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Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne

Berne2Berne is an American writer known for her adept portrayals of family life. Like authors Carol Shields, Edith Pearlman, and Anne Tyler, Berne is a miniaturist, expertly focusing on the private lives of her characters.

In her 2013 novel The Dogs of Littlefield, Berne writes of a fictional Boston suburb whose inhabitants are upper middle class and educated. In the book, The Wall Street Journal names Littlefield as one of the “Twenty Best Places to Live in America.”  The town is home to 1,146 psychotherapists, 679 psychiatrists, 3 pizza parlors, 6 dog groomers, fine schools, and leafy streets.

However, like all of Berne’s books’ settings, darkness lurks in Littlefield. An off-leash proposal for dogs sets neighbor against neighbor. Then, mysteriously, several dogs are poisoned. Who amongst the residents is perpetrating these heinous acts?

Much of the plot focuses on Margaret Downing, a sympathetic wife and mother whose husband, Bill, no longer loves her. From the outside, her life seems picture perfect, but in truth, she suffers from acute anxiety, her teen daughter is snarky, and her dog is out of control. The dog, in fact, is a metaphor for the state of Margaret’s life. Other characters include George, a novelist (of sorts); Hedy, a widow whose radio talk shows provide day-long company; and Dr. Clarice Watkins, a sociologist who is secretly studying the effects of “good quality of life.”

Sara's Picks  Neighbor Relationships  Mystery  Contemporary


The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

portable veblenWhether you appreciate economist Thorstein Veblen and his thoughts on conspicuous consumption (detailed in The Theory of the Leisure Class), or even if you have never heard of either him or his ideas, The Portable Veblen may be the book for you. 


The novel opens with a couple’s engagement. “Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, independent behaviorist, experienced cheerer-upper, and freelance self” becomes engaged to ”Paul Vreeland, MD, FAAN, FANA, FACNS (he loved the growing train following his name, all engines, and no caboose).”  Obviously, the two are very different from one another, but they are very much in love.  Veblen also loves nature and all things natural, and, in particular, a squirrel living in her attic, with whom she communicates.  Paul, who grew up with parents who were good hippies, does not love the squirrel and is trying to trap it.


Romance  Relationships  Humor  Gail's Picks  Family  Contemporary


The Illegal: A Novel by Lawrence Hill

LawrenceHillThe Illegal begins in 2018, not the far future, but it feels like a very different time.

Keita Ali is a black marathon runner.  He wants to use his talent at running to escape a difficult life and fate.  Keita’s homeland is the fictional island country of Zantoroland in the Indian Ocean.  The country is clearly corrupt and dangerous for its citizens.  As a child, Keita thrives, with loving parents.  But, his mother, untreated for an illness, dies, and his father, a political journalist exposing corruption, is killed.  Keita’s sister, through her academic skills, is able to attend  an American university, but later she is pulled back into the difficulties of her homeland, and Keita must save her as well as himself. 

People from Zantoroland often escape to the nearby country of Freedom State, the world’s third richest nation.  They enter illegally, as does Keita.  Freedom State is, on the surface, a different world, and one where people want to be.  For the white residents, there is wealth, seeming freedom, and good government.  Many of the country’s poor and illegals, like Keita, inhabit the community of AfricTown.  People in this ghetto live in shipping containers, with no running water, little food and, often, no work. 

Many issues, characters, and twists and turns in plot and action, make for a complex and complicated telling. The Illegal is, first of all, a fast-paced thrilling read.  It is also a book of issues - of race, discrimination, politics, immigration, poverty and wealth in these fictional lands, echoing the world in which we live. It is a novel of contrasting places that are not as different as they first seem. There are rich and privileged, poor and needy, in both lands.  There is also goodness, as well as corruption, in both.  Characters include the rich and elderly Ivernia, who helps Keita; John, a teenage video-journalist; police both violent and helpful (Sgt. Candace Freixa, another marathoner, befriends Keita); running entrepreneurs and coaches; politicians and government officials; Lula, the woman who runs AfricTown and its brothel and a lot more in Freedom State.  To detail the plot would lead to too many spoilers. 

Thriller  Gail's Picks  Contemporary  Canadian Literature


American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis

EllisI’m often asked to recommend fiction that is “light but good,” and American Housewife fits that description exactly.  A slim book at just 188 pages that are such fun to read, it is a collection of humorous short stories that had me laughing out loud. 

Usually I don’t read short stories because as a rule, they leave me unsatisfied. But one look at this collection by novelist (and professional poker player!) Helen Ellis made me pick it up. The cover art features a small woman, sitting on a closed commode and dressed in a fetching orange terry cloth hooded ensemble, her hair in giant curlers wrapped in a scarf, filing her nails.  

The author writes in a snarky, somewhat sarcastic tone about everyday things. Book clubs, for example – how do you get invited to join the right one, do you have to sit in assigned seats, and are custom cocktails and laminated book marks provided? Another story is about a reality TV show in which contestants vie to unearth the most valuable piece of junk at the flea market.  Also funny is a piece examining ways to become a patron of the arts and another story about “The Southern Lady Code.” What is the Southern Lady Code? It’s what southern ladies say in response to awkward moments – for example, a southern lady will say “she has a big personality” when she means “that woman is as loud as a T-Rex,” or she’ll say,  “He has a good time!” to describe someone who parties way too much.

This would be a great book to take on a vacation, or to read while commuting.  It is not, however, a good choice for anyone easily offended – the author is not particularly concerned about being politically correct or subtle, and a few of the stories are pretty dark (which is why I am recommending it!).

Nancy's Picks  American Housewife


The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom

AlbomI had not read this well-known author (Tuesdays with Morrie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven) before, and actually had not planned to until one of our fabulous library patrons told me how much I would love this book – and wow, I love this book!

The setting is fictional famous singer and guitarist Frankie Presto’s memorial service.  He was a former Spanish War orphan who became an international musician and led a very exciting life. At the memorial, musicians Presto played with during his life share stories about him and give eulogies. Each witness to his life seems to have known him in a way unique from all the others.  The narrator of the book, is, wait for it – MUSIC! Music’s voice ties the various musicians’ stories together to create a fabulous testimony to Presto; his life, his loves, his instruments, his constantly forming and reforming family, his travels, and most importantly, a very special guitar with strings that just might have magical powers.  Author Albom is a lifelong musician who writes about “the bands we all join in life” that become our family. 

 I’m eager to read this book through a second time, as I know that when I was caught up in the story, I missed a lot of details that would no doubt make the novel even richer. The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto has been popular with men and women alike, and especially with anyone who believes in the power of music. It would be great for book discussions.  A CD has been made of the songs that are performed in this book, featuring such stars as Tony Bennett, The Byrds, Kiss, and Lyle Lovett .


Nancy's Picks  Music  Inspirational  Historical Fiction  Family  Faith


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