Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill

Amy Brill's first novel is set on Nantucket, primarily from 1845 to 1847. It is inspired by the writings of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer, who discovered a comet in 1847 and earned a medal from the King of Denmark for that discovery. Amy Brill, taking a day trip to Nantucket, read a flyer about Maria Mitchell. "What, I wondered, would compel a teenage girl to spend her nights alone on the roof of her house, staring at the stars for hours on end, sweeping the skies in hopes of spotting something so few people had the opportunity to see."  

Based on fifteen years of research and writing, The Movement of Stars is Brill's imagined answer to her own question. Hannah Gardner Price is a fictional young woman whose goal is to discover a comet, to earn her own living, to live an educated and independent life. Hannah, age 24, lives with her father and her twin brother in an old Nantucket home with a "widow's walk", built for women to watch for the return of the whalers, but which Hannah and her family use for astronomical observations.

Hannah is especially talented. The Bonds, family friends, father and son, who run the great observatory at Harvard, praise her skills and aid her in her search and observations. Her father supports Hannah's talent, but tensions develop when he, after years as a widower, considers marriage and a move to Philadelphia. A young unmarried woman can not live alone. Further tensions arise because her independent scholarly interests are contrary, for a woman, to the Quaker way of life lived by her family and most of their neighbors. When Hannah meets Isaac Martin, a young dark-skinned whaler from the Azores, she takes him as her pupil and their mutual intellectual interests lead to a developing relationship which the islanders dislike. How Hannah develops as a young woman and in her relationships with the community, how she develops as an astronomer and in her intellectual life, are at the core of this novel.

Adding to the interest of the book is the excellent writing, which conveys a sense of the historical time, the Quaker community, the island of Nantucket, and the Harvard Commons. I could picture the night skies, the beach, the wharf, the Nantucket Atheneum, the great observatory at Harvard.  Language, setting, and portrayal  of characters are all strengths of Brill's writing. I enjoyed this novel and look forward to reading a second novel, which I hope she will write.



The English Girl by Daniel Silva

Madeline Hart is a rising young star in British politics. Born into an impoverished family she has made a spectacular rise. Everyone loves her. While on vacation in Corsica she vanishes. It takes her traveling companions a day to realize she's missing. They report it to the police. But one of them has a picture of Madeline with a mystery man and they know she has been keeping secrets. Shortly after she goes missing, a ransom letter appears at 10 Downing Street. The prime minister is very concerned.

Wanting to have the disappearance investigated "quietly" and the ramsom demands complied with, the prime minister decides to get some help finding Madeline. He calls in the director of the British Security Service, also known as MI5, who  in turn enlists Gabriel Allon, the master Israeli spy.

Silva's book follows true to form - fast paced with a comfortable, well known character in Allon. But the book is full of twists and turns before a suprising ending. This is the latest in the series starring Allon, and while they don't necessarily need to be read in order, I would read The Kill Artist first just to get some background.  But after that, read them all!

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Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn

There have been many mass murderers/serial killers whose names have been forgotten by history but for some reason Charles Manson's name continues to bring immediate memories to those who hear it. Perhaps this has to do with the combination of the tawdry Manson Family cult intersecting with the L.A. glitz. Also, upon looking back it seems a pre-Altamont signifier that not everything in hippie era was about peace and love. Certainly prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's 1974 bestseller Helter Skelter kept the story alive, as does the fact that Manson is still with us (and periodically colorfully pops up in the news).

Jeff Guinn's Manson takes a comprehensive look at the formative years of Charles Manson as well as the years following the establishment of "the family" (which surprisingly only existed for about two years). I don't think that anyone reading this will be shocked that Manson had a less than perfect childhood. However, despite his father abandoning him and his mother being sent to prison his psychopathic future was not necessarily guaranteed, as he had a loving and religious grandmother willing to raise him. Manson did seem to be a bit of a bad seed from an early age and certainly being passed from school to juvenile prison to school seems to have encouraged the worst in him. He was sent to prison twice before he moved to San Francisco at age 32 and prison seems to have suited him. He actually requested to remain in prison before being released for the second time. One of the most interesting facts revealed in this book is Manson's interest in (and mastery of) Dale Carnegie's teachings, which he later used to manipulated his followers. The other skill he picked up in college was guitar, which also helped lead his future direction.

Eventually freed from prison (despite his protestations) Manson moved to Haight-Ashbury where he found enough people (mostly women at the beginning) willing to follow a smooth talking, magnetic, guitar strumming guru to L.A., the epicenter of the music business. The next year and a half were then spent speaking to his followers about a forthcoming apocalypse while trying to sign a music contract. Eventually when rejected by his music connections he decided to take out his misery on Sharon Tate et al. while unsuccessfully trying to pin the blame on the Black Panthers and start a race war.

As you can imagine, much of the book is spent summing up the investigation of the Sharon Tate and the LaBianca murders, which serves as a nice distillation of the enormous (but very readable) Helter Skelter. My one quibble with this book is that the post-murder years are breezed over. I realize that Manson has been in prison these years but it seems like there might be a little more about him that could be fleshed out. Perhaps if he had allowed himself to be interviewed by the author this might have been the case. I was absolutely riveted to the book despite being pretty familiar with the case from reading Helter Skelter. Though it perhaps has more of a biographical angle than most true crime books, lovers of the genre should jump on this one, as it is an excellent addition.



The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls' earlier memoir The Glass Castle is a fascinating but
heartbreaking account of the joys and struggles of her rootless and sometimes
homeless childhood. She well knows what it is like to be the daughter of a
dysfunctional mother, and her personal history gives authenticity to the two
sisters who are the main characters in The Silver Star. Teenage Liz and
tween "Bean" must fend for themselves when their single mother leaves
to chase her dream of being a famous singer and to “make some time and space” for

Set in the
1970s, the novel begins in California, but when parental abandonment threatens
to bring the cops to their house, the girls and their pet turtle Fido hop a
cross-country bus to Virginia to see their widowed Uncle Tinsley (Spoiler
Alert: Fido should not have boarded that bus). Tinsley is taken aback by the visit
from these sisters with whom he has had no relationship to date. He is taken
aback further when he discovers that their mother is not with them and that they
expect to stay with him for an unknown period of time. 

Afraid that
they might mess up the hoarded junk in his house, Tinsley has the girls sleep in
the barn their first night.  In no time,
however, they  move into the big old weather-beaten
house, and (predictably) their uncle becomes a father figure to them.



Palisades Park by Alan Brennert

If you lived in New Jersey anytime between 1898 and 1971, you knew Palisades Park. I did. Alan Brennert did. He grew up living within a mile of Palisades Amusement Park. He wrote the book as "a love letter to a cherished part of my childhood."

Palisades Park is full of the history of the amusement park - the acts that performed there, the rides, the concessions, the famous swimming pool, the fires that destroyed portions of the park, those who worked there, and the owners. 

Palisades Park is also a very personal fictional story of a family connected to the park, through work and through their dreams. It begins in 1921, when Eddie, as a child, visits the park with his family. Later, as a young man, he gets a job at the park and then meets Adele, the young woman who will become his wife. Together, they invest in a french fry concession.  (There are mouth watering descriptions of the fries and details of how they are prepared and the equipment used.  Further, if you like cotton candy, you will be tempted by those descriptions as well.) Eddie and Adele's two children, Jack and Toni, are the second generation to work at the park.

The women in the family dream of being performers. Toni pursues her dream to be a high diver, studying with one of the few women to do these difficult and dangerous stunts, and performing at carnivals throughout the United States, before returning to Palisades Park to become a featured act. Eddie and Jack each have to deal with war. Jack serves in Korea. Brennert's two previous novels were set in Hawaii, which is where Eddie spends time after Pearl Harbor. Hawaiian scenery, culture, and food are another focus of this novel.



Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

One of the most infamous families in history - the Borgias - are given a new look in Sarah Dunant's latest book, Blood and Beauty.

Beautiful, corrupt and incredibly violent, life in Italy in the late 15th century was not for weaklings. Divided into city/states each with its own ruling family and the Papal States were a plum prize. They were up for the taking when Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI through a sprinkling of money and mayhem. Cardinals were very different then - Borgia kept a mistress and had several children. These children reaped the rewards of their father's elevation to pope.

Cesare, historically a handsome and especially cruel man rumored to have had an incestuous relationship with his sister Lucrezia, remains true to his historical reputation. But Lucrezia is reinvented as a political pawn to be used in marriage to strengthen the family's political position. She appears to be a very sheltered and will do what her father wants her to do. Little mention is made of her relationship with her brother, and what is mentioned is mostly sanitized. She appears to have been totally besotted with him. Only at the end of the book does her political acumen get revealed.

This book gives a very different view of the Borgias - quite different, in fact, from the more common historical views. That alone makes this book worth reading. But add in the rich historical detail Dunant is known for and this book is definitely worth the time.



Between Friends by Amos Oz

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the kibbutz (Hebrew for
"communal settlement") movement  began in 1909 with the establishment of
Degania on land acquired by the Jewish National
Fund. Located on Lake Kinneret, its founders were young
idealists from Eastern Europe. They came to begin what they deemed a
utopian life and to resettle the land of their ancestors.

Between Friends
is a wonderful collection of inter-connected short stories that take
place on a fictional kibbutz in the 1950s. Surrounded by forest, it is
based on Kibbutz Hulda in central Israel, the home of the author for
over 30 years.

The structure of this book is
particularly well-suited to the life it depicts. Kibbutz lives
intermingle;  the behavior of one individual impacts others as lives are
shared with little privacy. Thus, Roni Shinlin, "the comedian," appears
in many stories as a gossip. Yet the reader comes to know him more
fully in the story, "Little Boy."The man who is the center of attention
as he mocks others is trapped in a loveless marriage with a wife who has
no affection for him or his needy son.

Similarly, in "At
Night," Yoav, on guard patrol, must repress his passion for an old
flame when she leaves her husband in the middle of the night and asks
him for somewhere to sleep. Again we see a troubled marriage and the
suppression of individual needs for a larger entity. Like "Little Boy,"
"At Night" deals with a marriage that has lost its ardor yet
whose partners stay none-the-less.



As She Left It, by Catriona McPherson

Opal Jones finds out that you can go home again. But maybe you shouldn’t.

When she was 12 years old, Opal left the home of her hopeless alcoholic
mother to live with her father and her wicked stepmother. Years later, Opal returns to her childhood
home in Leeds after her mother died of alcoholism. She moves into her late mother’s cottage, clears
out the filth and trash, and reacquaints herself with the neighbors, who are
the same ones she had as a child.

"How could it be that they were all
still here? Thirteen years, half her
lifetime. She’d been to hell and back and
yet here they all were as if it was yesterday. Just as she left them.  People who
knew her. Knew her mother was a drunk and her dad had walked out and she’d not
been home since she was twelve. So much
for being alone in a crowd in the big bad city."

She might have the same old neighbors, but they are party to new mysteries. In fairly rapid succession, Opal discovers one
puzzling thing after another involving the residents of Mote Street. Which one had paid her mother’s bills for
many years, and why? Who wrote the odd messages
she finds hidden inside her second-hand furniture?  And what became of a young boy who went
missing - perhaps stolen away by the Mote Street Snatcher - about the time she left



The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Cathy Marie Buchanan's The Painted Girls is set in Paris in 1878 through 1881. The novel follows the lives of the three van Goethem sisters who live in poverty. Their father, a tailor, has died and their mother, a laundress, is addicted to absinthe. All three girls aspire to be dancers in the Paris Opera ballet company. The story is told in the alternating voices of the two older sisters. 

Antoinette, the eldest, gives up her dream and works as an extra in a play based on a work by Emile Zola. She also falls in love with a difficult and dangerous young man, who becomes involved in a sensational court case, detailed in the book in excerpts from Le Figaro. 

Marie, the middle sister, is a hard working and talented dancer.  Without money for costumes and lessons, it is difficult to progress.  Marie models for Edgar Degas, becoming the subject of some of his most well known works. She also must take a much older man as a sponsor and do the many unpleasant acts that he requires of her.

One of the most striking aspects of the novel is the contrast between the lives of the rich and the poor in belle epoque Paris, the contrasts between the beauty of the art of Degas and the hardships of the life lived by those who modeled for him. The Painted Girls does not portray much of the beautiful, romantic Paris. Contrasted with the world of the Opera and its patrons are prison, cold lodgings, starvation, poverty, and crime, most often the substance of the early lives of the sisters. The novel ends with a brief chapter set in the year 1895 when the sisters, through hard work and persistence, are living more hopeful lives. 

Buchanan states "The Painted Girls is largely in keeping with the known facts of the van Goethem sisters' early lives." Many of the other characters and incidents are also. real. Degas' art works, as described in the novel, can be seen on the author's website:



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