Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

I enjoyed reading the Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai, and it has really stuck with me. If I had time, I would read it again to be sure I understood how all the pieces fit together!

It is set on an old family estate, Laurelfield, in what feels like Lake Forest. The setting was once an artist’s colony, much like our own Ragdale. The owners of the estate, the Devohr family, are eccentric, elusive, unstable, mysterious, and it seems as if a few of the late Devohrs are still present on the property as ghosts!

Written in four parts, the author takes us backward through the story - which in itself is intriguing, The first part begins in 1999, the next part 1955, third part is 1929 and the prologue, which comes at the end of the book, is set in 1900. The opening section introduces the reader to the adult children of the reigning Devohrs, who are living in the old coach house with their spouses while they figure out what to do next. Central questions are introduced: what happened to the artist’s colony, why did it close? The portrait of the matriarch, Violet, which hangs in the dining room - what happened to her? It is rumored that the poet Edwin Parfitt had been artist in residence several times, and the Devohr son in law is researching him - but why can’t he find anything about the man? Why is the attic of the main house locked? Where are the records? As the book progresses, these and many other intrigues seem about to be solved, as back stories are revealed, but just when you think you are about to say "AHA!" , something else happens and you need to know more. A good read, could be good for book club discussions.

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Face the Music: A Life Exposed by Paul Stanley

Another year, another KISS book, and this one is perhaps the best one so far! It's certainly the best-selling, as it spent 3 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list after debuting at #2. What makes this book a cut above the rest is original bandmember/guitarist/singer Paul Stanley's honesty about his various insecurities as he rose to the top, as well as the personal challenges he faced when in one of the most well-known rock bands in the world. The fact that this book came out while KISS was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame probably didn't hurt sales either

The big revelation from this book is the fact that Stanley was born with microtia, a deformity of his right ear that left him deaf in that ear. Growing up with a deformity caused fear and insecurity for young Paul and he appreciated being able to take refuge among fellow rock and rollers, where he could create a larger-than-life character onstage. Years later he had surgeons reconstruct the ear (though he remains deaf) and was able to channel his feelings of being different into a starring role in a successful run as the star of Phantom of the Opera in Toronto, while also donating time to AboutFace, a charity dedicated to helping children deal with physical deformity.

Of course being in one of the world's most successful rock bands did not hold him back when it came to the world of women and parties. But like his bandmate Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley largely rejected drug and alcohol use in order to stay focused on his career. Ace Frehley and Peter Criss's books have more road stories about destroyed hotel rooms (and equally smashed musicians) and while Stanley certainly didn't completely hold back, part of his longevity as the now 62 year-old leader of KISS has to do with his focus on the music instead of the parties. And as far as the ladies go, he acknowledges that he had quite a few relationships while eventually settling into a world of domestic bliss. Relative domestic bliss that is, as his first marriage ended in divorce and he's now onto his second. One of the most ecstatic moments of the book is when he shares his favorite brussels sprouts recipe.

Of course Stanley gives us the scoop on all of his original fellow bandmembers. Ace Frehley was a funny, strange guy whose immense talent went to waste because of his substance abuse. Stanley is harshest on drummer Peter Criss, whose huge ego and extravagant demands were, in his opinion, quite undeserved. Beyond personal issues, he feels that the later reunion of the original four members couldn't have continued because of Criss' diminished drum-playing skills. As far as the other original member - Gene Simmons - Stanley talks about how much of the band's success is based on how they each brought different personalities to the table, while also being honest about Simmons' ego and self-promotion. The roughest patch of the band's history seemed to have been during the 1980s when Stanley felt that Simmons was overcommitted to other projects while bringing very little to the band itself. You also get the sense that Stanley feels somewhat hurt that Simmons seems to get all the credit for being the one behind the band's incredible merchandising efforts. It does seem like a family dynamic between the two, with various occasional confrontations steering them back to a successful working relationship.



The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol

Josephine Cortes is a married  mother of 2, teacher of 12th century French history who is working on her doctoral research. Her husband Antoine, has been out of work for awhile, but is still looking for the right position. With his extra time he has been having an affair with Mylene. Hortense, their oldest daughter is a typical teenager: very concerned with appearances and very self absorbed. Zoe, their younger daughter just wants to grow up. Josephine has been letting herself go while she tries to hold her family together. This is all in vain as Antoine walks out and moves to Africa with Mylene.

Iris Dupin is Josephine's sister. Whereas Josephine is middle-of-the-road, Iris is very cultured and refined, not to mention very rich. She is also extremely judgmental and self absorbed. Philippe is her always working husband. Alexander is their son and is friends with Zoe. Iris is bored. Seriously bored. At a business dinner with her husband she tells someone she is writing a book set in  12th century France. She throws out random facts she has heard from her sister, the real historical scholar. The man, who is actually a publisher is intrigued. He begins to tell people about the book and now Iris is stuck. She has to write the book. But she needs help.

Iris pesters Josephine until she agrees to ghostwrite the book. Iris agrees to give the money from the book to Josephine and since Josephine is stretched for cash she agrees. The money is welcomed even more once Josephine realizes that her husband, who is in Africa raising crocodiles has taken out a loan she is now responsible for. Josephine begins to realize she is better than she thinks.

I didn't think I would like this book but I loved it. The characters are smart and funny. The story line is good. Every life has ups and downs and this story portrays both. It is a story about family and redemption and being true to yourself. Katherine Pancol is one of France's best known authors. This book shows why.



The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland

Sandra Gulland is the author of The Josephine B. Trilogy, three popular historical novels based on the life of Napoleon's Josephine. In her most recent historical fiction, The Shadow Queen, she writes of the life of Claude des Oeilletes, who becomes the servant and confidante of Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the shadow queen, mistress, for more than 25 years, of King Louis XIV of France.

Claude was born into a theatre family. Much of the novel details the life of the theatre and theatre troupes in France, at the time of and including the characters of Corneille, Moliere, and Racine. Paris and Versailles are also detailed as settings for much of the action of the novel. 

Sandra Gulland comments that this is her second novel in the Sun Court Duet, following Mistress of the Sun, which was set primarily at court. What interested me most about this novel was the details of the life of the theatre, the players, and the playwrights. The contrast between the lives of the two women one rich in talent, but living in poverty, and the other rich and privileged, but insensitive, also made for compelling reading.

Sandra Gulland's own website is an excellent source of information about her books and the historical background of them:



The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

The Blazing World (2014), by Siri Hustvedt, analyzes many diverse themes. First, and foremost, it is a critique of New York's art world - a world blatantly sexist and youth-oriented. But most important, it is about value and what we value as a society, the fluidity of identity, and the difficulty of knowing oneself and those we love. (Gleaned from a YouTube interview with Siri Hustvedt, uploaded March 11, 2014,

The book is presented as an anthology of texts compiled by a fictional editor, Professor Hess. They document the life and times of the central character and installation artist, Harriet Burden. The novel is written as a series of texts - diary entries, written statements by family and friends, fiction from her son, and edited transcripts of interviews with her daughter (NPR Books, "A Delicate Arson: 'The Blazing World' Consumes Its Readers" by Amal El-Mohtar, March 15, 2014).

Harriet, better known as "Harry," is a complex and intriguing character. She is an imposing figure - over six feet tall with a huge bust.  Her personality is equally large and vibrant. She is described by another character as having red hues, overwhelming the sensibilities. But Harry also has an inner darkness. Much overshadowed, first by her father and later by her art-dealer husband, Harry is accustomed to living in the shadows. She creates her art without recognition and raises two children to be successes as an author and a documentary film-maker respectively.

After her husband dies, she decides to reinvent herself. She moves to Brooklyn, sets up a studio, takes in vagrant artists she meets at a local bar, and then hires 3 handsome male artists in tandem to sign their names to her works. They become instant successes. This heist has complicated effects on the young artists as well as on her. As Harriet reflects after one of her psychoanalytic sessions:



Jack of Spies by David Downing

Jack McColl is a Scottish car salesman traveling the world selling a luxury car. He has always wanted to be a spy and is counting on his proficiency with foreign languages to help him. Jack, his brother Jed, and a colleague, Mac are in Shanghai when a British Naval officer named Cumming asks Jack to do him a favor. Cumming wants Jack to use his knowledge of the German language to eavesdrop on some German businessmen. Jack is more than willing to help as it gives him more time in the city to try to meet up with Caitlin Hanley, a young American who styles herself as a modern woman.

So begins Jack's journey as a spy. He travels from China to San Francisco to New York ostensibly selling cars. What he is really doing is wooing Caitlin and doing odd jobs for Cumming. In Europe war is brewing - Germany is stirring up the continent, Ireland is having trouble with separatists and the United States is trying to stay out of everything. Jack thinks this is finally his time to realize his dreams of becoming a spy especially since he has been offered an assignment involving Caitlin's brother and his political Irish friends. 

This is a new series for Downing. Set at the beginning of World War I, the story line moves quickly. Jack is a truly human character, especially after he becomes entangled with Caitlin's brother. Jed and Mac head off to war in this book and the book ends with jack in England trying to stop Irish and American bombers who were trained by Germans. A perfect lead-in to a sequel!

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Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life by Graham Nash

Here's something new: a rock star writes a memoir that details nonstop excessive drug use, except in this case he is speaking of a friend and fellow band member. It's not that Graham Nash (of The Hollies and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) was necessarily an angel - after all he did require surgery on his septum after substantial cocaine use - but rather than friend and fellow band member David Crosby went through some very well-documented heavy drug usage, that ended up with imprisonment for various drug and weapon charges.

David Crosby was the musician whom Graham Nash initially bonded with before he ended up forming CSN (later CSN&Y) and their relationship forms much of the heart of this book. They were harmonious both onstage and off, though as a large part of the book details, Crosby's excessive drug use caused lackluster performances, seriously injured his creative muse and frustrated those who loved him. Stephen Stills and Neil Young are not ignored in this memoir though. Stills is portrayed as the real heart of the group, bringing musicianship, arranging skills and pure talent to the table. While shown as arrogant and unreliable early in the book, Nash did seem to bond with him as the years went by and some stability in the band was needed. Neil Young, meanwhile, was an enigma, sometimes actively participating in the band's various formations and other times following his own distinct muse.

The book, following the blueprint of many music memoirs, follows Nash's early years growing up in England, bonding with school chum Allan Clarke over The Everly Brothers and eventually forming a band together. The Hollies were certainly massive hitmakers, though as Nash toured and saw the world and the 60s blossomed, he started to feel as if he could be doing something more important musically. Immersed in California music with girlfriend Joni Mitchell and former Byrd Crosby, Nash was able to find two other people who had individual muses but were able to blend their voices harmonically in a unique way. While their output together has been sporadic, they've occasionally released albums (in various combinations of the four of them) and toured (with a recent stop at Ravinia) since their first two bestselling albums and appearance at Woodstock took the world by storm.

Nash has produced a repertoire of hit songs for the Hollies and CSN including radio staples Teach Your Children, Our House, Look Through Any Window, Carrie Anne and Chicago. Outside of music, Nash pursued his interest in photography into a museum-worthy collection, which was eventually auctioned off so that he could finance a business in what were then very new and revolutionary techniques for creating photographic prints using computers. He eventually formed Nash Editions, which still provides printers for Epson. Beyond this musical and photographic career he remains involved in myriad charities, giving him a variety of topics to tackle in this book. Despite a nearly 50 year career of musical success, Nash's voice remains friendly and humble and this book is a fun read for fans of his or his colleagues' music.



All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I was so sorry when this book was over!

Beautifully written with very real and likable characters, it's historic fiction at it's best. Set during WW2, author Doerr invests the reader fully in several story lines which intertwine and overlap, while writing about the war as the characters live it.
Main character Marie-Laure lives with her father, a skilled locksmith for the Paris Museum. Creator and guardian of all the keys that secure every door and exhibit, he brings his daughter to work with him to learn from the curators. Marie-Laure is blind, and her loving father creates intricate, scale replicas of all the buildings in the vicinity, so that she can memorize them and become more independent.

Another story line focuses on Werner and his sister Jutta, orphans living in a German children's home. Werner, from a young age, is fascinated by the radio broadcasts he hears from abroad.  His skill with building and fixing electronics and radios (a new invention) brings him to the attention of the Nazi party, which recruits him for their elite training school.  He is encouraged to sharpen his radio skills, then ordered to locate clandestine radio transmissions that might be interfering with war efforts.

Still another layer of the story involves a priceless gem said to carry a curse that had been housed at the Paris museum under many locks and keys, until it, and three copies of it, vanished during the Nazi occupation of Paris.



Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd

Three Brothers (2014), by esteemed English historian, biographer, and novelist, Peter Ackroyd, is a blend of satire, murder-mystery, and ghost story. The time period is 1960s London. The book details the lives of Harry, Daniel, and Sam Hanaway, born in cockney Camden Town and raised by their failed author-father.  Their mother had run away when Harry was ten, Daniel was nine, and Sam was eight. It marked each of them forever.

Sam is most affected by the loss.  He is the kind and sensitive boy who lacks ambition. He is, however, the only brother with a moral sense. After he graduates high school, Sam is content to live with his father, wander the streets of London, and do odd jobs in a monastery inhabited by ghost nuns. He ultimately tracks down his mother, now a prostitute living in a house of ill repute.

Meanwhile, Harry, who drops out of high school at the age of 16 to become a reporter, eventually lands a job at a prestigious newspaper. He marries the bosses daughter and becomes assistant editor.

Daniel, who has always sought escape through books, becomes a professor at Cambridge as well as  literary editor of The Spectator. Ackroyd, himself, was once literary editor of The Spectator.