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The Changeling by Victor LaValle

A father loses his wife and infant child and goes to near-mythological lengths to findchangeling them.

Apollo Nagwa is the son of a Ugandan woman and an American father.  His dad left them when Apollo was quite young; memories of his father reverberate in repeated nightmares throughout Apollo’s childhood.  His only connection with his dad are his nightmares and a nondescript box with mementos and a favorite Maurice Sendak book.

Being of a bookish sort, Apollo parlays his knowledge into a used and rare book business.  Most of his stock he buys from estate sales and such, and the occasional rare book is just that – a rare tidbit that keeps his business barely running.

It’s during his browsing of a book sale at a library branch that he meets the love of his life.  Emma is a small woman of determination, a librarian who steals Apollo’s heart.  They marry, she gets pregnant, and they have a most unnatural natural birthing on a broken down subway car.  Brian, named for Apollo’s long-gone father, is their new addition.

Sounds like the beginnings of young family bliss?  Think again – things quickly become crazy.

Emma has a period of postpartum depression.  She then loses interest in the baby almost entirely.  By contrast, Apollo is the doting daddy – he takes their child everywhere, and posts an insane amount of baby pictures to Facebook.

In an unspeakable act of violence, Emma tears apart what’s left of their idyllic existence, and she and the baby are gone.  After hospitalization and imprisonment, Apollo goes on his own hero’s journey through the five boroughs to find his wife and child, helped by his friend Patrice, a war veteran turned computer geek, and egged on by a nerdy stranger interested in a crazy-good book find of Apollo’s.

The Changeling uses themes from myths and fairy tales, along with modern takes on technology and race, to spin its intriguing yarn of betrayal, love, and hard knocks.  The book is a rambling read, well-written and with plenty of unnerving jolts – it kept my interest up, even when reading it on an iPhone.

There be witches and monsters in the Big Apple.

The library has The Changeling in book form and eBook.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



Deep Winter by Samuel W. Gailey

deep winterIt begins with an innocent visit to a friend’s home.

Danny Bedford is a gentle giant of a man.  Years after suffering brain damage as a child during an accident that took the lives of his parents, Danny manages to make his way to midlife.  He lives in a small room above a laundromat that he cleans for rent and a stipend.

Most people in his small Pennsylvania town avoid and make fun of Danny.  Only Mindy Knolls, a waitress in the local diner and Danny’s friend since childhood, has anything worthwhile to say to him.

When Danny stops by Mindy’s trailer with a present and well wishes for her birthday, he finds her dead, with the perpetrators red-handed.  One of them, the town drunk turned deputy, is quick and mean enough to pin the blame on Danny.  When the sheriff comes calling, the deputy is able to convince him of Danny’s guilt, and Danny, befuddled and injured, is in custody at the doctor’s office.

What appears to be a quick deception changes to a manhunt of epic proportions, when Danny gets away.  A state policeman becomes involved, and Mindy’s twin brothers also join the hunt in their own fashion, with revenge on their mind.

The town of Wyalusing will lose some population before the next blizzard.

Deep Winter is a tense, gritty story of sad souls locked into a small town grind where low wages are a living and booze the main outlet.  The book is also an extended study of bullying, its repercussions into adulthood, and how individuals and a community reject a person for being different.

The weather, which gives the book its name, is a relentless adversary.  The descriptions of the snow, the menace of the woods, and the treacherous conditions of driving all drive up the scariness of the story.  Also, the novel takes place in the early 1980s, so easy access to a cell phone is not the case.

There are several points of view in the novel, and you have to get used to some time shifts and past memories that throw the narrative occasionally, but on the whole, Deep Winter is an engaging rural noir thriller.  I was at turns horrified by the violence and callousness of some characters, and gladdened by the humanity of others.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Last Castle : The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan

The Vanderbilt name during the late 1800s conjured images of opulence and immenseLast Castle wealth.  As a scion of this moneyed family, George W. Vanderbilt inherited in a big way, and spent most of his fortune building what would become the largest house in the United States.

Whereas his extended family made their homes mainly in New York City and Newport, George looked farther afield, into the mountains near Asheville, NC.  Here he found the climate congenial, began buying up thousands of acres there, and employed the best in their fields to design and create his grand estate.

In his mid-thirties, George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, descended from some of New York’s oldest families.  Edith was level-headed and charity minded, and brought these strong attributes to her role as mistress of Biltmore House.  She and George were active in the community, contributing funding and time to a number of pursuits.

Edith shouldered on when George died in his early 50s.  The vastness of Biltmore Estate and the costs to run it almost overwhelmed her, and Edith had to sell off certain interests of the estate, including a huge chunk of land to the federal government, which later became the core of Pisgah National Forest.

As a way of raising capital, the family began charging admission to the house in 1930.  Although it took years for the venture to make a profit, the move to open it to the public kept Biltmore House from neglect and the wrecking ball.

The Last Castle is a detail-packed account of the biggest house of the Vanderbilt family, the ordeals of building and financing it, and the ultimate triumph of its owners to keep it despite obstacles.  The author portrays George and Edith with compassion – they were not numb one percenters, but lively people who had consideration for others.  While they were decidedly rich and lived that way, they learned from and affiliated with the common person, and understood that their grand estate functioned by the work of many.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Logical Family by Armistead Maupin

Logical FamilyLogical Family follows the life of Armistead Maupin, who first made his mark in the literary world as the writer of a daily serial that began in the 1970s for the San Francisco Chronicle.  This serial would evolve into the long-lived and much-loved Tales of the City series, nine in all, that recount the juicy backstories of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane.

Maupin has quite a backstory – originally from Raleigh, he grew up with a conservative southern father and somewhat more tolerant mother.  In his young adulthood, Maupin was politically conservative himself (he even pulled a stint working for Jesse Helms), served in the navy during the Vietnam War, then spent his post- military life writing for several jobs and generally finding himself, and his sexuality.

Maupin’s move to San Francisco in the early 1970s provided him with a much needed community; he found there his “logical family” that he lacked earlier in life.  And in writing the serial that became Tales of the City, he tackled a number of issues that pertained to gay life in San Francisco at the time – the shooting of Harvey Milk, the AIDs epidemic, etc.

Although he’s written a few standalone novels (The Night Listener comes to mind) and now this memoir, The Tales of the City series remains Maupin’s best known batch of work.  I can’t attest to the series as a whole, but I did read the first four books years ago, and then the final (The Days of Anna Madrigal) much more recently and enjoyed them all very much.

In Logical Family, I liked how Maupin chronicled his changing relationships with his family.  Even when he had differences with them (especially his father), he managed to maintain a sense of civility with his parents that was touching, and everyone involved grew with the years – there was way more endearment here than bitterness.

(William Hicks, Information Services)




The Inside Out Man by Fred Strydom

A hapless jazz pianist gets a lucrative offer that at first seems too easy and asinside out man time passes, drives him to extreme measures.

Bent has fended for himself since his mother’s death when he was still in his teens.  A gifted musician, he ekes out a half-life playing a few gigs a week.  Bent has no family, no girlfriend – really no connections, other than the handful of establishments that will let him tickle the ivories for the door.

The worldly and mysterious Leonard Fry appears at a club where Bent plays and offers him an insane amount of money to play piano at his country estate for a weekend party.  Bent goes for it – and then with some trepidations, he accepts another offer from Leonard after the party.  The deal?  Bent has to lock Leonard in a room in the mansion for one year and feed him three times a day through a slot in the door.  In return, Bent gets free run of the house and cars and a huge cash settlement at the end of a year’s time.

It sounds simple enough, but Bent quickly gets cabin fever, or as much as one can get in an enormous country house.  His dreams become stranger and more vivid.  He has an unfortunate accident while driving one of Leonard’s cars, emerging unscathed but with a great deal of guilt.  From an uncanny start, he soon meets an assumed ex-lover of Leonard’s, and begins a relationship with her.

From his self-imposed exile, Leonard appears to know way more of Bent’s daily activities than is humanly possible.  He knows about Bent’s accident, and is fully aware of his affair.  Leonard starts to taunt Bent, and Bent gets back at him.

Then Bent gets truly unhinged.

The Inside Out Man tracks one man’s breakdown of sanity and identity as he trades drudgery for luxury and finds out the hard way that it was never worth it.  The book is a page-turner (or page-burner, as a review excerpt puts it on the cover) that ratchets up finely but left me confused at the end.  Who is Bent, exactly?

(William Hicks, Information Services)




Down The Wild Cape Fear by Philip Gerard

Cape FearDown The Wild Cape Fear is an admiring look at the river that has historically defined geography and commerce in the eastern central part of North Carolina.  The book is part canoe/boat lark and part intensive study of the river’s characteristics, which have been modified over the past two centuries by dams, lock systems, channel dredging, and industry.

The author, a professor of creative writing at UNC Wilmington, wanted to travel the entire length of the Cape Fear from its beginning at the confluence of the Haw and the Deep Rivers.  Although he has to do his journey in stages, he manages it well, and not only becomes better acquainted with the Cape Fear River, but meets numerous souls who share his love of this distinctive waterway.

Along the way, Gerard learns a quick respect of the river and its unpredictable strength.  Although the Cape Fear is no rushing mountain stream, it has plenty of dangerous spots, and is no place to be during an onslaught of rain.

His book is also enlightening for the savage and tragic histories that tell the river’s story.  The past two hundred or so years of the Cape Fear’s course read like a microcosm of the South.  We visit again the horrors of slavery, segregation, and greed that still haunt the area, and the strong-arming of big business that today threaten the Cape Fear’s many ecosystems.

On a happier and more latter-day note, you’ll meet a number of individuals who are working to keep the river environmentally sound and viable for a long time to come, whether it is used for commerce or recreation.

The author on more than one occasion goes off on a tangent, but I really didn’t mind this – Gerard writes well and personably.  As with other books about river journeys (two that come to mind are Far Appalachia by Noah Adams and My Paddle to the Sea by John Lane) part of the trek is the meander.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

Hello to all the avid readers of this blog!

If it isn’t apparent, I am a loyal fan of Rainbow Rowell.  Her work, titled Attachments, Attachmentsdoes not disappoint with the familiar aspect of Rowell’s writing style.  Attachments is written for an older audience, which varies from her previous novels such as Fangirl and Eleanor and Park, that cater to young adult readers.

In Attachments, we meet Lincoln, a 28-year old Internet security officer who works third shift at a newspaper called the Courier.  His job is basically sending out warnings to employees who use the Internet or email program inappropriately.  He is the type of guy who loves learning, considering he has three separate degrees, and enjoys a night in playing Dungeons and Dragons with old friends.  He lives at home with his mother after suffering from heartbreak over his high school sweetheart with whom he traveled across the country to go to college with years before.

While observing the WebFence program that pulls flagged emails into a special folder, Lincoln stumbles across the daily conversations of Beth and Jennifer.  He becomes infatuated with the lives of these two through their personal emails to each other.  He eventually develops feelings for Beth without even knowing what she looks like.  At the same time, Beth becomes interested in Lincoln after seeing him around the office at night, without realizing who he is, but knows she cannot pursue because of her existing relationship with too-cool-for-relationships boyfriend Chris.

Over time, thanks to the confidence inspired by Beth, and urging from his sister Eve, Lincoln starts to form a social life that isn’t in a computer screen or in a game.  His midnight dinners with the mom-like Doris, the break room vending machine operator, inspire him to become more independent.  Luckily, Doris moving into a care facility allows Lincoln to move into an apartment partially made for him, with high ceilings and just enough space.  His mother comes to terms with his leaving while he comes to terms with how he feels about relationships.

Rowell takes the reader through the twists and turns of Lincoln’s life, allowing the reader to place themselves in his shoes.  Attachments is an amazing read and highly recommended for those awkward book lovers.

(Amanda Sanson, Central Library)