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Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Crucet

CrucetLizet Ramirez, the narrator of the novel Make Your Home Among Strangers, details her life during a year of emotional and physical changes for herself and for her family.

Lizet applies secretly to an elite northern school, is accepted, and decides to attend despite the wishes of her family. She enjoys so many of her college experiences - new friends, her first snow, and, eventually, some success in her studies. Lizet (“Liz” to her fellow college students, “El” to her Cuban friends) is the first member of her family to go to college, and she is fortunate to have a scholarship and work-study assistance. However, she does have difficulties with workload and cultural change.

In Miami, Lizet’s Cuban-American family struggles with changes in their lives. Her parents’ divorce, and her mother moves from Hialeah to Little Havana in Miami with Lizet’s older sister, Leidy, who is a young single mother with a new baby. Lizet’s father remains in Hialeah, estranged from the family and struggling financially. Lizet’s mother becomes involved, emotionally and then as a leader, in Madres Para Justicia, a group formed to prevent the deportation of Ariel Hernandez. Ariel is a young boy from Cuba whose mother died fleeing on a raft with him and whose father, still in Cuba, wants him back.

The book focuses on the struggles, worries, and guilt resulting from clashes of cultural and family relationships.  It also details the everyday life of Miami’s Cuban-American community and college life in a small town in upstate New York. Well-written dialogue, as well as realistic characters living through very human situations, make the story hard to put down.

Literary Fiction  Gail's Picks  Family Drama  Cultural Fiction  Contemporary  Coming of Age


Eli Gottlieb's Best Boy

GottliebI have read so many reviews of current and upcoming fiction, about children on the autism spectrum. Best Boy offers a different perspective. The main character, Todd Aaron, is in his 50’s. He was placed in a therapeutic residential setting when he was 11, long before autism was understood, or diagnosed. Todd is a likeable, curious autodidact who consults Mr. B. (the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which he reads endlessly) or Mr. C (the computer he turns to when Mr. B. doesn’t have the answer).

Thanks to a regimen of medication (that leaves him feeling “dull”) and supportive staff members at his residential facility, Todd functions well in his world. He has earned the fond title of “the Old Man” of his community, and he is selected to serve as an Ambassador who welcomes visitors and new residents. All is well until a new staff member starts working at the Payton Living Center. This new hire reminds Todd of his abusive father. Family secrets rise to the surface, and it is revealed that Todd has one remaining brother who calls but rarely visits. Todd’s fondest wish is to go home – if not to the house he grew up in, then to the home of his brother and wife and their children. Unfortunately, “an incident” some years past prevents his brother’s family from opening their arms to him. The author skillfully metes out small pieces of Todd’s backstory, which makes us appreciate Todd and his situation more and more as the book goes on.

This novel has been selected as an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times, a notable book by The Washington Post, and one of the Top 10 Books of 2015 by Library Journal. Originally published last year in hardcover, Best Boy is now available in paperback.

In an interview, author Gottlieb says that this story is informed by years of visiting his own special needs brother in various residential treatment facilities. The author has recently become his brother’s legal guardian.

Nancy's Picks  Family Drama  Contemporary Fiction


Emma Donoghue's The Wonder

DonoghueI predict that this book, with a mid-September publication date, is going to be a huge success for both individual readers and for book clubs.

Set in rural Ireland in the 1850’s, this work of historic fiction is based on dozens of so-called “fasting girls” who seemed to live without eating.

Eleven-year-old Anna McDonnell appears to be alive and well after four months of not eating. She takes only a few sips of water each day, no food; surely she must be a living miracle! A miracle girl in their midst would be a miracle for this small, poor parish. Visitors arrive from around the world to pray with Anna, touch the hem of her garment, and leave a coin or two in the alms box bolted to her family cabin.

Eager to prove to naysayers that Anna indeed is a miracle, her physician, Dr. McBrearty, and the community hires two nurses to bear witness, in round the clock shifts, for two weeks. One is a Catholic nun, the other, Mrs. Lib Wright, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale. Mrs. Wright’s suspicions about the miracle child fly in the face of those who wish to profit from Anna. Lib questions everything, and everyone, determined to come to the truth. Secrets in Anna’s family, and a building sense of suspense kept me turning the pages, drawing me through the book in a very short two days.

Nancy's Picks  Mystery  Irish Fiction  Historical Fiction


A Pigeon and A Boy by Meir Shalev

ShalevI re-read A Pigeon and A Boy (2007), by Meir Shalev, following an unusual coincidence that happened to my friend, Lorraine. A Fancy Pigeon landed on her balcony, bonded with her, and returned to her each morning. Why had it chosen her deck? Was this pigeon a messenger from beyond?

Such questions are central to the themes in A Pigeon and A Boy. It is a deeply moving, multi-layered novel interweaving two love stories and two time periods flawlessly. As in the works of Haruku Murakami, Shalev’s novel deals with themes of alienation, the cruelties and indignities of war, and the dark side of people that can ruin even a paradise.

Although the War of Independence is the backdrop of this novel, the enemy is unnamed. The real enemy is man himself, and the cruelties exacted are by the strong against the weak, regardless of the side.

The first love story occurs in the years prior to and during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. “The Girl” and “the Boy,” who have been friends since age 11, are now adolescents in love. They are both members of the Palmach—the unofficial Jewish army established to fight the British in the war. Both dispatch and care for homing pigeons In a final act of love, the Boy, shot during the last siege, dispatches the Girl’s pigeon to carry an unusual gift to his beloved.

Wartime Fiction  Sara's Picks  Jewish Fiction  Historical Fiction  Cultural Fiction


Ann Patchett's Commonwealth

PatchettCommonAnn Patchett, award winning author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder, has written a fabulous new book, Commonwealth, that’s due out in mid-September. I couldn’t put down the advanced copy I received!

Patchett’s latest work is a captivating family saga that spans five decades. The story begins when Bert Cousins walks into a christening party for Beverly and Fix Keating’s second daughter, Franny. Bert enters carrying a large bottle of gin, and several gin and tonics later, he finds himself kissing the hostess. And soon courting her. Two messy divorces later, he marries her. Between them they have six children, and theirs is the story that carries the book. All six spend the summers together in the Commonwealth of Virginia, largely unsupervised. Much of their fun is innocent, but some of it turns deadly, leaving repercussions that will reverberate through the family for decades.

Years later, Franny, a waitress and law school dropout, falls in love with a much older man, author Leon Posen. Following the publication of several of his successful books, he has hit a severe case of writer’s block. Then Franny tells him the story or her torn apart and blended family. His next book, Commonwealth, is a huge success! He credits Franny as his muse, his inspiration. She is horrified that Commonwealth is a thinly veiled accounting of her childhood. Suddenly siblings and step siblings she hasn’t heard from in years are finding her, furious, demanding to know why she would air their dirty laundry in public.

Patchett’s storytelling is at its finest in this book. She has written a complex and realistic family saga that keeps the reader turning the pages, eager to see how the next relationship or drama will manifest itself. The subject matter is said to be drawn from the author’s past. Whether or not that is true, she writes compellingly realistic and fascinating characters.

Southern Literature  Nancy's Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Family Drama  Contemporary  American Fiction


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

TowlesA Gentleman in Moscow. The setting is 1922 Moscow, and the main character, Count Alexander Rostov, is an “unrepentant aristocrat” sentenced by a Bolshevik Tribunal to a lifetime of house arrest in the Hotel Metropol.  Returning from the trial to the hotel, where he has lived the last four years, the Count finds that his valuable antiques and artwork have been declared “property of the people “ and have vanished from his sight.

The Count is ousted from his luxury suite at the hotel and moved with meager belongings to a 100-square-foot apartment on the low-ceilinged top floor, where he can barely stand up.  Determined to make the most of his circumstances, he sticks to his old routines of dining, barbering, and socializing, all within the confines of the hotel.  A breath of fresh air arrives in the form of 10-year-old Nina, also a “prisoner of the hotel” while her widowed father serves as a diplomat. Nina wears a master key to the hotel on her necklace, and together she and the Count explore the behind-the-scenes workings of the Metropol. A life-long friendship is forged, which will test the Count again and again. Although he clearly remembers being told “Make no mistake – should you ever step foot outside the Metropol again, you will be shot,” when an adult Nina asks a favor of him, it’s hard to say no.

This book has been described as “a masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history.” I would add that it is a good long saga, spanning four decades. The author has done a marvelous job of drawing the characters not only of the Count and Nina, but also of the supporting cast that works in the hotel.

Several subplots are woven in, each serving to forward the story and keep you turning those pages.  If I were going on a trip, and could only take one book, this would be it. Good writing, engaging characters, and some history all in one volume.

Russia  Relationships  Nancy's Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Historical