Book Review: The Fountains of Silence

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys (2019)

Madrid, Spain. 1957. Francisco Franco has been in power for 18 years. The country is still burdened by the losses of the Spanish Civil War and is shrouded in the secrets necessary under Franco’s oppressive regime. Ana, an orphaned child of dissidents, is lucky to have a good job at the Castellana Hilton Madrid, one of the first tourist hotels allowed in Franco’s Spain. Daniel, an 18-year-old Texan and aspiring photographer, is visiting the hotel with his Spanish mother and oil tycoon father. This novel is the riveting story of how their very different lives, and their secrets, intersect.

Ever since her debut novel, Between Shades of Gray (which depicted the deportation of Lithuanian Jews to Siberian labor camps during WWII), became a “crossover” hit with adults, Ruta Sepetys’ historical fiction novels have found an audience far broader than “young adult.” For existing fans and for new readers, her latest novel will not disappoint. Interspersed with primary source quotations from diplomats and visitors to Madrid during the period, Sepetys’ novel delivers a vivid historical portrait of Francoist Spain that is also part romance and part mystery.

With the relentless pace and the beautiful spare language for which she is known, Sepetys’ novel is a swift-moving tale of the fortunes and misfortunes of one’s birth and the legacies of war. And with reverberations of Franco’s dictatorship still echoing today (his body was exhumed and reburied just last month, and the truths behind secret illegal adoptions ordered during his regime are still being exposed), Sepetys’ work feels timely. Deeply researched and with extensive back matter provided, this tale of a lesser-known era of history deserves to be read widely by adults and young adults alike.

Review by Laurel Cox, Reference and Young Adult Librarian

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Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

This is an extremely well-researched and thoughtfully presented account of the lives of a group of North Korean defectors that worked with journalist Barbara Demick to tell their stories of survival and escape. Demick has been interviewing North Koreans since 2001, when was stationed in Seoul by the Los Angeles Times; she is now the bureau chief for the paper in Beijing.

These first-hand accounts sometimes read like fiction — you can’t believe the horrors are real. The intertwining stories provide a devastating picture of the harsh realities of life in North Korean “during the chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population.”

The six different North Koreans the book follows are from different strata in society, but they all grapple with the struggles of living in an Orwellian society that provides no freedoms, food, or modern amenities. Eventually they all make the dangerous and difficult decision to leave. It is a great vehicle for learning about the history of a country whose future in increasingly important to global political stability.

The author writes with an impressive command of the history and politics of the country and the region. Demick’s reporting on North Korea won the Overseas Press Club award for human rights reporting, the Asia Society’s Osborne Eliott award and the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Award.

I don’t gravitate naturally toward non-fiction, but I really enjoyed Demick’s approach to presenting history. On my list of titles I hope to tackle in the near future is her book on daily life in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War,
Logavina Street: Life and Death in Sarajevo Neighborhood (Demick wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer during that time; this book was also highly acclaimed, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer.

Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian.

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Book Review: Pumpkinheads

Pumpkinheads is the latest YA Graphic novel collaboration between Rainbow Rowell, author of bestselling titles such as Eleanor and Park, Fangirl, and Carry On, and Faith Erin Hicks, author and illustrator of Friends with Boys

This graphic novel follows two best friends –Deja and Josiah — through their last night working together at “the Patch,” the world’s best pumpkin patch, as they prepare to head their separate ways and start their college careers. They have a mission: to help Josiah finally talk to the girl he has had a crush on for years. Of course, even the best laid plans may not go as you’d expect.

As someone who has visited a pumpkin patch every year of my life, I found this graphic novel incredibly nostalgic, and very appropriate for the Halloween season. The friendship between Deja and Josiah is one I think we all could or would like to relate too, and the art and atmosphere makes you want to grab your flannel, a pumpkin treat, and head to the nearest pumpkin patch. Get cozy and give this a read! 

Review by Megan Hultman, Circulation Staff.

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Book Review: Red at the Bone

Jacqueline Woodson received the National Book Award for her memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, published in 2014. You might have missed her talents because she writes a lot of young adult material. But don’t miss this work of adult fiction. It packs a punch.

I don’t want to appear lazy, but the last paragraph of NPR’s review of her latest work says it all. I can’t believe how much Woodson transmits about growing up female and African American in just 200 pages of terse poem-like prose.

Here’s the NPR summary:

“Red at the Bone should win Woodson plenty of new fans. It reads like poetry and drama, a cry from the heart that often cuts close to the bone. The narrative nimbly jumps around in time and shifts points of view among five characters who span three generations — the unplanned child of that high school fling and her parents and grandparents — as it builds toward its moving climax. In less than 200 sparsely filled pages, this book manages to encompass issues of class, education, ambition, racial prejudice, sexual desire and orientation, identity, mother-daughter relationships, parenthood and loss — yet never feels like a checklist of Important Issues.”

Place your hold now! It’s a wonderful read.

Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian

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Book Review: Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have

It seems absurd to us now that humans once thought the world was flat, but I always get a kick out of pondering: which practices are humans performing this very minute that will seem equally absurd to future generations?  In Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have, former New York Times science and climate reporter Tatiana Schlossberg provides so many answers that it is an embarrassment of riches. Through actions as simple as streaming Netflix or buying “affordable” cashmere or purchasing Valentine’s Day roses at Walmart, Schlossberg points out the environmental irrationalities inherent in a host of everyday human activities.

Schlossberg arranges her portrait of modern consumption around four central aspects of life in the developed world: technology, food, fashion, and fuel. For each of these four elements of modern life, she picks a handful of subtopics to explore (ie. the electricity usage of online data centers, food waste, microplastic fiber pollution from athletic wear, the refrigerants in residential air conditioners, etc.). She reveals a world deeply polluted and degraded by human practices, but most notably, she demonstrates the psychological, political, policy, and market complexities which led humans to develop those practices and how the effects of those habits now link all humans across the globe.

Loaded with fascinating examples of human shortsightedness, the effect of Schlossberg’s book is, not surprisingly, incredibly sobering. But it’s also a compelling and even compulsive read, even if it leaves you feeling like your beloved fleece sweatshirt is delivering us swiftly toward the apocalypse. Read all the way to Schlossberg’s concluding chapter for brief coverage of Peter Rand’s oyster farm on the New Meadows River.

Schlossberg’s quick and accessible, yet heavily sourced narrative is a timely addition to the recent conversation about the state of the climate. Wherever you stand in the environmental discussion, this book will spark valuable debate.


Review by Laurel Cox, Reference Librarian

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Book Review: North American Lake Monsters

This 2013 short story collection by Nathan Ballingrud won the Shirley Jackson award. I found it while combing around for good short stories that have monsters as central figures, whether real or imagined. After reading one of two in this collection, I couldn’t put it down. The author’s deftly woven and beautifully written terror tales are very compelling.

I am not usually drawn to books that have actual monsters, like vampires, werewolves, or lake creatures. But I was impressively creeped out (in a good way) by the inhabitants of Ballingrud’s stories. His human characters have personal demons that haunt them, and they are intensified by the fears and feelings that the physical monsters evoke in them. And the monsters don’t hide in haunted houses or dungeons — they lurk under normal family homes, around new subdivisions, or wash up on a familiar lake shore.

In “Wild Acre,” the werewolf story, there is an actual beast, but the author only gives you a shadowed glimpsed of it during the opening pages. The rest of the story is about the psychological damage the encounter inflicts on Jeremy, the sole survivor of the attack. The violence of the mysterious killings begets violence in him and in his relationships; he can’t escape and he is tortured by something he didn’t really even see.

In “Sunbleached,” a vampire lives beneath a house of a lonely, estranged family. He has taken Joshua, the young teen in residence. Joshua is in the process of being “changed,” but the story is more about betrayal. Joshua feels betrayed by his mother, his father, and finally, by the vampire that he has been coaxed to trust in.

My favorite story, however, was “The Crevasse.” This is a story that is a mash-up of Jack London and gothic horror. An arctic expedition crew loses a sled dog to a crevasse. In an an effort to put the dog out its misery, the crew’s doctor makes a dangerous descent into the crevasse. There, he sees and hears evidence of something deeply haunting in the earth. But does he? The story is about overcoming loss, another invisible demon we all face.

I really enjoyed this great little collection. If you are looking for something to bring up the Halloween spirit, this could do the trick.

Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian.

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Book Review: Lousiana’s Way Home

Louisiana Elefante has a voice that can sing! In Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo, twelve-year-old Louisiana is going to need to use her talents and sing for her supper. You see, Louisiana has a family curse on her head and the day of reckoning (according to Granny) has arrived. Louisiana is separated from all the things she loves when her Granny wakes her at 3 a.m. in order to confront the curse. They end up crossing the Georgia – Florida line where Louisiana discovers she is not as alone as she thought.

Louisiana is determined to find her way back to her home and friends in Florida. It takes a special young man with a crow on his shoulder to give her the directions. He has pointed out the direction that leads South but her heart follows the North star, where she will never be lost. This book is full of enchanting characters, from a famous pie-baking mom to a grumpy hotel-owner to Louisiana herself.  Louisiana’s friendships and endearing personality make for a delightful read while teaching the importance of forgiveness. Kate DiCamillo is an enchanting storyteller; Louisiana’s Way Home has made a profound impact on my heart.

Review is by Katy Dodge, the Head of Children’s Services.

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Book Review: Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, by Margaret Renkl

In this unconventional memoir, Renkl blends evocative recollections of her family with insightful observations of the natural world outside her home in Nashville.

Told in brief essays, Renkl’s narrative eases seamlessly between the past and the present, bringing the reader from the red dirt roads of her childhood in Alabama to the dramatic showdowns between predator and prey in her suburban backyard. Renkl celebrates the wonder of small, everyday moments—birds building nests outside her window, the beauty of a river, a rat snake hiding in the grass. She also writes candidly about the rocky transitions from child to mother to caretaker of her parents. As the narrative progresses and her own personal losses accumulate, Renkl explores the idea that behind every loving moment of one’s life is the shadow of grief. She argues that in the face of loss, all one can do is marvel at the little things, and make peace with the way of the natural world.

Renkl’s gorgeous prose and observations of the natural world are reminiscent of Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, and Susan Hand Shetterly. Fans of Marion Winik’s The Baltimore Book of the Dead and The Glen Rock Book of the Dead may find a kindred spirit in Renkl, who brings her late family members back to life again and again through her spare and stunning words. This book also features lovely illustrations that reflect the wildlife Renkl describes.

Late Migrations is a small book that packs a serious punch. Readers will be immersed into and mesmerized by the world that Renkl so beautifully renders.

Review by Shannon Bowring, Technical Services Coordinator.

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Book Review: The Nickel Boys

I started The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead with low expectations.   Because of my own tastes as a reader, I was not as awed as the rest of the world by his 2016 bestseller, The Underground Railroad.  I could not completely buy into Whitehead’s magical realism and his fantastical vision of an actual railroad, secretly operating underground, freeing slaves. For better or worse, my feet are firmly planted in the historical fiction camp.

And for this reason, The Nickel Boys completely blew me away.  It is an amazing documentation of the atrocities endured by the students at a real-life “reform school,” the Dozier School for Boys, which was operated by the state of Florida for over 100 years until it closed in 2011. (A University of South Florida investigation discovered some 55 graves on school grounds by December of 2012, and has continued to identify potential grave sites as recently as March 2019.)  

Whitehead’s re-creation of the school and the segregated south that gave rise to it is thoroughly researched; he presents what he learned through the story and relationships of a fictional character, Elwood Curtis.  As Elwood tries to attend his first day of college, he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets accused of stealing a car.  He is sent away to become a “Nickel Boy” at the Nickel Academy, where he must endure sadistic treatment beyond imagining.  

He endures nonetheless, trying to live by the words and teachings of Martin Luther King, which he was exposed to by the strict grandmother who raised him. Despite everything that happens to him while he is at the school, he persists in his belief that he “is as good as anyone.”  His best friend Turner is more the skeptic; he tries his best to protect Elwood from his innocent idealism and its inevitable, sometimes tragic consequences.

No spoilers here, but when I finished the book (in one sitting, on a plane), I was gobsmacked. The Nickel Boys is a totally engaging narrative that shines a light on the physical and emotional scars of racism inflicted by institutions of the Jim Crow south. Within this framework, Whitehead creates truly believable and human characters; he weaves them into a surprising and moving story about friendship, loyalty, and regret.

To request a copy of the book, click here.

Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian.

Book Review: Priestdaddy: A Memoir

For the only time that I can remember, I finished a book, turned to the title page, and read it again. Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy: A Memoir is that good: witty, perceptive, and crafted. She’s a poet, and it shows, the imagery and the diction are that vibrant.

Priestdaddy is the story of a warm, weird family and the nine months that Lockwood and her husband lived with her parents, after more than a decade on her own. Her father received a dispensation from the Vatican to be ordained when Lockwood and her siblings were children. Sharing the rectory are her blunt, punny mother and a young seminarian with a good sense of humor. He needs it.

Greg Lockwood is larger than life. He collects electric guitars and regularly retreats to his room to pick out “The Riff.” In the sanctity of the rectory, he foreswears pants and strip to boxers, no matter what.

Lockwood took notes during her visit; the result is verbatim dialogue so outrageous it had me shaking with laughter. She also flashes back to events form her childhood and adolescence that shaped her, and she traces her development as a poet. The tone she establishes is a rare one — simultaneously light and dark.

I’ve already ordered Patricia Lockwood’s two poetry collections. I want to read everything she writes.

Review Nancie, one of our volunteer shelvers.

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