Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Lisa See's The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

SeeHummLaneSee is the author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Peony in Love (2007), Shanghai Girls (2009), and other noted works of historical fiction. She has an amazing family history, with Chinese relatives on her father’s side numbering 400. And that is in Los Angeles alone! Her mother was the noted American author, Carolyn See.

Lisa See always has been fascinated with her Chinese family lineage and her writing substantiates this. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (publication date: 21 March 2017) explores one of the 44 ethnic minorities in China—the Akha. The Akha of the Yunnan province are a mountain tribe whose sustenance comes from growing tea. They live in remote areas of China, and for centuries, were removed from the major social changes that the country had seen. They believe strongly in a spirit world and this figures prominently in the story.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane highlights the relationship of three strong women over the course of 20+ years. The book examines the meaning of mother-love as it explores the lives of a mother and daughter (Li-Yan and Haley), who are separated at the daughter’s birth and live worlds apart.

The history and methods of tea growing are explored extensively and provide some of the most fascinating passages in the book. See doesn’t hesitate tackling big issues such as global warming and its effects on the forests of China. And, through the character of Haley, the author highlights the effects of international adoption on the adoptees, their birth mothers and the families that adopt them.

Sara Picks  Historical Fiction  Cultural Fiction  China


Moonglow by Michael Chabon

ChabonMGMoonglow, according to Chabon, was inspired by his 1987 visit to his dying grandfather. During that visit, his grandfather revealed secrets of his life to the twenty-four-year-old author. The book is a dream-like distillation of what may or may not have been spoken. To quote the New York Times Book Review:

Moonglow [...] wanders where it will, framing a series of chronologically disordered episodes from the past with conversations involving the narrator (who never tries to persuade us that he is anyone other than Michael Chabon) and various kinfolk, principally his mother and grandfather. This isn’t to say that the book lacks structure, but rather that its structure is determined by the logic of memory, and that the author has resisted the urge to do too much tidying and streamlining. The action zigzags across time and geography—from Germany in the last days of World War II through a grab bag of American locations in the decades after—with blithe indifference to the usual rules of linearity or narrative economy" (Scott, A.O. "Michael Chabon Returns With a Searching Family Saga." The New York Times. 18 Nov. 2016.).

The grandfather serves as military intelligence trying to hunt down Wernher von Braun in Germany. Von Braun was the brilliant Nazi rocket builder whom the United States later enlisted into its space program. His grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, raised by nuns. Her full story is only alluded to, but her experiences have left her prone to hallucinations and psychotic episodes. She has a mystical persona, unlike the practical grandfather, and entertains her grandson with tarot cards and scary stories.

Chabon writes lyrically and captures the essence of war. But the book is not without humor. While in a retirement community at the end of his life, Michael’s grandfather goes on a Quixotic quest for a pet-eating python. He does this with the same zeal and planning he used when hunting Nazi rocket scientists. The scenes reveal as much about the grandfather’s sense of honor as they do about the struggle for meaning in old age.

Sara Picks  Historical Fiction  Historical  Family Drama  Contemporary  21st Century


Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

JSFoerAquiFoer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as well as Everything is Illuminated, again has written an edgy, thought-provoking book. Here I Am explores identity –as a writer, a father, a husband, and an American Jew—in a profoundly personal way.

The title forms a major theme that permeates every character’s life. In Genesis, Abraham is called upon by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. When God calls Abraham, he answers, “Here I am.” Similarly, when an angel calls to Abraham as he is about to put the knife to his son’s neck, he responds, “Here I am.” Those words, Hineni in Hebrew, are uttered by a man fully present to God and to the angel. Abraham is everything that the narrator, Jacob, is not.

Jacob is a nebbish who, to escape unpleasantness, listens to NPR science podcasts. He is a financially successful writer of an HBO program. He believes he has squandered his talents and secretly crafts a program about his multi-generational family. He hides this project in a drawer. Worse, still, is something else he writes. Hidden in another drawer is a phone with sexts to a colleague. These sexts are cleverly scattered throughout the first part of the book and seem to appear out of nowhere. Julia, his wife of 15 years, discovers the phone and their marriage unravels. The book is the story of that unraveling.

Juxtaposed against this family drama is a crisis in Israel—one of such magnitude that its very existence is threatened. A terrible earthquake has struck the region. The prime minister has asked that Jews throughout the Diaspora come to Israel to help. Jacob decides to go, despite Julia’s objections, further straining their relationship.

Sara Picks  Jewish Literature  Family Drama  Contemporary


The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue

DonohuePuppets“Never enter a toyshop after moonlight.” Such is the advice of the main character in The Motion of Puppets. Having read and enjoyed this strange and fascinating book, I will heed that advice from now on!

Main character Kay Harper, a gymnast, has the opportunity of a lifetime – a gig as an acrobat with the Cirque in Quebec for the summer – what fun! Her lovely newlywed husband, Theo, a translator of French to English, is with her, and he often walks Kay safely home after her show gets out late at night. But when Kay walks home alone, she usually stops to gaze into the puppet-filled window of a toy shop. Puppets of all kinds--marionettes, stick puppets, finger puppets, old, new, and remade--fascinate her. One in particular, a little puppet man who’s under a dome of glass, holds particular interest, and she wishes he could come alive and talk to her.

One night, after a circus performance, and a night out with the cast, Kay disappears. She fails to return to the apartment she and Theo share, and she fails to report to work the next day.  Where could this young wife have gone? Theo thinks it has something to do with her fascination with the puppets – but how could that be? When the puppets disappear and the toy shop closes, he is convinced there is cause and effect – but how can he find the puppets, and presumably, his wife Kay.

Be prepared to suspend belief as you read this well-written book, and allow yourself to join Theo as he searches for his lost wife.  There are elements of fantasy in this book, which reminded me very much of fairy tales I read as a child. I don’t normally read anything remotely resembling fantasy, but have to say that I enjoyed this book very much, and am still thinking about it. I’ll never think of puppets the same way again, and nor will you after reading The Motion of Puppets

Nancy Picks  Mystery  Magical Realism  Horror  Fantasy


And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman

BackmanWayHomeThis lovely novella is from the author of A Man Called Ove. At just 92 pages, Backman’s latest work is a sweet, read-in-one-sitting meditation on the mixed blessings of getting old. The author said that he wrote it as “a small tale of how I’m dealing with slowly losing the greatest minds I know, about missing someone who is still here, and how I wanted to explain it all to my children.”

Backman said that he wrote it for himself, explaining that writing is how he processes and thinks. He hadn’t originally intended to have the work published, but you will be glad that he did, as he again excels at portraying a slightly grumpy but charming elderly gentleman, not dissimilar to the beloved fictional Ove. The gentleman’s memory may be failing, but his personality is firmly intact as he talks of his sadness about losing his wife, and of his regret about not having spent more time with his son and grandson Noah. The grandfather in the story, when admonished that a stuffed animal in the shape of a dragon is not a suitable baby gift for his grandson replies, “I don’t want a suitable grandson, I want one who would like a dragon.” About his failing faculties, he muses, “I’m constantly reading a book with a missing page, and it is always the most important [page] to me.” It is a multi- generational story, connecting grandfather to father to son, and wherever you are in your life, you will find yourself somewhere in this book.

In a lesser author’s hands this could have been maudlin. In Fredrik Backman’s hands, it is lovely, poignant, and resonant. Small illustrations, including those of his wife’s favorite hyacinths, the bench where they courted, and that dragon stuffed animal add to the charm.

I am giving it to my 86-year-old mother and three adult children for Christmas. It will hit each of them in different place, and each of those places are important.

Short Story  Novella  Nancy Picks  Family Story  Contemporary  Aging


The Nix by Nathan Hill

HillThe Nix, one of this fall’s most talked about debut novels, has been compared to works by Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon, Tom Wolfe, and John Irving. Other critics have noted Hill’s style to be reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace.

Accolades aside, the book is an engrossing coming of age story as well as a social satire that takes aim at our current political climate, social media, gaming culture, and academia. While doing so, it transports us to the 1960s and depicts Chicago’s Democratic National Convention with its protests and brutal police response.

As a Bildungsroman, The Nix is the story of a son trying to come to terms with his mother’s abandonment as he seeks to understand the mystery surrounding her life. And just like the Norwegian fable of “the Nix,”* most of the main protagonists are deluded by day to day realities and fail to see the danger in living out a fantasy. No one is quite who they seem to be in this captivating novel.

The Nix is a saga that will capture the reader’s empathy and imagination. Characters are three dimensional, and their behavior, though misguided, has deep-seated reasons behind it. The illusions of youth and the untrustworthiness of memory are key themes in this spectacular novel. It is not to be missed.

Sara Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction


Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

SempleSemple’s new novel is a witty social satire and a poignant look at middle age. Its main protagonist, Eleanor Flood, is taking a self-critical look and not liking what she sees. A transplant from New York and former career woman, she now lives in Seattle as the wife of a famous hand surgeon. Her only intellectual stimulation comes from private poetry lessons she takes from a local poet. So she gets up one morning and promises herself, “Today will be different.”

Although the action takes place over 24 hours, the character’s past life comprises most of the book. She and her sister, Ivy, lost their mother to cancer and were raised by their father--a bookie and a drinker. In a more serious paragraph, Eleanor gives us insights into her daily struggles:

For those of you who aren’t children of alcoholics, hear me now and believe me later: It’s the single determining factor in your personality. I don’t care if you get straight A’s, marry a saint, and break the glass ceiling in a male-dominated profession, or if you bounce around from failure to failure with pit stops in cults and nuthouses: if you were raised by a drunk, you’re above all the adult child of an alcoholic. For a quick trip around the bases, it means you blame yourself for everything, you avoid reality, you can’t trust people, you’re hungry to please (p. 46).

Eleanor raises herself and her sister--their co-dependence continuing through their adult years. The rift that occurs within that relationship has repercussions that echo long after the event and affects all aspects of her life.

Sara Picks  Humor  Family Relationships  Contemporary  Chick Lit


Every Man a Menace by Patrick Hoffman

HoffmanEveryManQuestion: How does the designer drug MDMA (also known as Ecstasy or Molly) get from its naturally occurring state in Southeast Asian trees to getting snorted up noses in Miami clubs? Answer: Very, very carefully, and through many pairs of grubby (and often blood-stained) hands. Patrick Hoffman explores this supply chain in the pulpy, noir-tinged Every Man a Menace.

An ex-con returns to San Francisco to keep an eye on an erratic dealer, as a favor for his still-incarcerated boss. A Filipina grandmother ponders a power play. In Miami, an Israeli club owner grows depressed with the high-flying lifestyle of a drug-trafficking middleman—until he meets a beautiful and mysterious woman. They, along with a whole slew of unsavory characters are all involved in orchestrating a multi-million dollar shipment of Molly. With this much at stake, things are bound to get ugly.

Patrick Hoffman examines the intricacies of large-scale drug trafficking in a highly thorough manner (before writing he worked both as a public defender and a private investigator, so I suspect he really knows his stuff). The operation works out well, for a while. But when people start making mistakes (honest or otherwise) things take gruesome turns. The best part of this book is the way that that Hoffman captures the quiet desperation of his subjects. Sure there are a handful of “made” men (and one “made” woman), but most of the characters are low-level hoods in way over their heads. People's options narrow, until bad decisions are the only ones left to make. They think they're smart enough to pull off moves they have no business pulling off. They’re ready to leave the trade and go on the straight and narrow—just after this one last shipment, this one last score, this one last hit. On streets this mean, don't expect any happy endings.

- Jake


Thriller  Mystery Thriller  Mystery  Jake Picks  Crime


Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

WoodsonAnother Brooklyn is Woodson’s first novel in 20 years. Best known as an author of children’s and young adult books, she has been the recipient of the Newbery Honor Medal (four times), The Coretta Scott King Award, The National Book Award, and The Caldecott Medal.

Set in the 1970s, Another Brooklyn tells of growing up black in a neighborhood characterized by crime, drug addiction, and white flight. The main character, August, is now 30 and looking back on her childhood. Like the author herself, she has relocated, with her father and brother, to Brooklyn. Her mother did not move with them and this loss resonates throughout the novel.

The writing is highly evocative and the story is told through the eyes of its young narrator. “I watched my brother watch the world,” she writes, “his sharp, too-serious brow furrowing down in both angst and wonder. Everywhere we looked, we saw people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn” (p. 77).

The time frame of the 1970s looms large. There was great social unrest and racial disparity in the country. The specter of Viet Nam hovered ominously. Heroin-addicted vets filled every street corner. August’s uncle, and indirectly, her mother, died as a result of that war. Even her father returned from the war minus two fingers. The whole nation, from the late 60s through the 70s, was irreparably changed.

Sara Picks  Realistic Fiction  New York  Historical Fiction  Coming of Age


Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin

GrushinThe forty rooms of the title are the rooms the main character occupies during her life. Room one is the bathroom in her childhood dacha in Moscow where her mother bathes her and tells Russian fairy tales. In room three, our nameless character is in her father’s study for their weekly “culture hour” during which he explains important things to her. Later chapters bring us to her American college dorm room, her first apartment, and the many rooms of her marital home.

Each room is described not only by what it looks like, but by what our narrator thinks and feels while there. A budding poet, she agonizes over what to write, how to explain her emotions, especially as she transitions from her native Russian to English. Fairies and specters from her childhood appear, as well as the occasional visit from a dearly departed friend or family member. We follow her life story as she lives in each room, and who she lives with, and how. This book is a fascinating insight into a woman’s mind, her family life, loves, and struggle for identity and validation as her life unfolds. It would be hard to read this and not see yourself somewhere in the pages.

Don’t read this book too quickly –Grushin’s writing is complex, poetic, and laden with meaning. I stopped to reread many passages aloud, they are that lyrical. The early writing, when she is still thinking in Russian may require a bit of patience, but it’s so worth it!

Early chapters are told in the first person, and we do not know our main character/narrator’s name. Later in the book, the narrative point of view shifts to the third person, and the main character refers to herself by her married name, “Mrs. Caldwell.” Is that who she really is, or is that dreamy Russian poet still somewhere in her soul?

Russian Fiction  Russia  Nancy Picks  Contemporary


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