade when its streets were remarkably different from today. He opens Design Brooklyn with an interview about the borough's evolution, the role of art in his life, and how he and his wife decided to return to Brooklyn and design a townhome, including their own wallpaper featuring people and places from the neighborhood. (Yes, Biggie Smalls' mug figures into the paper's rose-tinted toile design.) Along with Mike D's home, dozens of other renovated brownstones are displayed in full-page photos, showcasing the craftsmanship, art, and furniture of past and present Brooklynites. Bars, restaurants, Navy Yard buildings, artists' studios, and other re-imagined edifices are shown, and the authors were careful to include a range of design styles. Victorian, mid-century modern, stark contemporary, and industrial chic all figure into this diverse Brooklyn.
Recommended by Rita, January 2014

 
Book Cover for Inside of a Dog Horowitz, Alexandra
Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know

Nonfiction
Nearly 40% of all U.S. homes have a dog inside, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. It's a wonder there aren't more books about our furry friends! For what's out there, you can't get much better than Inside of a Dog. The perfect antidote to the "pack leader" mentality in dog training, this book is written by a biologist who has researched extensively, while the language is still accessible and easy-to-read for non-scientists. She makes practical connections between science and real-life application. Learn how we know about what dogs know, and pick up some tips to improve your relationship with your own lovable pooch!
Recommended by Holly, July 2014

 
Book Cover for The Sixth Extinction Kolbert, Elizabeth
The Sixth Extinction

Nonfiction
A Top Ten List of the things I learned by reading Elizabeth Kolbert's Bestseller The Sixth Extinction
10) Ocean acidification is the extremely evil partner of global warming.
9) The mass extinction at the end of the Permian period that nearly emptied the earth of all life is known as "The Great Dying".
8) Frogs are "ribbet-ribbet" fabulous.
7) Tropical waters are very low in the nutrients necessary to most forms of life, that is why they are so beautifully clear.
6) Genetically speaking, all people (including Cameron Diaz) are between one and four per cent Neanderthal.
5) Rats may inherit the earth. 4) Coral reefs are part animal, vegetable and mineral.
3) Wood storks defecate on their own legs, sometimes up to once per minute, in order to stay cool.
2) Due to glaciation New England had no earthworms until the European settlers arrived. How's the grass?
1) Human beings can cause anything to become extinct—even themselves.
Recommended by John, August 2014

 
Book Cover for Love, InshAllah Mattu, Ayesha and Nura Maznavi co-editors
Love, InshAllah

Nonfiction
Very few outside of Muslim communities understand the intricacies, triumphs, and heartaches of searching for love while practicing Islam in the United States, especially when religious traditions and 21st-century dating protocols are involved. From arranged marriages to punk rock Muslimahs, queer sisters to online dating, Love, InshAllah, co-edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi, threads together passionate personal essays written by Muslim American women from all walks of life. Their stories open readers up to the hearts behind the hijabs, and what you find within these pages may surprise you by the similarities we share with our Muslim sisters. I laughed and cried, but most of all felt empathy and appreciation for their honest and beautiful storytelling. Love, InshAllah is a must-read for readers with a passion for love stories, and especially those curious about the experiences of Muslim American women on their own diverse journeys to discover that most universal of themes in all of our lives.
Recommended by Tobin, July 2014

 
Book Cover for Top Secret Menner, Simon
Top Secret: Bilder aus den Archiven der Staatssicherheit = Images from the Stasi Archives

Nonfiction
At a time when the National Security Administration is under scrutiny for gathering information on everyday American citizens, it's worthwhile to contemplate Simon Menner's new collection of Stasi photographs from the Cold War era. The Stasi, the state security arm of the German Democratic Republic (known to most Americans as East Germany), comprised a huge staff including secret agents, garbage analysts, and wiretappers. Found in the Stasi Archives, these images include surveillance of mailboxes and private residences, instructional photos on how Stasi personnel should disguise themselves, and contents of confiscated postal packages. Some images are downright humorous, with secret agents modeling absurd wigs and outfits, while others are disturbing, such as photos of bedrooms belonging to teenagers suspected of pro-Western leanings (posters of Madonna and an American flag seem to have warranted secret house searches). Menner found little or no information attached to the photo files, so most are mystifying. The reader is left to imagine what happened in each scene, or why it was worthy of state interest. This collection pairs perfectly with the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film of 2006, The Lives of Others, in which a Stasi officer surveilling an innocent couple begins to have misgivings about his task.
Recommended by Rita, June 2014

 
Book Cover for Mason Jar Salads Mirabella, Julia
Mason Jar Salads

Nonfiction
Never did a salad look so delicious or easy to make as in Julia Mirabella's new book. Preventing lettuce from getting soggy or cheese from getting soaked is simple if you layer your salads and dressings in a jar according to the author's instructions. These recipes are full of ingredients you likely already have in your fridge or pantry, with healthy and delicious toppings such as white beans, corn, blueberries, or pears. If you want to cut back on the money you spend eating out, or if you'd like to swap a more nutritious lunch for your usual slice of pizza, this is all the colorful inspiration you need. (And if you're hooked on salads, don't miss another delectable book: Salad of the Day by Georgeanne Brennan.)
Recommended by Rita, September 2014

 
Book Cover for Leaving Mother Lake Namu, Yang Erche and Christine Mathieu
Leaving Mother Lake

Nonfiction
Yang Erche Namu grew up in the 60s and 70s in a remote mountainous region of China, near the Tibetan border. She was raised in the Moso community, a matrilineal society in which property is passed through women and in which adult men, including fathers, live with their mothers, siblings, aunts, and cousins instead of with a partner and their children. According to Namu, "women and men should not marry, for love is like the seasons - it comes and goes." At night, a woman of age meets with her lover in a private room in her mother's house, and hangs the lover's bag outside the door when she no longer wishes to meet with him. If she has a child, the child will live with her, raised by an extended family including the child's grandmother, aunts, and cousins. Namu includes such details in Leaving Mother Lake, but this is far more than an anthropological study. Namu shares the beauty of Lake Lugu and the surrounding hot springs and mountains, the happiness of butter tea and New Year festivals, and the years she spent in near isolation tending yaks with her uncle at high elevations. One day this insular world, free of modern conveniences, is visited by outsiders - representatives from the Cultural Bureau who have come to record traditional Moso songs. Namu is selected to travel to the city to participate in a singing contest. She goes, she wins, and moves on to a larger competition in Beijing, which she also wins. When she returns to Lake Lugu as a celebrity, she finds her surroundings dull, her suitor infuriating, and her new job interminable. Based on this, and an ever-weakening relationship with her mother, she makes a life-altering decision. (I chanced upon this memoir while reading Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, who use the Moso as an example of a society that doesn't foster monogamy, and is perhaps better for it.)
Recommended by Rita, February 2014

 
Book Cover for The Girls of Murder City Perry, Douglas
The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago

Nonfiction
Did you know that Academy Award-winning Best Picture Chicago was based on a true story? Chicago is one of my all-time favorite films, so when I saw Douglas Perry’s book, The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, it went right to the top of my reading list. Perry tells the story of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, who were both accused of murdering their lovers in 1920’s Chicago. Perry also tells the story of journalist Maurine Watkins who first covered the pair and made them household names.
Recommended by Katie, May 2014

 
Book Cover for Overwhelmed Shulte, Brigid
Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has Time

Fiction
If you feel like your life is crashing in on you, take a break and read Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has Time, by Brigid Shulte. The subtitle is a reference to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory that “the richest and fullest lives attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms: work, love and play.” Brigid, a well-respected journalist for the Washington Post, was living life in the “overwhelm,” running all over town trying to keep up with her family and her work, when she set out to write this book. Brigid begins by keeping a time use diary with sociologist John Robinson, and continues her journey by visiting notable social scientists in the U.S. and beyond. She includes research studies, new investigations, and personal anecdotes to create just the right mix of subjectivity and objectivity. This title is definitely written from a working mom perspective, but anyone who is overwhelmed can relate to much of the book.
Recommended by Holly, September 2014

 
Book Cover for I Would Die 4 U Touré
I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon

Nonfiction
This book could be titled “Get to Know Prince (As Much as Anyone Can) in 150 Pages.” It is a concise and thoughtful treatise, establishing what makes a popular musician an actual icon, rather than just a rock star, and then, explaining why Prince qualifies. But the majority of the book is about how Prince’s life, experiences, and religious beliefs influenced his music, especially the lyrics. As much as he is known for pushing the envelope sexually, there is actually as much, if not more, religious content in his various songs. I feel like I learned so much about the man and his myth through this book – his difficult, but driven, adolescence, and his quirky work habits and song lyrics that I always thought said something completely different. (There’s nothing like finding out those words you’ve been belting out in the car all these years are totally wrong!)
Recommended by Melissa, May 2014

 
Book Cover for How to Travel the World for Free Wigge, Michael
How to Travel the World for Free

Nonfiction
A more accurate title for this book would be How I Traveled the World for Free instead of How to Travel the World for Free. Yes, author Michael Wigge travels from Berlin to Antarctica without a cent, but he has a leg up on us average travelers. More than a few times, he's able to bypass costs - such as tickets for a boat tour of Niagara Falls or a 9-hour bus trip - simply by explaining to agents that he's a reporter trying to make his way to the end of the world or by regaling them with funny travel stories. He also has some tricks that lots of readers just aren't going to try, and are often illegal. For example, Wigge goes dumpster diving for food or avoids conductors by hiding out in the restrooms or bike compartments of trains. Wigge is plain lucky sometimes: a friend's father gives him an airline ticket from California to Hawaii, countless shop owners and vegetable sellers offer him free food and drinks, or strangers offer him sleeping accommodations in their homes. (Many of these generous folks have far fewer means than the author has during his non-traveling life.) Not to mention, some of Wigge's pursuits - hitchhiking, couchsurfing, or sleeping alongside a homeless man in a park - just wouldn't be advisable for some women traveling alone. But a misleading title should be no deterrent; I heartily recommend this funny, fast-moving travelogue. Humanity's generosity, especially south of the equator, is awe-inspiring, and there are some truly practical travel tips along the route.
Recommended by Rita, March 2014

 
Book Cover for Shock Value Zinoman, Jason
Shock Value

Nonfiction
A few years ago, I saw John Carpenter’s Halloween on the big screen. It was one of the most terrifying and entertaining experiences I have ever had at the movies. Jason Zinoman’s book, Shock Value, tells the fascinating story of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Brain De Palma and other directors who revolutionized the horror genre in the 1970’s. Zinoman provides insight into how these filmmakers provided a new and frightening way to entertain audiences. If you are a film fan — even if you are not a big horror fan — I would highly recommend Shock Value by Jason Zinoman.
Recommended by Katie, January 2014

 

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Mysteries

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Poetry

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Science Fiction

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Graphic Novels

Book Cover for New American Splendor Anthology Pekar, Harvey
The New American Splendor Anthology

Nonfiction Graphic Novel
The New American Splendor Anthology by Harvey Pekar and various artists. This anthology is definitely not new. First published in 1991, it mainly contains comics from the mid- to late-80s. The stories are generally short, autobiographical vignettes about Pekar's working-class life in Cleveland, Ohio. Topics range from dealing with co-workers or traffic, to struggling to maintain relationships with friends and lovers — the usual everyday fascinating stuff. Also included are stories about a few of his appearances as a guest on Late Night with David Letterman. He never seems to glorify or glamorize the events in his stories, and they are written in a very average slang-filled prose which conveys a relatable honesty. The work is definitely dated, but Pekar was a persistent pioneer on the cutting edge of biographical comics, which makes these worth a look. There is a lot to be said about the daily struggles of a man trying to live a fulfilling life in the gritty '80s.
Recommended by Rick, August 2014

 

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Short Stories

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Horror

 

DVDS

Book Cover for Lake Mungo Anderson, Joel
Lake Mungo 2008

DVD
I have recently created a project for myself to watch every contemporary horror movie that the library owns, with the exception of extreme gore. I don’t enjoy gore and slasher flicks because they always seem too obvious. I mean how many times can you see someone get decapitated? How many times do you really care to see limbs removed from actors? 10 times, 100 times, 1000? I, for one, am over it. I want to be slowly creeped out, psychologically. Currently, my favorite horror movies fall into the mockumentary found footage genre. Mockumentaries are an effective vehicle for horror films because they seem so convincing as reality. In this hyper-vigilant and voyeuristic technological society, everything is recorded, stored away only to be forgotten, and then maybe rediscovered. Therefore, this genre of horror movies seems most relevant to contemporary life. Not so relevant is running for your life from a machete-wielding lunatic while camping in the woods, or solving puzzles while being tortured by a clown in an urban dungeon. In Lake Mungo, a family is trying to cope with the drowning death of their teenage daughter, Alice. As the family begins to delve into their daughter’s past through video footage, they uncover shocking facts. The more they learn about Alice, the more disturbing their own lives become. Lake Mungo is my top selection after viewing the many new horror films the library offers. I watched this film with the lights out, late at night, and I recommend you do the same. It is truly a frightening work of supernatural mystery. Oh, and watch the end credits.
Recommended by Mel, May 2014

 
Book Cover for The Imposter Layton, Bart (director)
The Imposter (2012)

DVD
The Imposter is a documentary produced by Dimitri Doganis and directed by Bart Layton. You have to watch this! “In 1994, a thirteen-year-old boy disappeared without a trace from San Antonio, Texas. Three-and-a-half years later, he is found alive and well thousands of miles away in Spain. He tells a story of kidnap and torture when he returns. While his family is excited to bring him home, all is not quite as it seems. Is the boy really who he claims to be, or is he an imposter giving the family false hope for their child's return?” Above is the summary from the library’s catalog. To add anything more would destroy this documentary. I have to bring to it everyone’s attention because it is truly a bizarre missing child investigation from the beginning to the end. I really, really, really wish that I could tell you more, but you just have to watch it for yourself.
Recommended by Mel, March 2014

 
 

Music

Nastasia, Nina
Outlaster

Music
Something like a turbid confluence of the modern Americana-classical tradition of Aaron Copland, a busking Joni Mitchell alone with her guitar, and the post-rock arrangements of Sigur Rós, Nina Nastasia threads her fragile voice and cryptic lyrics through architecturally complex musical forms on an ethereal plane all her own, in which the import of each note is met by the equal significance of the silences between. Born within the studios of Steve Albini (who has produced all of her recordings), Outlaster is Nina's most recent album, the latest in ten years of carefully cultivated harmonics, and a lovely exposition of the sound upon which John Peel bestowed a gracious praise. Each song invites us into her glass menagerie of carefully collected moments of vulnerability pronounced by the invincible angelic orders. While many artists flirt with forays into the sublime, they hardly do so with the consistency of sincerity and wholeheartedness with which Nina Nastasia continues to astound.
Recommended by miguel, August 2014

 
 

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