Book Review: Inspector John Madden Series

Rennie Airth, born in South Africa but now a resident of Italy, began the Inspector John Madden series in 1999 with River of Darkness. The novel was inspired by his uncle, a soldier in World War I. The crime the Scotland Yard detective takes on is set in rural England in the postwar years. A survivor of the trenches of the war himself, Inspector Madden suffers from what was then called ‘shellshock,’ and this informs the investigation that follows the horrific crime in the small village in Surrey. The mystery is well-written and includes a host of flawed characters who can also rise to a moral challenge when confronted.  Airth also introduces Dr. Helen Blackwell, the local GP, who assists Madden with the forensics of the investigation and becomes his romantic companion in the process.

The language Airth uses can be graphic at times and readers my wish to know this in advance. I have read the first five of Airth’s Madden series and enjoyed each one. I am looking forward to reading the sixth installment which will be published next January. It is important to read this series in order as there are significant details which carry forward into the next book. Patten Free Library owns all the available titles with exception of The Reckoning,which is available at other Maine libraries and can be requested through interlibrary loan.

The Inspector John Madden series (click title to request a copy):

River of Darkness

The Blood-Dimmed Tide

The Dead of Winter

The Reckoning

The Death of Kings

The Decent Inn Of Death (to be published January 2020)

Review by Mary Ellen Wilson, Interlibrary Loan Coordinator.

Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

If you like to get to know people by asking them about their favorite books, read this. Take it to the beach and devour it in an afternoon; revel in its tidy celebrations of the transformative power of love and the power of a good book.

A.J. Fikry owns a struggling independent book store on (fictional) Alice Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. His wife has died in a car accident. His grief has isolated him, made him drink too much red wine, and hardened his sharp edges.

He is a bit of a book snob. Princeton educated, Fikry doesn’t just stock any old book in Island Books (“No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World”). When he meets Amelia, the new, young, and idealistic (yes, eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep on her first trip to Alice Island, he is pressed to share this litany of his old-fashioned sensibilities:

“I do not like postmodernism, post­apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be — basically gimmicks of any kind. . . . I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and — I imagine this goes without saying — vampires.”

Two tipping points of the story follow this painful and awkward first encounter with Amelia: a rare first edition of Poe poems is stolen from the bookstore; and then, a mystery package is left there, and Fikry must contend with it. These two events are the starting points for his new path forward.

I loved the way that Zevin starts each chapter with one of Fikry’s bookstore “shelf reviews.” These are just as enjoyable as the plot itself; they reflect his changing literary sensibilities and emotional changes as he let go of his grief and allows love back in to his life. Zevin skillfully makes books and stories an integral part of this transformation.

Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian.

To request a copy, click here.

Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Explosion

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Explosion is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the tragedy of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant explosion in 1986 from the perspective of those who suffered the greatest. Author Svetlana Alexievich traveled around Russia in the regions close to Chernobyl and gathered the stories of those who worked there, residents of the neighboring towns, and family members of the first responders. It is both tragic and enlightening.

The book starts with the story of the wife of a firefighter who was in the first group responding to the explosion, a gut-wrenching tale of how unprepared they were heading into Chernobyl and the tragic death by radiation that eventually killed them all. The gravity of the situation is palpable in her words as she recalls how she sneaked into the ward where her husband lay dying, and how she cared for him every day, even though she was pregnant and his radiation exposure made him toxic. Hers is only one story of many of how this tragedy rippled through Russia and exposed the harsh truth about the government’s blatant attempt to cover it up.

Each story tells a different angle of the tragedy. Alexievich is barely visible in the book as she lets the people share how Chernobyl affected them, and the country as a whole. Although difficult to stomach at times, Voices from Chernobyl is something everyone should read. I kept trying to put it down, the stories too heart wrenching and raw, but I felt it was my duty to read every word to honor the lives lost and affected by this tragedy. If you are only vaguely aware of what happened in Chernobyl, read this book for the truth behind the explosion, and the reality of the aftermath. Within these pages and these stories the truth is laid bare. In 2015 Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her dedication to telling the oral histories of the people of Russia.

Book Review: Economix: How our economy works (and doesn’t work) in words and pictures by Michael Goodwin, illustrated by Dan E. Burr

I cannot for the life of me believe how much I enjoyed this book!  Who would have believed that a book about the economy could offer entertainment and even humor?  That I would look forward to picking off a chapter every night, and learn so much about such a “dry” subject?  That I would find comfort in understanding just why millions of Americans in the middle class find themselves struggling? 

This book follows the American economy and economic forces from before America even existed up until modern times, including the market crash.  It uses drawings to represent forces such as corporate interests, the poor, different parties (the familiar donkey and elephant), and such so that the ideas are easier to understand.  In particular, the interaction of the drawings makes the interaction of the forces easier to understand.  The book excels at showing how rules and regulations from various players in the global market (represented by distinct caricatures) affect other players and forces, including, of course, the consumer.  The book does NOT rely heavily on graphs and numbers, but instead relies on scenarios to show what happened at what time.  I would recommend this book to anyone who finds themselves subject to the forces of the economy – which is everyone, if you’re counting. 

Review by Andrea Terry, Circulation Assistant

To reserve a copy, click here

Book Review: Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

In the 1970s, in rural Alabama, an African-American preacher named Willie Maxwell was accused of murdering  several of his family members to collect insurance money. Thanks in part to his attorney, these allegations were never proven true, and Maxwell evaded justice until he was shot and killed by a relative at his final victim’s funeral. Robert Burns, the man who pulled the trigger, was represented by the same shrewd lawyer who once defended Maxwell. Despite hundreds of witnesses and his own confession, Burns was acquitted of the crime.

Following this fascinating case was none other than one-time novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner Harper Lee. Inspired by her friend Truman Capote’s true-crime classic, In Cold Blood (which Lee was instrumental in helping bring to life), Lee decided to write her own nonfiction account of a sensational murder case. She traveled to Willie Maxwell’s small town in Alabama and began the long, drawn-out process of conducting interviews and collecting research. But this book never came to fruition, disappointing countless fans who had waited decades to read something new by the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

In Furious Hours, Cep blends elements of courtroom drama and true crime with insights into racial politics of the Deep South, voodoo, and insurance fraud. She also sheds light on one of America’s most beloved authors and explores what happens when a successful writer loses faith in her own potential.

Review by Shannon Bowring, Technical Services Coordinator

To reserve a copy, click here.

Book Review: Florida

Florida by Lauren Groff

I picked up this book in the airport, thinking (mistakenly) that it was a book by another Florida author that I had heard about on NPR. What a happy accident! I was so taken by this collection of short stories by Lauren Groff. It has earned all kinds of awards and recognition, but somehow I missed it. Now I can’t wait to read her earlier, but equally acclaimed novel, Fates and Furies (2015).

I am not a good enough book reviewer to do this collection justice. I was blown away by her writing. It is spare and beautiful. She is stingy with the information she gives you, but you still can piece together a bigger picture as her stories unfold. (If you want to read a great review, click here for the one in The New Yorker.)

All the stories are connected to the author’s adopted state, which she refers to as “an Eden of dangerous things.” All of the them hint at but don’t center on strained familial relationships (husbands, parents, children) as the plots unfold; they all present a conflict between the characters and something in nature or the wild. Yet there seems to be a quiet celebration of love, domesticity, and acceptance in each story that works to combat whatever evils may lurk in the wilds of Florida (or France, where one of the stories takes place).

Groff also shares characters’ inner voices and psychological journeys in each story. Whether a character is battling a hurricane, homelessness, or abandonment, the author lets you in behind the eyes of the storytellers, and often (as in real life), what they see and experience is just a fragment of a bigger picture.

Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian.

To request a copy, click here.

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens recently soared to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list, and after reading it last weekend, I understand why it’s attained that stature and why others are so captivated by this unforgettable story. Using exquisite prose, Delia Owens vibrantly describes the environmental beauty and vibrancy of North Carolina’s remote Outer Banks marshlands. I loved so many of the observations of the main character, Kya: “Autumn leaves don’t fall, they fly. They take their time and wander on this their only chance to soar.” The smells and visuals of wildlife almost become a living character in this truly compelling story about abandonment, belonging, and redemptive love. Perhaps this one is destined to be a new American classic, reminiscent, in parts, of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Gene Stratton-Porter’s, A Girl of the Timberlost. It mesmerized me, hook, line and sinker!

Catherine Danielle Clark, known as Kya, is the youngest of five children, all born in a crumbled-down shack into a life of impoverishment. Their mother eventually leaves when Kya is only six years old and one by one, each of her siblings follow suit, abandoning her to her neglectful, abusive, alcoholic father who also eventually takes to the road. She becomes the target of harassment within a community that shuns her. Kya is dirty, hungry and alone, but learns to survive on her own around the waterways, far away from school and the town folk’s cruelty, calling her names like “Marsh Girl,” “Marsh Trash,” and “Wild Child.” No one, other than Jumpin’ and his wife, Mabel, and Tate, a childhood friend, offers help or advice to the lonely girl.

At 14 years old, Kya eventually learns to read and as she’s learning says, “I wasn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.” It’s the botany books her mother left behind that astonish her the most, reaching the point of learning the Latin names of most flora and fauna. Overtime, Kya has become a famous naturalist painter, writer and collector.

Kya has also become a very beautiful, smart young woman who draws unwanted attention from the townie boys who spy on her, and this is where the pages start to really turn fast. There’s a murder. Local football legend, Chase Andrews is found dead. Rumors swirl as to motive and possible suspects. There’s a police investigation. A trial ensues and some twists and turns I didn’t see coming. Seek out Where the Crawdads Sing.  I hope you find it to be as satisfying as I did.

Review by Carol McFadden, the head of the Children’s Room.

To request a copy, click here.

Book Review: Normal People

Book Review: Normal People

This little gem of a novel by Sally Rooney definitely made me feel my age (old). It is a love story of two millennials from the same backwater town in Ireland, who are clearly meant to be together, but can’t admit it to themselves or to each other. As I am sure Rooney intends, I kept slapping my forehead every time they failed to take the leap of faith for each other as the relationship evolves from their last year of high school through their last year at Trinity College in Dublin. It is testament to Rooney’s lovely writing and her skills as a storyteller that I wanted to persevere with them.

Rooney knows this territory well; she is a young author, born in 1991 in the west of Ireland. Her previous novel, Conversations With Friends (2017) was hailed in the Anglo-Irish press, and Normal People is long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

In high school, Marianne is the rich, angry, and awkward outcast; her family (minus her dead dad, who might have been abusive) is mean and unhappy. Connell is the illegitimate son of Marianne’s family house cleaner; unlike Marianne, he is in the “cool” group at school. He is tall, lanky, good-looking, popular, athletic. Both Marianne and Connell are brilliant students; both feel like outsiders.

They get to know each other because Connell comes to pick up his mom at Marianne’s house after school twice a week. Slowly, their relationship evolves into a “friends with benefits” thing that Connell tries to hide from everyone at school, and Marianne willingly agrees to keep secret. As the reader, you know there is something real between them, and you hurt for them both.

The plot continues in linear fashion. Each chapter starts with a date (January 2011) and continues the story of the relationship. We skip forward sometimes for a few days or weeks, or sometimes for a months.

The tables turn on the relationship when they both end up at Trinity College (after their first major falling out). Marianne is comfortable with the well-to-do social set, has good friends, and appears happy. Connell feels more like the social outcast. They both drift in and out of other relationships, but always come back to each other, particularly at crisis points in their lives.

I couldn’t help but root for them. For different reasons, neither of them feels worthy of true love. The end of the book will leave you hopeful about each of them as individuals and about their future together.

Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You

Usually when I love a movie it’s because: the movie contains monsters; the movie makes me cry; the movie has robots in it; or the movie is called John Wick. Sometimes, though, I love a movie because it surprises me and confuses me and then I can’t stop thinking about it.

Directed by Boots Riley, Sorry To Bother You is a dystopian satire that should be familiar but instead is multiple layers of discomfort. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) wants terribly to move himself and his performance artist girlfriend out of his Uncle’s garage. After he begrudgingly accepts a job at RegalView, a telemarketing agency, he begins to climb the corporate ladder by applying what a seasoned coworker (Danny Glover) calls ‘The White Voice,’ (which is actually the voice of David Cross).

The movie parodies so much at once (underpaid and undervalued workers, meme culture, activism and more) that at times it becomes a little messy and rambling, although it always stays funny and interesting. Watch the entire movie, and then visit me in the Children’s Room and let me know if you saw it coming. Saw what coming? You’ll know. You’ll just know.

Review by Sarah Maciejewski, Children’s Room Staff.

To request a copy, click here.

Book Review: The Acadian Kitchen

The Acadian Kitchen by Alain Bosse (The Kilted Chef)

I lived in a suburb of Montreal when I was a kid. Unsurprisingly, one of the things I remember most vividly about my time there was the food. Poutine, smoked meat sandwiches, and chicken and rib franchises (I’m thinking about you, Swiss Chalet!) are what immediately come to mind for restaurant food, but when I think about eating at friends’ houses what I remember most is Tortiere. Flaky, lardy crust filled with ground pork and allspice which, like the underappreciated Canadian sport Ringette, just hasn’t seemed to catch on here.

Seems as though Alain Bosse, a.k.a The Kilted Chef, is trying to change that with his book The Acadian Kitchen. Featuring Acadian recipes inspired by Cajun and French Canadian history, the first thought I had when I opened it was “Sarah, renew your passport and go eat all the food.” And my second thought was “But wait! Instead I can just use this book and MAKE THE FOOD.” Then my family made the potato pancakes for supper and they were excellent. Next up: Farmer’s Wife Soup, Fried Bread and Sugar Fudge.

There is a brief history or anecdote above each recipe but they are short (and interesting), and a welcome diversion from many of the blog-post inspired cookbooks I’ve picked up lately. These recipes will be familiar and comforting to New Englanders and the book mostly calls for pantry staples making this a stress-free read. Think of it as Acadian Hygge.

Review by Sarah Maciejewski of the Children’s Room.

To request a copy, click here.

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