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Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo by Boris Fishman

FishmanIn his latest novel, Fishman (A Replacement Life, 2014), once again delves into the problems inherent in acculturation, and he also examines the relationship of marriage.

Alex and Maya, originally from Belarus and Ukraine, respectively, meet in the States as her visa was about to expire. They marry and settle in New Jersey. Maya’s dream is to open a Russian-themed café; Alex’s goal is to explore new professional realms. Neither partner’s objective is fulfilled. Maya becomes a mammography technician, and Alex works at his father’s business. Alex’s parents loom large in the couple’s life. They abhor the idea of her son and his wife adopting after Maya is unable to become pregnant. To complicate matters further, Max, the child they adopt, comes from the most foreign of places—Montana.

Although he is an easy child, Max starts acting strangely at age 8. He has only one friend, collects and labels different grasses, and communes with deer. The family, all city dwellers, is horrified. Seeking answers to this odd behavior, Maya insists they take a cross-country road trip in search of the boy’s birth parents. As O Magazine’s book editor Dotun Akintoye writes in his review:

The quest to find out what’s wrong with Max is slowly revealed to be Maya’s journey to find out what’s wrong with her—why she can’t shake the feeling of being an outsider, why she feels stultified by the man she loves. Every step Maya takes to obtain answers about Max becomes an act of self-discovery. It is Maya who blooms like a wildflower ‘enlarged by the landscape.’

Travel  Sara's Picks  Relationships  Family Drama  Cross-Country Travel  Contemporary


Daydreams of Angels by Heather O'Neill

ONeillCanadian writer Heather O’Neill has received many literary awards. Her novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006) was short-listed for seven prizes, including the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her next book, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, also garnered many awards. Daydreams of Angels is her first book of short stories.

The stories combine fable and fantasy and feature precocious children who live hardscrabble lives. Take, for instance, the first story—“The Gypsy and the Bear.” In it, a little boy creates two memorable characters only to abandon them when he is called away. The story takes off from there, exploring the gypsy’s lack of moral center and the conditional friendship of a kind bear. It follows the pair from country fields--replete with talking cats and hens marching single file-- to a city brothel. There the gypsy comes to understand his past and experiences empathy for the first time.

Themes of abandonment and childhood neglect are explored throughout this collection. Prostitutes and criminals play a major role in these stories as they do in O’Neill’s earlier novels. The characters mirror the author’s early life. In a number of interviews, Ms. O’Neill speaks of her parents’ divorce and the decision for her and her sister to live with their mother in the states.  When she was 7, her mother joined a punk band and relinquished custody. Ms. O’Neill was sent to live with her ex-father in a poor, crime-ridden area of Montreal.

But rather than bemoan her fate, she credits her father with providing a colorful palette from which to write. She laughingly describes sitting at a table with criminals and being asked to count the bags of money because she was the only trusted member at the table. Or, when her father discovered her diary, being reprimanded with the comment, It can be used against you in court!*

Sara's Picks


The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

summer before the warMajor Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Simonson’s debut novel, was a New York Times bestseller and a beautifully written favorite. The Summer Before the War, her second novel, is another delight, and, because it is longer than her first book, it could be said to be even more of a treat to read. 

The setting is the summer of 1914 in England, specifically the coastal town of Rye in East Sussex.  Novels of this time period and general location are plentiful, but Simonson’s telling of a familiar story is special.  The book starts with the surface beauty of the countryside and with introductions to the principal characters, but it develops beyond, into an exploration of character, society, human nature, and the nature of war. 

Beatrice Nash, a young and independent woman, is determined not to marry.  Her father has died recently, leaving her money in a trust she can only access upon marriage.  She arrives in Rye to teach Latin at the local grammar school.  Agatha Kent, a leader in the local society, is her sponsor and advocate.  Agatha’s family, including two charming and eligible nephews, are her supporters, as are others in the community.  Class rank and snobbery, however, determine the actions of many characters in the novel - the mayor, some of the old country gentry families, and even some of the local farming and working families who know their place in this society and know that they rank above the gypsies who come each summer to work in the harvest. 

The horrors of World War I are detailed in the second half of the book. What war may do to the lives of many of the characters and several possible love stories keep the reader wondering how the novel will end.  Simonson tells multiple stories in an observant and comic and deeply felt manner.

WWI  World War I  Historical Fiction  Gail's Picks  European History


The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni

GeniMiranda’s life focus is nature photography.  She is pleased to spend a one-year residency on the Farallon Islands, a remote, rocky archipelago off the California coast.  The few human inhabitants are scientists, studying the wildlife through the seasons.  The year is formed by studies of the life cycles and habitats of shark, whale, seal, and bird. 

Geni’s skill as a writer makes nature, setting, elements, and animals come alive on the page. The beauty of this harsh place is realized through her descriptions.  “I will never forget the first moments of my arrival….Long ago, this place had been called the Islands of the Dead.  Now I could see why….The other islets were bare, bald, and broken….The shores were streaked with seaweed, the peaks fragmented and craggy.  The islands were arranged by height, like wedding guests in a snapshot.”  Geni writes of the setting in detail, with a naturalist’s interest and with a photographer’s eye. 

The other focus of the novel is the lives of the seven people isolated on the island; they share work, meals, and leisure time in a small cabin.  Miranda is the victim of an assault soon after she arrives, and her assailant is found dead shortly after that.  There is little boundary between the natural and the human worlds.  Loss and violence are constant themes in both, and add to the aura of mystery in the novel. 

Geni writes a multi-faceted and brilliantly revealed story through Miranda’s voice and vision. The reader sees through the lens of her camera, reads the unmailed letters she writes to her mother who died when Miranda was 14, and reflects on her internal thoughts and fears. 

Thriller  Suspense  Mystery  Gail's Picks  Environmental Fiction  Contemporary


Speak by Louisa Hall

HallI had a hard time trying to classify Speak. Is it a thoughtful mediation of the human condition through a lens of historical fiction? Is it science fiction? Or is it closer to science fact? No matter what one chooses to call it, I found it to be a compelling and timely story.

In Speak, six tenuously connected stories recount pivotal inspirations in the development of artificial intelligence (AI), through journal entries, letters, chat logs, and more. Like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, these stories span centuries and continents to nest upon each other. These narratives include the journal entries of a teenage Puritan bride crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the 17th century, correspondence from pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing to his deceased friend’s mother, and the final fading thoughts of an illegal robot sentenced to rot in an airplane hangar sometime in the not-too-distant future. Each narrator uses the works of the previous one to help develop or implement AI, a technology that is bound to play a huge role in our lives (and probably sooner than we think). The sci-fi side of this book contains some interesting (and often frightening) ideas about what the future may hold for us as society becomes more and more dependent on technology and machines start to meet our social needs. Each story also explores what means to be a human, as our narrators fulfill the need to communicate—even if nobody is listening.

Speak is a fast read that is sure to appeal to fans of science fiction and literary fiction. Anyone interested in a vision of the future or a philosophical look at the psychological needs of humankind would probably enjoy this book.


Speculative Fiction  Science Fiction  Jake's Picks  Historical Fiction  Dystopia  Contemporary