Saturday, May 12, 2018

Books for June

Here we have our final choices courtesy of the patrons who voted for their Favorite Read of 2017. The One-in-a-Million Boy is written by a Maine author and is set in Portland, which makes it doubly interesting.

They are both available for download onto the Nooks.

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

For years, guitarist Quinn Porter has been on the road, chasing gig after gig, largely absent to his twice-ex-wife Belle and their odd, Guinness records–obsessed son. When the boy dies suddenly, Quinn seeks forgiveness for his paternal shortcomings by completing the requirements for his son's unfinished Boy Scout badge.

For seven Saturdays, Quinn does yard work for Ona Vitkus, the wily 104-year-old Lithuanian immigrant the boy had visited weekly. Quinn soon discovers that the boy had talked Ona into gunning for the world record for Oldest Licensed Driver — and that's the least of her secrets. Despite himself, Quinn picks up where the boy left off, forging a friendship with Ona that allows him to know the son he never understood, a boy who was always listening, always learning.

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke

Two orphaned brothers, Prosper and Bo, have run away to Venice, where crumbling canals and misty alleyways shelter a secret community of street urchins. Leader of this motley crew of lost children is a clever, charming boy with a dark history of his own: He calls himself the Thief Lord.

Propser and Bo relish their new "family" and life of petty crime. But their cruel aunt and a bumbling detective are on their trail. And posing an even greater threat to the boys' freedom is something from a forgotten past: a beautiful magical treasure with the power to spin time itself.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize that the truth is much darker. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together—in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions—and compels her to take a journey through her family's long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or redemption.

* * *

A few years ago we read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, which follows the story of a young girl sent from New York to the Midwest on one of the infamous trains. It was hard hitting, revealing some very unpleasant truths about the experiences of the orphans being shipped to supposedly better lives. If anything, Before We Were Yours was even more shocking, because of the motivations of the person responsible for the Foss children’s plight: Georgia Tann. In Orphan Train, the basic reason for the relocation of the children was to provide them with homes and families when overcrowded cities were overwhelmed by poverty and disease. Whilst this was also Georgia Tann’s stated motivation, she was much more interested in profit and self-aggrandizement.  

Looking at the cover, it seems that the Foss children will be a little sad to pack up their things and leave home. This could not be further from the truth. Their mother is struggling to deliver twins and their father rushes her away to a hospital, leaving Rill in charge of her younger siblings. Next morning they are forcibly removed from their home by a group of policemen and placed in a children’s home that is run with all the care and attention of a Nazi concentration camp. They are given new names and told that they will be returned to their parents in a few days. However, it soon becomes clear that they will never go home and that they are to be sold to whomever wants them, assuming that they even survive their time in the home.

Rill desperately tries to keep her family together and safe, whilst planning a way for them to escape. Unfortunately, although Rill and three of her siblings are blonde, blue-eyed and fairly placid, Camellia is dark-haired, dark-eyed and violently uncooperative. In Georgia Tann’s eyes, this makes Camellia virtually impossible to place and it is little surprise that she is not shown to prospective parents. It may also be the reason why she is targeted by the grounds man, who repeatedly tries to bribe the children with candy and attempts to get into their locked room at night. Rill is warned to keep away from him, but Camellia refuses to be cautious and one day she is assaulted by him. The trauma causes her to become violent when bath time comes around and she is sent to be tied up in the ‘closet’ for punishment. We never see or hear from her again. As Rill’s other siblings are sold off one by one, she despairs of ever seeing any of them again. Eventually, she is homed with one of her younger sisters, who creates too much trouble for her new parents and refuses to cooperate until reunited with Rill. She is handed over to the father in a hotel room, where he is assured that she is a virgin and biddable and that he can now do whatever he wants with her.

Yes, that is correct: the children’s home turns a blind eye to a pedophile grounds man and uses extreme physical punishment on children that have been stolen from their parents. Some of the children even die in their custody with no consequences. The children routinely have their names changed, are separated from their siblings and may be sold to pedophiles, no questions asked. One might think that the author is doing a massive disservice to the people at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society by portraying them as such uncaring and abusive guardians. However, it is clear from reading The Baby Thief by Barbara Bisantz Raymond that Ms Wingate actually toned down some of the abuse reported by Georgia Tann’s victims.

It seems that Georgia Tann saw an opportunity to create a new business supplying children, particularly babies, to couples seeking to adopt. At the time, this was done on a local level, with most unwanted or orphaned children being raised by friends, family members or church organizations. However, increasing urbanization brought massive epidemics and such ad hoc welfare provision was quickly overwhelmed, providing a source of potential adoptees. At the same time it became more acceptable for childless couples to adopt unrelated children, thus providing a demand. Unfortunately, Ms Tann’s actions did not match her stated aims. She used threats, blackmail and ‘gifts’ of children to buy influence with city and state officials, even earning the protection of the local crime leaders. Thus she could operate without fear of interference.

Ms Tann employed a large group of ‘spotters’ amongst the city’s police, teaching and medical professions. They would identify possible adoptees and she would move swiftly to take them to one of the numerous homes that kept her ‘stock’ before sale. Children were stolen from their homes or the streets, parents were tricked or coerced into signing away their rights and healthy babies were declared dead by corrupt nurses. Once in her ‘care’ these children were routinely given new identities, complete with different birth dates to make them appear younger and, therefore, more advanced for their supposed age. They were often given false histories, making them the illegitimate children of wealthy, highly educated parents or unfortunate orphans from good families that had no family remaining to raise them.

But, I hear you say; surely she was doing a good thing in providing good homes for underprivileged children. If only that was true. She had no interest in vetting prospective parents as long as they could pay her fees. Children were regularly placed with abusive families or used as child slaves on farms and many were sent out of state. Once adopted, Ms Tann’s only interest in the adoptees would be if she thought that she could extort extra cash from the parents, some of whom were very rich and famous.

Of course, as we see in this book, some of the adoptees were lucky enough to find wonderful parents who were loving and supportive. However, even these children suffered at the hands of Georgia Tann because she stole their pasts from them. Even if they were not stolen or given up by unwilling parents, her habits of changing identities and then destroying her records meant that many of the children could never uncover their true identities. Some, like the stolen babies, had no memory of their previous lives, but others could remember parents and siblings lost because of Ms Tann. Many have spent their whole lives trying to reconnect with that past or have been driven to depression and suicide by the trauma of what was done to them.

There is no doubt that adoption has serious implications for the psychological well-being of the adoptee, but to make it almost impossible for them to gather important information about their family’s identity or medical history must make it even worse. The families destroyed for Georgia Tann’s greed are rightfully furious about her actions. She did suffer a little for her behavior before she died, as she was being investigated for tax evasion at the time of her death, but her victims never saw her brought to justice. It is also very sad that, as a founder of the adoption ‘business’, her practices influenced the way in which adoptions were conducted for the next fifty years or more, and it is only now that adoptee-rights groups are forcing the states to open their records to adult adoptees.

As you can see, this book is a sad and depressing read in some ways, but in others it is massively life affirming. Whilst not all of Rill’s siblings have known or happy endings, some of them do and we see them trying to reestablish the connections that they lost at the hands of a greedy person who treated them like commodities. We enjoyed this exploration of a subject that needs to be aired much more publicly and thoroughly recommend it.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Meeting Dates Updated!

Due to our increasing numbers, we have been moved out of the Business Center! 

The last 2 meetings before the summer break will be held in the Crofutt Community Room

May 10th

June 7th

The fall meetings will take place in the Board Room:

September 20th

October 18th

November 15th

December 13th

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Beartown by Fredrick Backman

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

* * *

We almost unanimously loved A Man Called Ove, so it seemed likely that Mr Backman’s next offering would be just as good. Dare I say that I think it is better? Certainly, the group members had a much higher opinion of this book, although that could have been because we found the central theme, of a small town obsessed with hockey, a little bit more relatable than the struggles of a depressed widower.

Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else's forehead and pulled the trigger.

This is the story of how we got there.”

It is a cliché of episodic television to show a shocking event and then go back and show the steps leading up to it. While this is a familiar structure, it is also a good way of imposing a sense of tension and doom over events that could otherwise seem relatively innocuous. It also creates not only a ‘why done it?’ but also a ‘who done it?’ that constantly undermines our ability to trust the characters that we encounter. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to talk about the book without revealing the exact nature of the event that precipitates the ‘shotgun to the head’ scenario, so please note:

*** Spoilers below ***

We are introduced to Beartown, which is actually in Sweden, but could easily be in Maine. The local forestry industry is dying and taking the town with it. The only thing left for the townspeople to rally around are their hockey teams. There is a ‘professional’ team, although it seems to be of a very low standard, and the promising junior team, which is having a particularly good year. It should be noted that nobody has any interest at all in ladies hockey, which seems to be an attitude that also mirrors the situation here in Maine. The town has a shared delusion that if the kids’ team wins their championship then everything will be fine again: the town will attract investment and jobs, regaining its sense of pride. Whilst this could be a good focal point for local activities, it has become more of a blind obsession, which is placing unbearable amounts of pressure on the team, especially its star player: Kevin.

This has its benefits, such as unwavering support that the team receives from their fan base. We also see that players with financial problems are helped by the wealthy in the town, but often in a sensitive, anonymous way that does not damage their pride. However, placing so much responsibility on the shoulders of teenage boys creates an awful lot of anxiety, which threatens to overwhelm some of them. It also leads to them being held to very different standards than the other students. They have come to believe themselves above the normal rules of society because they are allowed to be insolent, rude and inconsiderate of other people without rebuke: as long as they play well, they can do no wrong. We see this in an appalling incident told from the perspective of a class teacher at the school, where the team is sexist and disrespectful to her and the head teacher refuses to ‘upset’ them before the big game. This has been happening for a long time for Kevin: we are told that he spends endless hours shooting goals in his backyard, which produces a noise that can be heard by all his neighbors, but none of them complain about it, even when he does it at night or in the early morning.

I can understand that the boys’ parents and supporters see this laxity as a way of compensating the teenagers for the huge amounts of time and energy they spend on their hockey: they give their all to the game from a very early age and seem to have very little other than it in their lives.  However, such a lack of accountability is a dangerous thing and can lead to highly entitled behavior. So, when the team wins their semi-final game and have a party afterwards to celebrate, it is not much of a surprise that they choose to blow off steam with the help of lots alcohol and zero adult supervision. Riding on a high of achievement and unrestrained by self-discipline, Kevin takes advantage of the situation to ply a younger girl, Maya, with alcohol and then invites her to his bedroom. They begin kissing, but when he tries to take it further she tries to make him stop. Even though she repeatedly screams “No!” and fights with him, he holds her down and rapes her. A younger teammate hears her shouts and walks in on them, so she does have a witness to the event and her lack of consent.

Whilst I find this behavior totally abhorrent, I am sad to report that I was not surprised that it occurred. Not one tiny bit. Nor was I surprised that the overwhelming response is to excuse the boy’s behavior and blame the victim, mainly because she did not report the crime straight away.

This reminded me very much of the conviction of Brock Turner for sexual assault and the appallingly lenient sentence that he received and the pleas of his family that the incident “shouldn’t ruin his life”. We see exactly the same victim-blaming and attempts to excuse or condone the attacker’s actions in Beartown. “She must have wanted it because she went to his room.” “She shouldn’t have got drunk.” “She waited until the day of the final to tell the police because she wanted to ruin his chance to play.” Whilst some people are willing to believe Maya’s ‘version’ of events, many more want to persecute her because she ‘ruined’ their chance at winning the title and that is the only important thing to consider.

Needless to say: this made me very, very angry. Also, it made me unutterably depressed because this happens all the time and it seems like we should be better than this. Why is this sexist behavior still alive and kicking in our modern, ‘enlightened’ society?

Fortunately, Mr Backman gives us a little catharsis in a happyish ending. The male witness steps forward to do the right thing even though he risks losing his place on the team and ostracizing the entire community. He bravely stands in front of everyone and speaks the truth. Ultimately, this has no impact on the legal outcome of the accusations leveled at Kevin, but it shows us that not all people will blame the victim: there are still some decent people out there who will hold people to account for their transgressions, regardless of the consequences.

I will not reveal who the characters are in the ‘shotgun scene’, but I will say that the incident is massively powerful and brings a sense of justice to the end of the book. This is supposed to be the first installment of a trilogy, but we are given brief glimpse into the futures of some of the characters. However, some of these are far from the happy ending that we would like to see for all of them, retaining the more realistic tone of the novel. At no point does Mr Backman give us a syrupy, fairy tale resolution to the conflicts that litter Beartown.

I should add that there are plenty of other themes explored in this marvelous book and often by looking at their effects on different age groups. We see grief at the loss of a child, but also of a long term spouse; we follow the struggles of people coming to the end of their careers and near the beginning. Obviously, many of the themes are related to the adolescent experience, especially those of parenting styles, gender identity and peer acceptance. However, we also explore the immigrant experience, both for an adult and a teen, and the diverse experiences afforded by the different social classes in the town. This is a book with a lot in it and it is a most satisfying read. I recommend it very highly.    

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Books for May

It seems that the recommendations from BPL patrons continue to be excellent, so here we have two more, and there will be another pair next month!

They are both now on the Nooks and available to download.

A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner

September 1911. On Ellis Island in New York Harbor, nurse Clara Wood cannot face returning to Manhattan, where the man she loved fell to his death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Then, while caring for a fevered immigrant whose own loss mirrors hers, she becomes intrigued by a name embroidered onto the scarf he carries …and finds herself caught in a dilemma that compels her to confront the truth about the assumptions she’s made. Will what she learns devastate her or free her?

September 2011. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, widow Taryn Michaels has convinced herself that she is living fully, working in a charming specialty fabric store and raising her daughter alone. Then a long-lost photograph appears in a national magazine, and she is forced to relive the terrible day her husband died in the collapse of the World Trade Towers …the same day a stranger reached out and saved her. Will a chance reconnection and a century-old scarf open Taryn’s eyes to the larger forces at work in her life?

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

You can’t stop the future.
You can’t rewind the past.
The only way to learn the secret . . . is to press play.

Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker–his classmate and crush–who committed suicide two weeks earlier. Hannah’s voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why.

Clay spends the night crisscrossing his town with Hannah as his guide. He becomes a firsthand witness to Hannah’s pain, and as he follows Hannah’s recorded words throughout his town, what he discovers changes his life forever.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Books for April

After the intensity of the reads for last month I hope that these two are a little lighter, although I doubt that The Hate U Give will be a fluffy story.

They are both now available on the Nooks.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy. All this means that Eleanor has become a creature of habit (to say the least) and a bit of a loner.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond save Sammy, an elderly man who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil's name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr. But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Archiving Nook Books

I was a little confused when I tried to read Beartown yesterday because my Nook refused to download it. Before We Were Yours appeared in my library with no problem, but Mr Backman’s novel would not appear, no matter how often I hit the ‘Sync’ button. I checked my Wifi connection . . . I switched the Nook off and on again . . . I checked that I had actually bought the book and not hallucinated the purchase . . . nothing helped.  

Eventually I decided that I must be overlooking the book somehow and chose to ‘Search’ for it. Lo and behold! It appeared, but the title was grayed out and I was given the option to ‘Unarchive’ it.

This highlights one unfortunate aspect of the Nooks we use for the book group. We have three accounts, each with five Nooks applied to it. This means that any alteration done to the library on one Nook will automatically be done to the others on the same account once it is connected to Wifi. So, please remember not to add books to the archive, even if you have read them, because it will move them for other people as well.

Happy reading!


Monday, February 26, 2018

Why I Love Brandon Sanderson

Sometimes I start reading a book and it feels a little like sinking into a warm bath or settling my feet into an old pair of slippers and it makes me smile a big dopey grin. I snuggle into my chair, knowing that I will be transported to a wonderful place populated by characters that will make me laugh and cry whilst making me think about the human condition and ponder the meaning of life. Few authors have the ability to do this to me on a regular basis, but those who do are the ones that my friends, colleagues, library patrons and random strangers are sick of hearing about.

And then there is Brandon Sanderson . . .

Mr Sanderson is a surprisingly young author, considering his publication history. His first novel, Elantris, was published in 2005 and since then he has published more than 20 full-length titles, plus many novellas and short stories, while taking time away from his own stories to complete the epic Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death. I might add that many of his titles are seriously weighty tomes, so I have no idea how many pages he produces in any one year, but he is pretty much a writing machine. However, it is not his sheer productivity that makes him so wonderful. After all, I love George R.R. Martin’s writing even though he writes painfully slowly and I am seriously worried that he will actually die before finishing A Song of Ice and Fire. But I digress; it is not the quantity of Brandon’s output that impresses me so much, but the quality of his writing and the spectacular imagination that he continues to display.

This is a man who excels at creating fascinatingly diverse worlds with astonishingly unique magic systems. For example, in Warbreaker (2009), the magic involves an enigmatic element called Breath: each person is born with just one, but they can transfer it to someone else. Many chose to sell their Breath as it is a very valuable commodity, but it leaves them a monochromatic Drab, unable to perceive color. Those with multiple Breaths perceive a greater range of colors and can even Awaken inanimate objects with Breath in order to give them a semblance of life. This sounds really cool, but is even better when applied to the reanimation of a dead rodent, which is then deployed as a diversionary tactic in a sword fight. His other magic systems involve such things as the ingestion of metal powders in the Mistborn series or the use of chalk line drawings in The Rithmatist (2013). As I said, he is rather inventive, which is very nice in a genre that can often get a little stale.

However, Mr Sanderson does not restrict himself to simply creating highly detailed magic systems: he mimics J.R.R. Tolkien in producing worlds with languages, peoples, cultures, mythologies and histories. Admittedly, he does not tend to write them in the dry scholarly way Professor Tolkien wrote about Middle Earth, but that is probably a good thing. This thoroughness of creation can be seen most clearly in The Way of Kings (2010) and its sequels. Set on the planet Roshar, many aspects of everyday life are shaped by the Highstorms which rage across the planet moving from East to West. The initial stormwall is a massive wave of water, full of debris and lightning, whipped by savage winds and easily capable of throwing boulders around. This destructive force has molded the ecology of Roshar, with even plants in the worst affected areas adapted to withdraw into protective shells or casings during the worst of the storm and then reach out to absorb the life-bringing water and minerals that it leaves behind. However, these deadly storms fuel the magic system on this world, because gems left outside during a Highstorm become filled with stormlight which can be used in a variety of ways. Then there are the spren which are seen everywhere, reflecting elements, emotions or even concepts. Rain, flames, joy, anger, anticipation and even creation all attract their own different spren: windspren look like ribbons of light swirling through the air, whilst awespren appear as rings of blue smoke that burst and spread like a ripple from a stone dropped into water. Also there is the Purelake, which withdraws its waters underground to avoid Highstorms, and the Reshi Isles, many of which are actually large wandering crab-like things, oh, and there are the people who are made up of thousands of invertebrates joined together to look like a human . . . Plus, all his adult titles take place in a single universe called the Cosmere, so that there are characters who pop up in various series and an overarching history that binds the books together.

Of course, an imaginative setting is irrelevant if we do not care about the characters inhabiting it. This is another of Mr Sanderson’s strengths: he gives us three dimensional characters to love and hate. Some of them are even delightfully amoral and possibly evil, such as Warbreaker’s Nightblood: a talking sword that yearns to kill evil-doers. Unfortunately, although it is sentient, Nightblood has no moral context to inform its desire and so it tends to come across as a tiny bit psychotic. Once drawn from its sheath, it leaks a black smoke and attracts evil people to possess it. This usually ends badly for them as they become homicidal, attacking everyone in sight and eventually either committing suicide or being killed by the good guys. Good people find it difficult to touch, or even be around, the blade because it makes them nauseous.

He also places us into the minds of people doing some appallingly bad things, but for what seem to be the best of reasons. This is certainly true of Szeth, the Assassin in White that we meet in the books of The Stormlight Archive series. As we learn more of Szeth and the reasons why he commits his crimes he becomes an increasingly complex and tragic character. He is not a truly evil villain, as you might expect of a merciless killer, and it could be that he might eventually become a hero, if he is given the opportunity to do so. All the characters are suitably gray, with both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ traits and reasonable justifications for their behavior. This makes them seem much more real and a lot more interesting than many heroes and villains who are very stereotyped and rather two dimensional. Mr Sanderson’s heroes are often a little frustrating because they do stupid things that make their situations worse, and yet their actions are perfectly in character and suited to their mindset and understanding of the events unfolding around them.

One aspect of his writing that I particularly appreciate is his examination of religious systems. At the beginning of Mistborn (2006), we see the people crushed beneath the heel of a ruthless Theocracy led by the apparently immortal Lord Ruler. As the Mistborn series progresses we learn how this Theocracy came to be founded and how incremental steps caused a man with the very best of intentions to gradually become a ruthless despot. I find the examination of belief systems fascinating, especially when we are given some answers about the nature of the divine, or supposedly divine, elements within them. This is another area where the Cosmere adds an extra layer of interest, because we come to learn that the mythologies on the various worlds are founded in the larger truth of a ‘god’ who was killed and broken into sixteen Shards. These pieces of the divine embodied certain facets of the god’s power and were taken up by sixteen humans who then became personifications such as Honor, Ruin and Devotion. They spread to various planets in the Cosmere and became the source of magic on those worlds. Thus, all the magic systems share some form of Investiture, where magical abilities are derived from receiving a tiny fraction of the divine power.

I could go on, but ultimately Mr Sanderson’s work needs to be read to be appreciated. I thoroughly recommend him to anyone with even the vaguest interest in the Fantasy genre. As a short introduction to his writing I suggest his YA series, The Reckoners, which begins with Steelheart or a novella set in the Cosmere called The Emperor’s Soul. Otherwise, start with Elantris before to moving on to the Mistborn series and then the Stormlight Archive. Enjoy!


Saturday, February 17, 2018

Books for March

At the end of 2017, one of my colleagues in Circulation asked patrons to vote for their favorite reads of the year. It produced an interesting and varied list, so I decided to offer some of the winners to the group this month. We liked so many of them that we have already decided on what we want to read next month as well!

Beartown is the second book by Swedish author Fredrik Backman, whose A Man Called Ove we enjoyed last year. Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate has been compared to Orphan Train and The Nightingale and won the Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction in 2017.

Both are now available on the Nooks.

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize that the truth is much darker. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together—in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions—and compels her to take a journey through her family's long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or redemption.

Monday, February 5, 2018

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy.

* * *

This is a book that I read a few years ago after watching the amazing film “Capote” with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whilst I often read books and then recommend them to my friends, there are a few titles that I will push almost mercilessly and this is one of them: it is THAT good. It was the first non-fiction title that I suggested to the book group, but it took a few other enjoyable ventures into the genre before they finally choose to read it.

It is often credited with being the first ‘non-fiction novel’, although there are a few earlier examples, and it is certainly very different from other non-fiction titles that I have read in that there is no feeling of a narrator laying out their research. In this way it reads like a typical fiction novel: Capote presents everything as truth and adds no speculation or discussion of possible actions or motivations. This is most obvious in the details of the Clutters’ last day, where some events are related in explicit detail whilst others are barely mentioned, presumably because the witnesses involved refused to cooperate with him. At no time do we feel as if we are looking through the author’s eyes and this adds a disquieting tone of inevitability to the events that he relates. His matter-of-fact approach makes the events seem even more mundane, and thus more disturbing.

One of the group related the terror that she felt after watching the 1967 film based upon the book and it is easy to understand how the Clutter murders created such a sense of panic and unease in rural America. At that time people generally knew, and trusted, all of their neighbors and rarely locked their doors, even assuming that their doors were fitted with locks. This murder helped to shatter that sense of security and inject a feeling of paranoia into many peoples’ lives. If this could happen to the Clutters then what was to stop it happening to you or me or the Smiths down the road? Unfortunately, the case provided little comfort even when the culprits were caught because they had the thinnest of reasons for approaching the Clutter house and seemingly no motive for the ensuing carnage.

Capote creates an uncomfortable sense of dread by taking us through the Clutters’ last day. Not only does this make us sympathize with the victims, but it builds suspense before the inevitable crime. Their very niceness and ordinariness makes the murders even more horrific because they did absolutely nothing to justify what happened to them. The tension is heightened by interweaving their boringly normal day with details of the murderers’ road trip to Holcomb. The fact that Mr Clutter was notorious for NOT conducting his business in cash and so was a poor ‘mark’ for the intended robbery adds more pathos and makes us increasingly anxious as night falls and the perpetrators arrive. We hope that somehow history will re-write itself and the Clutters will escape to live the long and generally happy lives that they surely deserve.

We are spared a vicarious replay of the murders in favor of eye-witness testimony of the bodies being discovered, although this conveys its own horror as we see the reactions of friends and neighbors. A detailed recounting of what actually occurred is left until later in the book, when it is given during the suspects’ questioning. Whilst we will never know exactly who did what, the physical evidence does corroborate a lot of the account presented. Chillingly, we never learn why the Clutters’ were killed: whilst Smith claims to have killed all of them he provides no reason for killing Mr Clutter. Logically, once the father is dead Smith needs to kill the other family members to remove potential witnesses to the murder, but he never explains why he took that first step. He claims that Hickock repeatedly said that there should be no witnesses, but then recounts the first murder as if it happened without his conscious intent. Capote does not debate whether this is Smith minimizing his culpability or a true recounting of his loss of self-control.

The pointlessness of the crime is the most depressing and troubling aspect of the book, although the seemingly ordinary life stories of the two criminals add to a general sense of hopelessness and bewilderment. Capote leaves us to draw our own conclusions about the effects of the pair’s upbringing upon their actions and personalities. In doing so it seems to be much easier to find sympathy for Smith who had endured a classically ‘bad’ upbringing. He suffered prejudice as a half-Cherokee, his mother was a promiscuous alcoholic, his father was exploitative and abusive, he was abused by nuns in an orphanage because of his bed-wetting and then he suffered debilitating injuries in a motorcycle crash which left him with shortened legs and in continuous pain. A stint in the marines failed to instill him with personal discipline and he drifted into a life of petty crime and inevitable incarceration. In contrast, Hickock had a normal, happy childhood although he suffered severe head injuries in a car accident at the age of 19, which left him with a noticeably damaged face.

By providing a narrative of what the pair did both before and after the killings we are given a chilling glimpse into their thoughts. Both felt superior to their fellow man, and in many ways they were: both were of above average intelligence and had talents that they could have exploited to live productive, honest lives. However, both harbored a grievance at the unfairness of the world and saw people only as a means to acquiring what they wanted. Both had some seriously antisocial attitudes, possibly resulting from life experience or, in Hickock’s case, brain damage. It should be noted that two of Smith’s siblings committed suicide, whilst his surviving sister refused to have any contact with him or their father. It is also very telling that Smith insisted that he killed the Clutter women because he felt sorry for Hickock’s mother and did not want her to think of her son as a killer.

Their actions after the murders are bizarre in that they had a very good chance of remaining uncaught but instead chose to return to the United States from the anonymity of Mexico and continued to write bad checks, making it relatively easy for the police to find them once they became suspects. It is also chilling to realize that they spent some time actively seeking car owners to murder: one gentleman escaped death only due to the timely appearance of a hitchhiker. They bickered like a dysfunctional married couple adding to their aura of sad desperation and making us wonder why they stuck together at all. Their apparent inability to settle into any form of normal life suggests that they would have continued wandering around the States until they were caught for some crime or another and returned to prison. I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but these two men were a real danger to society and needed to be removed from it permanently. They remain the most likely suspects in another case where a family of four was murdered by shooting although no definitive evidence has been found to link them to the crime.

It is very rare for me to find myself impressed by a writer’s expertise as I am actually reading their work: but this is one of those cases. It is one of the most beautifully crafted pieces of writing that I have ever read and I heartily recommend it to everyone.