Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

In 1969, thirty-nine year old Frances Jellico is a sheltered woman-child unleashed to thebitter orange world after her mother’s death.  Naïve she might be, but Frances has had enough of an education to finagle a summer job surveying the garden and grounds of a run down English estate for an American buyer.

Lyntons, as it is known by, becomes a lonely home of sorts for Frances, but she finds out soon that she has housemates.  A younger couple is staying in the rooms directly below hers, and Frances finds a peephole under the floorboards of her bathroom that provides her first introduction to Peter and Cara.

Frances gets to know them properly soon after, and strangely enough, develops a closeness to the pair that seems harmless at first.  The three eat decadent meals, smoke, and drink their way through the contents of the wine cellar.  A discovery of a cache of vintage clothing and furniture livens up their drab lodgings.  And Frances has longings – for love, for excitement – that she never allowed herself during her caregiver days.  Unfortunately, the ideals she has projected on the couple are delusional, as Cara and Peter’s aura of rebellion and romance is far from perfect.

Bitter Orange is a slow burning study of a proverbial ugly duckling who finds acceptance amidst odd circumstances.  It’s a well-written book, but don’t expect quick page-turning.  Enjoy the prose, and the occasional startle, and the increasing unease that pervades each new chapter.

The Lyntons estate provides its own sense of haunting – a shattered grand estate reduced to near-ruin, the pocketbooks of a rich American the only thing to save it, and will that be enough?

If you’re looking for similar reads, I’d pair Bitter Orange with another book from about fifteen years ago – Half Broken Things by Morag Joss, or even The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, if you want a more extended feeling of dread.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Gordon Parks: How a Photographer Captured Black and White America By Carole Boston Weatherford & Gordon Parks: No Excuses By Ann Parr

Gordon Parks1Gordon Parks, celebrated African American photographer known for his documentation of black poverty, is a good subject for juvenile biographies.  I found two juvenile biographies that I think are worthy of note, and I believe they are good for both the young and old to read, especially out loud.  In fact, I believe that adults should read children’s books and read them often.

The first one, illustrated in colorful drawings, is titled Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America. The other (Gordon Parks: No Excuses) contains his very own, gritty black and white photographs, among others. I prefer the latter, but both have their value as junior biographies.

I thought that the first biography painted a good portrait of his life. It moved me so much the first time I read itGordon Parks2 that I was on the verge of tears, as emotions swept over me imagining the difficulty that he experienced as a black photographer in his day. The illustrations are good, but why use illustrations when one can look as his work instead?

That is why I preferred the latter entitled Gordon Parks: No Excuses. Throughout the book the reader is reminded of an encouragement that his mother gave him as a child: “What a white boy can do, you can too—no excuses.” I was inspired by what he accomplished despite all the obstacles he faced, and awed by the opportunities he received.

Please take a look at these biographies, especially in 2020 when black lives are at the forefront of our lives.

(Stella Oh, McGirt-Horton Branch Library)

My Abandonment by Peter Rock

My AbandonmentThirteen year old Caroline lives with her father in the woods, specifically Forest Park in Portland, Oregon, in a makeshift house of sorts that most visitors don’t notice, and her father is fine with that.  Their contact with the outside world is limited – weekly excursions to the post office, the library, church, or ATM.  Their contact with other individuals is brief – her father has occasional interactions with other homeless people who reside in the park.

Caroline is not feral.  Her dad has raised her with a fairly strict regimen, one of woodcraft and homework.  An incomplete set of encyclopedias is her source of book learning, supplemented by library visits.  And Caroline is hyper aware of others’ presence – the signs of foot traffic, limited as it is, or litter left in the woods.  She takes pride in her invisibility to others.

It takes one slight mishap – a chance notice by a trail runner – for the authorities to discover their whereabouts, and Caroline and her father become wards of Social Services.  The agency finds the father work on a horse farm, and they live there in a small house on the property.

It’s not their lifestyle, or not her father’s at least, and father and daughter are soon gone again, wandering the deserted parts of rural Oregon for another personal outpost, without interference from outsiders or government.

One wonders about the father’s intent in My Abandonment.  Is he really acting in the best interests for his daughter, or is he delusional, a PTSD victim who fears the constraints of society?  Towards the end of the novel, the atmosphere becomes more hellish, as harsh winter weather endangers both of them.  And yet, the father plunges on, oblivious to doom or harm, an unnamed ideal the only thing driving him.

My Abandonment is told from Caroline’s perspective, that of a teenager naive to societal norms, yet able to survive in the wild without batting an eye.  Caroline lacks social skills, which becomes evident during her stay as a Social Services ward, but her life in the woods has not limited her sense of knowledge, usually learned through her dad, but often self-taught.

The author based this book on a real life occurrence of a father and daughter found living in the woods near Portland in 2004 who later disappeared, and this novel was the basis for the movie Leave No Trace; the movie certainly ends on a more positive note than the book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

A Rule against Murder by Louise Penny

Inspector Armand Gamache and his wife take a much-needed anniversary vacation toRule against Murder the Manoir Bellechasse, a renowned inn located in remote Quebec.  They have been coming for years, and happily take whichever room is available.

This time, they will share their time with the Finney family, a moneyed clan of patricians whose dirt and insecurities far outweigh their bankbook.  At first, Armand and Reine-Marie are mildly intrigued by the Finneys, or Morrows, as we find out later, who as a collective can be charming.  But fissures are soon seen in the siblings’ interactions as they dig up earlier slights and bide their time until the unveiling of a memorial statue of their late father, a planned permanent fixture on the grounds of the inn.

The statue proves to be anything but permanent, as it topples and crushes a member of the family.  Gamache now is back at work again, plowing through the complexities of sibling rivalry as he and his closest associates try to uncover a murderer amid the forested wilds of the idyllic inn.

Considering the family dynamic of the Finneys, one would suspect the killer as one of their own, but others, whether guests or inn workers, may have unknown grudges against certain family members.  As we get better acquainted with the family, it’s easy to understand why.

A Rule Against Murder, Penny’s fourth Three Pines novel, takes place largely outside of the quiet town, in a locale even more remote and tranquil, until darker things compromise its veneer of safety.  As with all of Louise Penny’s books in this series, it’s a page turner, albeit one with lots of literary references and culinary asides.  Penny also examines the human spirit in a fine way, managing to nudge out the good qualities in even the most damaged souls.

A Rule Against Murder comes in physical format and in ebook.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Dead Lions by Mick Herron

dead lionsSlough House, a crumbling building somewhere in London, is the last refuge for MI5 Service screw ups, the hapless assigned to tedious tasks until they resign.  Jackson Lamb is their rumpled leader, a longtime veteran of the Service who prefers the diversion of the shamed to the politics of the Service, although he remains aware of the machinations of the head office.

The Slow Horses, as they are known, aren’t expected to do much, other than shuffle reports and dig through nigh-useless data.  But when a low-level spy is found dead on a bus with a cryptic message on his cell phone, and a Service bigwig drafts two Slow Horses for bodyguard duty, our gang of misfits find themselves on missions of grit, danger, and mishaps – lots of mishaps.

Add in Russian oil magnates, an idyllic English village where location is key, and a London rally of dangerous proportions, and you have the setting for Dead Lions, a dryly humorous send-up of the British Security Service.  The pacing is quick, the plot occasionally convoluted, and the end result a satisfying read.

As a character, Jackson Lamb is a class act.  He’s irascible, misanthropic, hard-drinking, hard-smoking – and those are his good qualities.  Lamb is also a scrupulous professional, although not adverse to playing dirty when necessary, and as an old timer in the Service, is privy to the backstabbing and drama that accompany it.  In his abrasive manner, he inspires a begrudging loyalty from his staff that is somehow endearing.

Dead Lions is number two in the Slow Horses series, and is available from the Greensboro Public Library in paper or ebook format.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Booker Prize Winning Fiction Books in the North Carolina Digital Library

The Booker Prize for Literature, formally known as the Man Booker Prize, is as highly prestigious in the United Kingdom as the Pulitzer Prize is here in the United States.  In recent years, eligibility for the Booker Prize has been extended beyond the UK, Ireland, and Commonwealth to any original English language novel.

By checking the lists of Booker Prize winning fiction books over the past five years, it appears that the North Carolina Digital Library carries these titles, often with multiple ebook copies.

2019 – Co-winners:  The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

2018 – Milkman by Anna Burns

2017 – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

2016 – The Sellout by Paul Beatty

2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

There is also an International Booker Prize, formally the Man Booker International; here is a list of recent winners that you can find in the North Carolina Digital Library:

2019 – Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

2018 – Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

2017 – A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

2016 – The Vegetarian by Han Kang

With our fiction readers in mind, we hope this list will provide you with a book or books of interest.  Please keep reading!

(William  Hicks, Information Services)

Pulitzer Prize Winning Nonfiction Books in the North Carolina Digital Library

By checking the lists of Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction books over the past five years, it appears that the North Carolina Digital Library carries most of these titles.  Some are popular, and as such, will have a wait list; others are easily accessible.

With our nonfiction readers in mind, we hope this list will provide you with a book or books of interest.

Amity and Prosperity:  One Family and the Fracturing of America by Eliza Griswold (2019)

Locking Up Our Own:  Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr. (2018)

Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2017)

Black Flags:  The Rise of Isis by Joby Warrick (2016)

The Sixth Extinction:  An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (2015)

The above were the Pulitzer winners for general nonfiction for these years.  In case you are interested in the runners-up, here is a selected list, also available through the North Carolina Digital Library:

Elderhood:  Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life by Louise Aronson (2020)

Notes on a Foreign Country:  An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen (2018)

The Evolution of Beauty:  How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us by Richard O. Prum (2018)

In a Different Key:  The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker (2017)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehishi Coates (2016)

On occasion, you may be searching for a title in the North Carolina Digital Library that is recognized, but not owned by the NCDL.  If you scroll to the bottom of the screen, chances are you will see the book you are looking for there, with an option to recommend it for purchase.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Sticky Fingers : The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine by Joe Hagan

Rolling Stone has pervaded popular culture since the late 1960s.  Sticky FingersThis magazine has ridden the tides of rock music, politics, and style to the present day, sometimes defining the “in” thing, and occasionally missing the point.  What has been consistent is the magazine’s commitment to at least a modicum of quality, of being something that you wanted to read.

In some ways, Rolling Stone is Jann Wenner, the outspoken, controversial co-founder of the magazine who went from nerdy kid to the head of the influential publication.  Wenner co-founded Rolling Stone in 1967 with the renowned music critic Ralph J. Gleason in San Francisco, the center of psychedelic music and hippiedom at the time.  Wenner started what began as a biweekly newspaper with borrowed money, and over the years, Rolling Stone evolved into a sturdy-looking magazine, outsized for a time, that proclaimed itself as a vanguard for what was real and interesting.

Rolling Stone employed a host of writers and artists to bolster its reputation as a hip publication, and alumni included Hunter S. Thompson, Annie Leibovitz, and Lester Bangs. Excess was the underlying theme, and the constant barrage of drugs and alcohol was the fuel.

Behind it all, though, was Wenner’s constant energy and nerve.  Apparently, very few people operated on Wenner’s wavelength, and while he certainly had the push to drive the magazine forward, Wenner wasn’t above shorting owed money or printing scandalous material to sell an issue, and he made friends and enemies from the beginning; long-standing feuds with rock stars was not unusual.

Sticky Fingers is a rollicking, dishy read that displays Jann Wenner with blemishes and all.  Through it, we experience the never-stopping flurry of pop culture and its junctures with politics and the well-placed, influential set with whom Wenner flirted, wrote about, and outraged, until he was one of them.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Essay Collections in the North Carolina Digital Library

In my previous entry, the subject was short stories.  For nonfiction readers who still like to read shorter works, it seems that essays might just be the answer.  And essays don’t have to be boring – in the hands of good writers, they’re devourable slices of life from the mundane to fascinating.  In this suggested group of collections, you’ll read from humorists, neurologists, scientists, fiction writers who wax poetic in nonfiction prose, and more.  Read on…

Calypso by David Sedaris – from This American Life to now, Sedaris still retains his eclectic wit.  Here, topics range from his family to recent politics to a beach house called the Sea Section.

Letters from an Astrophysicist by Neil DeGrasse Tyson – A question and answer series of sessions, focusing on letters that Tyson has received from fans all over, asking about the big questions of life and universe.

The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani –  A former New Yorks Times critic makes an observation of truth and its gradual erosion from society, as subjectivity and fake news take center stage, a process she determines began decades ago.

The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks – the many-faceted Sacks wrote prolifically about the anomalies of human thought.  Here, in some of the last writings before his death in 2015, Sacks examines a wide range of human (and biological) experience.

The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman – Gaiman has written some wonderful, and sometimes disturbing, fantasy fiction.  Here, he’s equally at home in the essay format.  Gaiman extols reading and the institutions that foster it (Hear!  Hear!  libraries and bookstores!) early on in this collection.  Included is “Make Good Art”, his commencement address from 2012.

The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead – the author of The Underground Railroad turns his attention to the world of high stakes poker.  Knowing little about the game, Whitehead immersed himself into training for the biggest game of all in Las Vegas.  His essays detail life and its extremities at the poker table.

Things That Matter by Charles Krauthammer – A conservative writer who has his own conventions on practically any subject, Krauthammer takes on more than just politics in this collection of essays spanning the past thirty years.

Steal the Menu by Raymond Sokolov – Another “life in food” memoir in essays.  Sokolov, who has written for both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, praises and roasts in equal measure the restaurants and food encounters that have shaped his perceptions of cuisine.

When I Was a Child, I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson – essays from the author of Gilead that look at the role of faith in society and the myths of individualism.

The Fran Lebowitz Reader – This combines two of Lebowitz’s earlier bestsellers (Metropolitan Life and Social Studies), providing a window to New York City in the 1970s with biting wit.

All of these are in the North Carolina Digital Library collection, brought to you by the Greensboro Public Library.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Short Fiction : Gems from the North Carolina Digital Library

As a reader, I’ll read fiction and nonfiction in approximately equal amounts.  And when I just have snippets of time to indulge, short stories are hard to beat.

The North Carolina Digital Library has you covered if your yen for fiction goes for the shorter works, and whittling down your search to short story specifics is easy – just click on the Subjects link on the upper left hand side, and then scroll down to the link for short stories, and you’re there.  You can sort by popularity, author, title, and more.

Here are some suggested titles to get you going.  Some of the authors you might recognize.  Included are collections by specific authors and some anthologies (collected works by different authors).   Genres include general fiction, westerns,  science fiction/fantasy, and mystery.  This list is not comprehensive, but a jumping off point for further reading adventures.

Dear Life by Alice Munro – winner of the Nobel Prize in 2013, Canadian writer  Munro continues honing her craft of the short story in this collection.

Ford County by John Grisham – proof that the writer of courtroom thrillers can try  his hand at shorter fiction, and succeed.

The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 edited by John Joseph Adams and Carmen Maria Machado – sometimes you might want to switch up your authors, and have your reading to be more…otherworldly.

Tenth of December by George Saunders – the acclaimed author in Lincoln in the Bardo shows his prowess in the short story form.

Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler – two stories previously unpublished by the author of Kindred and Parable of the Sower.  Also, take a look at Bloodchild and Other Stories.

Law of the Desert Born by Louis L’Amour –  for those readers who like the Western genre – the king of them all shines in this collection.

For the Sake of the Game edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger – this anthology reimagines the world of Sherlock Holmes through the eyes of a variety of authors, who either stick to the Holmes/Watson script, or go off on their own tangents.

A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams – another collection of speculative fiction, with an emphasis on new visions for our country.

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch – the author writes of children, outcasts, and the desperate in this startling collection.

Where the Light Falls : Selected Stories of Nancy Hale edited by Lauren Groff – mid-twentieth century writer Hale gets her due in these twenty five tales that showcase the talent of a writer who won several O. Henry awards in her time.

As I mentioned before, this is not a comprehensive list of short story collections, but a beginning point for lovers of short fiction.  All of these and more are part of the ebook collection of the North Carolina Digital Library, accessible through the Greensboro Public Library.

(William Hicks, Information Services)