Monthly Archives: October 2013

Doctor Sleep

By Stephen King

(Scribner, $30, 544 pages)

Who is this author?

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Your treat, and this is no trick, comes today in the form of a rare goody: a sequel that is just as good as and perhaps actually better written than the original book. In this case, that is Stephen King’s creepy bestseller of 1977, “The Shining,” and the even creepier movie version directed by Stanley Kubrick. (King has said that he wasn’t all that crazy about the movie’s depiction of the characters, particularly the wife, but that film certainly left indelible images in moviegoers’ minds. Redrum!)

King’s incredible output is well-known, but bears a little repeating: more than 50 international bestsellers, including novels, story collections, memoir, mysteries, a guide to writing well and more. He won the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which annoyed some literary purists but seems increasingly justified. King is 66 now and still lives in Maine with his wife, novelist Tabitha King. He has also published the well-received novel, “Joyland,” this year and has another in the wings for 2014. The man is on a roll.

What is this book about?

What happens when a little boy who can read minds, see the future and commune with other dimensions – and who has experienced first-hand nearly indescribable horror, -grows up? Well, first he becomes an alcoholic and then he finds AA and his calling as a worker at a New Hampshire hospice, gently ushering dying elderly patients to the great beyond with the help of a cat who can tell who is about to die.

And then he meets a little girl who has even more of “the shining” than Danny Torrance ever possessed. And  discovers that 12-year-old Abra (as in, cadabra) is being pursued by a group of sinister, gypsy-like seniors who tool around the country in their RVs, looking for such children to torture and feed off. They are the True Knot, and they are truly not the cuddly old folks you might find in a Hallmark channel movie. Led by a  frightening woman called Rose the Hat, they are after Abra. And so, once again King sets up one of his titanic battles of good vs. evil, and we lucky readers get to go along for the ride.

Why you’ll like it:

King was a relatively callow 30 when “The Shining” was published, and he is 66 now.  He was the victim of a terrible auto accident that nearly killed him, and he has known popular and critical success that he could hardly have dreamed of as a young writer. He has matured, and gives credit to AA for helping him overcome his own addiction. And his prose and storytelling also have grown richer and more rewarding. It is rare to be able to revisit a story, especially one that is so firmly embedded in the popular pantheon, let along to enrich it with hard-won wisdom. It is to our great good fortune that he has done so here. Keep on shining, Mr. King.

What others are saying:

In The New York Times, Janet Maslin says: “Mr. King’s earlier books were full of phantasms and demons, but he grows ever more adept at rooting his dark thoughts and toughest struggles in reality…He remains amazingly resourceful. He’s so good at scaring that he can even raise goose bumps when he writes about the measles.

And in The New York Times Book Review, novelist Margaret Atwood says: “…King is a pro: by the end of this book your fingers will be mere stubs of their former selves, and you will be looking askance at the people in the supermarket line, because if they turn around they might have metallic eyes. King’s inventiveness and skill show no signs of slacking: “Doctor Sleep” has all the virtues of his best work. What are those virtues? First, King is a well-trusted guide to the underworld. His readers will follow him through any door marked “Danger: Keep Out”…because they know that not only will he give them a thorough tour of the inferno…he will also get them out alive…Second, King is right at the center of an American literary taproot that goes all the way down: to the Puritans and their belief in witches, to Hawthorne, to Poe, to Melville, to the Henry James of “The Turn of the Screw,” and then to later exemplars like Ray Bradbury.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Iconic horror author King picks up the narrative threads of “The Shining” many years on. Young psychic Danny Torrance has become a middle-aged alcoholic (he now goes by “Dan”), bearing his powers and his guilt as equal burdens. A lucky break gets him a job in a hospice in a small New England town. Using his abilities to ease the passing of the terminally ill, he remains blissfully unaware of the actions of the True Knot, a caravan of human parasites crisscrossing the map in their RVs as they search for children with “the shining” (psychic abilities of the kind that Dan possesses), upon whom they feed. When a girl named Abra Stone is born with powers that dwarf Dan’s, she attracts the attention of the True Knot’s leader—the predatory Rose the Hat. Dan is forced to help Abra confront the Knot, and face his own lingering demons. Less terrifying than its famous predecessor, perhaps because of the author’s obvious affection for even the most repellant characters, King’s latest is still a gripping, taut read that provides a satisfying conclusion to Danny Torrance’s story.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “He-e-e-e-r-e’s Danny! Before an alcoholic can begin recovery, by some lights, he or she has to hit bottom. Dan Torrance, the alcoholic son of the very dangerously alcoholic father who came to no good in King’s famed 1977 novel “The Shining,” finds his rock bottom very near, if not exactly at, the scarifying image of an infant reaching for a baggie of blow. The drugs, the booze, the one-night stands, the excruciating chain of failures: all trace back to the bad doings at the Overlook Hotel (don’t go into Room 217) and all those voices in poor Dan’s head, which speak to (and because of) a very special talent he has. That “shining” is a matter of more than passing interest for a gang of RV-driving, torture-loving, soul-sucking folks who aren’t quite folks at all–the True Knot …. When the knotty crew sets its sights on a young girl whose own powers include the ability to sense impending bad vibes, Dan, long adrift, begins to find new meaning in the world. Granted, he has good reason to have wanted to hide from it–he still has visions of that old Redrum scrawl, good reason to need the mental eraser of liquor–but there’s nothing like an apocalyptic struggle to bring out the best (or worst) in people. King clearly revels in his tale, and though it’s quite a bit more understated than his earlier, booze-soaked work, it shows all his old gifts, including the ability to produce sentences that read as if they’re tossed off but that could come only from someone who’s worked hard on them….Satisfying at every level. King even leaves room for a follow-up, should he choose to write one–and with luck, sooner than three decades hence.”

“….King has become one of the most successful horror writers of all time. His latest novel, a highly anticipated sequel to “The Shining,” marks a return to form for the old master, who reunites loyal readers with Danny (now Dan) Torrance. Decades after the events at the Overlook Hotel, Dan is wrestling with his own demons and putting his psychic abilities to work at a series of nursing homes where he provides comfort to dying patients. When he finally finds a home—and sobriety—in a cozy New Hampshire town, Dan meets a young girl with a shining even stronger than his own. Together, he and young Abra Stone must take on a tribe of people called the True Knot, whose innocent, RV-driving appearance belies their true nature. VERDICT: This is vintage King, a classic good-vs.-evil tale that will keep readers turning the pages late into the night. His many fans won’t be disappointed,” says Library Journal in a starred review.

When is it available?

King’s latest is waiting for you at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Camp Field , Dwight, Goodwin and Park branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Save Yourself

By Kelly Braffet

(Crown, $25, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Kelly Braffet probably does not want to be primarily identified this way, but she is indeed the daughter-in-law of a guy you may have heard of, named Stephen King. She is an accomplished novelist and is the wife of Owen King, an excellent fiction writer himself. And the sister-in-law of Joseph Hillstrom King, who writes sophisticated spooky novels under the name Joe Hill. And the daughter-in-law of Tabitha King, who has published many books. So the pedigree is impressive, but Braffet has earned praise on her own for her fine writing. Her other novels are “Josie and Jack” and “Last Seen Leaving.”

 What is this book about?

The sins of the fathers are visited with a vengeance on their offspring in this darkly moving novel. The focus is on Patrick Cusimano, who was living with his prickly brother, Mike, and alcoholic dad when it all went to hell. Dad, driving very drunk, hits-and-runs a little boy, who dies. (the image of what Patrick finds as evidence will greatly disturb you.) The shocked Cusimano brothers wait 19 hours to report the accident, a delay that turns the town against the entire family. Dad goes to jail, Patrick can’t do better than a crummy job in an even crummier convenience store and he’s half in love with Mike’s girlfriend, Caro, who lives with them and has her own issues, concerning her mentally disturbed mother. Enter two teenage sisters, Layla and Verna, who , having endured home-schooling by their ultra-religious parents and vicious bullying at school, are flirting heavily with the Goth lifestyle in high school and are hanging around with kids with a vampire fetish  and worse. Layla takes a shine to Patrick and things grow even more twisted. Can these damaged young people  get off the dangerous paths they are on and find some kind of peace?

Here’s what Braffet had to say to Owen King in an amusing online discussion they posted on “I’m glad you find Patrick likeable. I always have. He’s a smart guy who grew up in a family where being smart wasn’t particularly valued, so he ends up leading a not-particularly-smart life. When we meet him, he’s just starting to realize that. Which I think we generally find sympathetic: we don’t necessarily love losers, but we love losers who try to turn their lives around. He hasn’t turned things around yet; at the beginning of the book he still has many, many more terrible decisions to make, but he’s at least realized, in large part because of his father’s accident, that the road he’s traveling isn’t going anywhere. The question is whether or not he can switch directions. He has no idea where to start, even.

“Also, Patrick isn’t a callous person. He’s genuinely horrified by and ashamed of what his father has done. I tried to show that as soon as I could, so that readers knew out of the gate how damaged and vulnerable he was. It’s fair to accuse Patrick of making abysmally bad decisions, but I don’t think anyone could argue that he’s without a conscience.”

Why you’ll like it:

Braffet gets small-town life and its constricting, restricting ways, and she can draw characters sympathetically, even when they are not appealing people. She’s great with realistic dialogue, nailing what people say and what they are really thinking when they say it. There is much that is dark and disturbing in this book, but there is also empathy for its main character, Patrick, who is trying to build a new and better life despite the family history and enmity from the town, a place from which he must break free, emotionally and otherwise.

What others are saying:

From Booklist: “Braffet’s excruciatingly rendered characters and locomotive plotting make her a writer’s writer, though this novel shows all the signs of a popular breakthrough. Patrick, 26, lives with his older brother, Mike, and Mike’s girlfriend, Caro, in a shabby house creaking with the ghost of their father, who a year ago killed a child in a drunk-driving accident and made social pariahs of his sons. For Patrick, life is a nauseating blur of graveyard shifts, crap food, and frustrated lust for Caro. But this is a tale of two families: Layla, 17, has fully rebelled against her minister father and is now bringing younger sister Verna into the cult of goth outcasts led by faux-vampire, Charlie-Manson-in-training Justinian. Layla’s sudden relationship with Patrick puts the two plots on a collision course that is gonna end ugly—but also, in Braffet’s hands, beautifully. Sex is the driving force here—as power, as weapon, and as shield—and the sweaty mechanics of the few characters recall Tennessee Williams (and would look awfully good filmed in black and white). Perceptive, nervy, and with broad cross-genre appeal.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “A sharp portrait of five people damaged by their childhood elevates Braffet’s captivating, realistically creepy third novel, set in Ratchetsburg, Pa. Patrick Cusimano blames his brother, Mike, for the fact that their father, John, was sent to prison for the hit-and-run death of a child while in an alcoholic haze. Mike believes that if Patrick hadn’t called the police, their father would never have been arrested, despite the damaged, bloody car. The residents of Ratchetsburg also fault the brothers for waiting 19 hours before calling the police. Mike’s girlfriend, Caro, who fled from her bipolar mother when she was 16, lives with the brothers, but is increasingly attracted to Patrick. Meanwhile, sisters Layla and Verna Elshere are outcasts at their high school, ostracized because their father, Jeff, “a home church leader,” waged a high-profile campaign against sex education. Layla, who has retreated into the goth world, pulls Verna with her, along with Patrick, into an even darker, violent place. Braffet (Last Seen Leaving) uses graceful prose, astute dialogue, and vivid characters to carry the plot to an unexpected and believable finale.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Another darkly disturbing novel from Braffet, who specializes in exploring damaged people. Patrick Cusimano and his brother Mike live in the shadow of their father, who hit and killed a child while driving drunk. … Now, the Cusimano name is inextricably linked to the sadness and horror of their imprisoned father’s deed. Meanwhile, Layla and Verna Elshere have parent problems of their own. Their dad, a “church leader” who reluctantly allowed his teen daughters to attend public school, infamously took on the school board and got a popular teacher fired for instructing students on sex education. Now, his daughters have become pariahs at their high school and are targeted by kids so mean that their behavior is downright sociopathic. To make things worse, the teachers and administration turn a blind eye to the torture of the Elshere girls. Fearing that telling their parents will only make matters worse, the two remain quiet about the physical and psychological attacks and, instead, resort to hanging around with a group of misfit goth kids who drink one another’s blood and plot against the other, more popular kids. When Layla’s path crosses Patrick’s, she only adds to the confusion he feels about his role in life: He lives with a brother he loves and Caro, the daughter of a schizophrenic who is terrified that she, or any children she may have, will end up like her mother. Unable to move forward with his life, Patrick seems doomed to tread water, until a terrible confluence of events erupts, leaving no one untouched. Braffet writes beautifully, but the over-the-top human cruelty and depravity she incorporates in this story are both disturbing and creepy. A horrifying look at damaged people who owe all they are to their awful parents.”

When is it available?

Braffet’s book is awaiting borrowers at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

The Good Lord Bird: A Novel

by James McBride

(Riverhead, $27.95, 432 pages)

Who is this author?

You may recall that James McBride’s award-winning New York Times bestselling novel, “The Color of Water : A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” was the 2003 selection for the One Book For Greater Hartford community reading program, now called One Book One Hartford.

It told the story of his mother, who was born an Orthodox Jew and converted to Christianity, raised 12 children and founded a church. McBride also wrote the bestsellers “Song Yet Sung” and “Miracle at St. Anna,” adapted as a film by Spike Lee.

A former reporter for the Boston Globe, The Washington Post and People magazine, McBride holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. from Oberlin College and also is an accomplished jazz musician, playing tenor sax and leading a 12-piece jazz/R&B band. He has written songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Gary Burton, and the PBS television character Barney, as well as scores for musicals.

What is this book about?

For his fourth book and third novel, McBride was inspired by the violent offspring of the pre-Civil War abolition movement that was led by the charismatic, and quite likely insane, John Brown. It is told through the eyes of a young slave in Kansas, Henry Shackleford, who joins Brown’s crusade but must pretend to be a girl to stay alive. Nicknamed “Little Onion” and considered a source of good luck by Brown, Henry gets caught up in the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, a losing battle that nevertheless helped launch the Civil War.

Why you’ll like it:

History is solemn and serious – and as William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So it is with slavery in America and the racial enmity that continues, in one form or another, even to this day. But that doesn’t mean a talented writer cannot tell a story about a slave with humor, as James McBride does in “The Good Lord Bird.” Through Henry “Little Onion” Shackleford’s eyes – the eyes of a boy mistaken for a girl – we see life when slavery was the rule, yet  ferment arose and eventually led to the Civil War. But the book also is a personal history of the coming of age of a young man who views the turmoil with an innocent heart and a sharp mind. McBride tells a deep and satisfying tale, and the humor he deftly employs is the sugar that makes the underlying bitterness palatable.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review  says: “…a magnificent…brilliant romp of a novel about [John] Brown…McBride—with the same flair for historical mining, musicality of voice and outsize characterization that made his memoir, “The Color of Water,” an instant classic—pulls off his portrait masterfully, like a modern-day Mark Twain: evoking sheer glee with every page…McBride sanctifies by humanizing; a larger-than-life warrior lands—warts, foibles, absurdities and all—right here on earth, where he’s a far more accessible friend…In [McBride's] hands, John Brown is a wild and crazy old man—and more a hero than ever before “

Says Publishers Weekly: “Musician and author McBride offers a fresh perspective on abolitionist firebrand John Brown in this novel disguised as the memoir of a slave boy who pretends to be a girl in order to escape pre–Civil War turmoil, only to find himself riding with John Brown’s retinue of rabble-rousers from Bloody Kansas to Harpers Ferry. “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it,” reminisces Henry Shackleford in a manuscript discovered after a church fire in the 1960s. Speaking in his own savvy yet naïve voice, Henry recounts how, at age 10, his curly hair, soft features, and potato-sack dress cause him to be mistaken for a girl—a mistake he embraces for safety’s sake, even as he is reluctantly swept up by Brown’s violent, chaotic, determined, frustrated, and frustrating efforts to oppose slavery. A mix-up over the meaning of the word “trim” temporarily lands Henry/Henrietta in a brothel before he rejoins Brown and sons, who call him “Onion,” their good-luck charm. Onion eventually meets Frederick Douglass, a great man but a flawed human being, [and] Harriet Tubman, silent, terrible, and strong. Even more memorable is the slave girl Sibonia, who courageously dies for freedom. At Harpers Ferry, Onion is given the futile task of rousting up slaves (“hiving bees”) to participate in the great armed insurrection that Brown envisions but never sees. Outrageously funny, sad, and consistently unflattering, McBride puts a human face on a nation at its most divided.”

“…Through crackling prose and smart, wryly humorous dialogue, McBride tells his story through the eyes of the slave Henry Shackleford, who as a young boy is kidnapped by Brown during one of his Kansas raids. Wrapping the ugliness of slavery in a pitch-perfect adventure story is more than just a reimagining of an historic event. McBride, as he did in Song Yet Sung and Miracle at St. Anna, transcends history and makes it come alive.” Says the Chicago Tribune.

James McBride made a gutsy decision when he chose to retell the rather tragic story of John Brown’s failed slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859 as a historical romp with a gender-bending male slave as the great abolitionist’s sidekick. The resulting new novel, The Good Lord Bird, is not only an irrepressibly fun read, but an iconoclastic exploration of a period in American history, the antebellum slave era, that we tend to handle with kid gloves,” says the Seattle Times.

Says Library Journal:

In the turbulent times just before the Civil War, abolitionist John Brown visits the Kansas Territories to free the slaves. In the midst of a gunfight between slave owner Dutch Henry and Brown, a young slave named Henry Shackleford watches his father die. Now freed and under the protection of the wily abolitionist, who mistakes the ten-year-old boy dressed in a potato sack for a girl, Henry maintains this feminine guise as he rides with Brown and his band of volunteers. After becoming separated during a skirmish, Henry finds himself in a Missouri brothel only to rejoin Brown’s ragtag group two years later. Brown takes Henry on a fundraising tour back East, meeting with other abolitionists including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Despite John Brown’s reputation for violence, Henry discovers an old man whose intense passion for the abolitionist cause tends to overrule common sense, proving disastrously detrimental as they travel to Harpers Ferry in 1859. Verdict :With its colorful characters caught in tragic situations, McBride’s …faux memoir, narrated by Henry, presents a larger-than-life slice of an icon of American history with the author’s own particular twist.”

“In McBride’s version of events, John Brown’s body doesn’t lie a-mouldering in the grave–he’s alive and vigorous and fanatical and doomed, so one could say his soul does indeed go marching on. … Brown whisks the 12-year-old away thinking he’s a girl, and Onion keeps up the disguise for the next few years. This fluidity of gender identity allows Onion a certain leeway in his life, for example, he gets taken in by Pie, a beautiful prostitute, where he witnesses some activity almost more unseemly than a 12-year-old can stand. …The stakes are raised as Brown approaches October 1859, for even Onion recognizes the futility of the raid, where Brown expects hundreds of slaves to rise in revolt and gets only a handful. Onion notes that Brown’s fanaticism increasingly approaches “lunacy” as the time for the raid gets closer, and Brown never loses that obsessive glint in his eye that tells him he’s doing the Lord’s work. At the end, Onion reasserts his identity as a male and escapes just before Brown’s execution. McBride presents an interesting experiment in point of view here, as all of Brown’s activities are filtered through the eyes of a young adolescent who wavers between innocence and cynicism,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

McBride’s book is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Park branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea: A Novel

by Dina Nayeri

(Riverhead, $27.95, 420 pages)

Who is this author?

Born in Tehran during the revolution that erupted in 1979, Dina Nayeri and her family immigrated to Oklahoma when she was 10 years old. She earned a BA from Princeton and a Master of Education and MBA from Harvard. She is a Truman Capote Fellow and a Teaching Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and also was named a 2012 New Voices author by Granta magazine.

In her novel’s acknowledgements, she says: “I am an Iranian exile. This story is my dream of Iran, created from a distance just as Saba invents a dreamed-up America for her sister. Saba longs to visit the America on television as I long to visit an Iran that has now disappeared….”

Nayeri originally planned to follow a career in business, but  told Barnes & Noble interviewer:

“…one of the best things the MBA program at Harvard did for its  students was to force us to do a series of reflective exercises about career and leadership and legacy. During one of these, I realized that my dreams and visions of who I would become were completely different from those of my classmates, that I was an outlier, and that maybe I didn’t quite belong in that world. It should only have taken a look back at my childhood to tell me what my vocation should be: when I was little, I’d spend hours telling stories to anyone who would listen. I would squeeze into a circle of adults and say, “everyone, listen to me. I have a story!” When I finally realized that the business world wasn’t for me, I started writing every day.”

Nayeri will give a free talk on Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 6:30 p.m. at Renbrook School, Renbrook School, 2865 Albany Ave., West Hartford.. Information: 860-236-1661 or or

What is this book about?

Saba is 11, a twin living with her relatively well-to-do family in a small rice-farming village in 1980s Iran. Fascinated by America, she and her sister Mahtab read whatever they can find, listen to Western music and furtively watch TV shows about this strange land where freedom reigns, so different from the increasingly repressive and dangerous state in which they live. Then her mother and sister leave under frightening circumstances, leaving Saba alone with her saddened father in a village that offers love but also restricts what girls can do and think. She has been taught that twins lead parallel lives and convinces herself that her mother and sister are thriving in America. Saba tells herself stories that allowher  to experience, if only in imagination, the freedom she longs for. But forced to give up higher education for a wealthy but bad marriage, and caught up in a friend’s involvement in dangerous politics, Saba will need more than imagination to survive.

Here is what Nayeri says she wishes Americans knew about her home country:  “That Iran is a much richer and more glorious place than what they see in the news. Pre-revolutionary Iran was a magical place, a perfect mix of Eastern and Western culture…Unfortunately, the Western world sees only two versions of Iran—the dangerous oppressive regime now in power, and the hybrid culture that has sprung up in California (the materialistic lifestyle represented by Shahs of Sunset infuriates me). Americans don’t often get to see the thousands of years of creativity in Persian literature, visual art, architecture, food, music. Iranians have such an old and intoxicating culture. They suck the marrow, and carve joy out of even the most terrible times. Their attitude toward romance is exquisite. There is no way I can describe it in one paragraph, or in one novel. I don’t even have the tools to fully understand it for myself, since I’m an exile since childhood.”

Why you’ll like it:

Nayeri creates a quite believable girl, whose dreams and desires were not much different from those of American teens at the time, and through Sa ba she  makes clear how political oppression quickly becomes devastatingly personal. Saba loses her mother and twin sister, not to mention her sense of a normal life and a promising future, when the oppressive fundamentalist regime seizes power in Iran. But that does not mean she doesn’t experience teen angst or look askance at annoying elders or wish for romance. Although it is set in a faraway place, whose customs are unfamiliar, there is a strong universal quality to this story, to which it is pleasurable and rewarding for American readers to relate.

What others are saying:

Booklist says: “Saba Hafezi is certain that she remembers her beloved twin sister, Mahtab, and her mother fleeing Iran for America in 1981, leaving Saba, age 11, behind to live with her emotionally distant father. A determined Saba clings to this memory while growing up in her small rural village under the eyes of her surrogate family—three female neighbors who warily entertain Saba’s insistence that Mahtab is alive and well—and alongside her best friends Reza and Ponneh. Saba is fascinated with American pop culture and vividly imagines Mahtab’s much happier parallel life in America as her own often brutal life unfolds. Saba reluctantly chooses marriage over college, a decision that provides her with financial security at a horrific cost. Meanwhile, Ponneh’s activism plunges the lifelong friends into an increasingly complex relationship while inching Saba closer to the truth behind her mother and sister’s disappearance. In this substantial novel, Nayeri weaves a variety of narratives throughout Saba’s inner and outer journeys, creating a dense exploration of memory and hope within the harsh realities of postrevolutionary Iran. “

Says Library Journal: “Saba Hafezi, 11, who lives in postrevolution Iran, has long held onto the belief that her twin sister, Mahtab, and her mother have immigrated to the United States, even though everyone around her tells her that Mahtab is dead and her mother imprisoned or worse. Fueled by illegally obtained Western literature and tapes of American movies, television, and music, Saba weaves stories about Mahtab’s imagined life in America, which parallel Saba’s life events despite the radically different choices and freedoms available to each girl. As she matures with her two best friends, Reza and Ponneh, an uneasy triangle emerges. VERDICT Nayeri’s highly accomplished debut is a rich, multilayered reading experience. Structurally complex, the overriding theme is storytelling in all its forms, and the fine line between truth and lies. Each one of the large cast of characters is fully realized and sympathetic. Saba is a captivating heroine whose tragedies and triumphs will carry readers on a long but engrossing ride. Highly recommended.”

Publishers Weekly says: “This ambitious novel set in northern Iran in the decade after the 1979 revolution contains not a teaspoon but a ton of history, imagination, and longing. Beginning with the 1981 disappearance of 11-year-old Saba Hafezi’s twin sister, Mahtab, and their mother, Khanom, Nayeri interweaves Saba’s family trauma as seen through the eyes of the women of her seaside village, along with fantasies about Mahtab’s teenage fascination with everything American, shared by her friends Reza and Ponneh. Saba loves Reza, but allows herself to be married off to old Abbas Hossein Abbas, expecting to eventually gain freedom by becoming a rich widow. The characters’ dreams are shattered, however, amid rising violence, as beautiful Ponneh is beaten for wearing red high-heels, Saba is violently attacked by two chador-clad women working for her husband and the new regime, and another woman is hanged for defying the new Islamic norms. Saba’s first tentative protests give way to more drastic decisions as the realities of postrevolution Iran and the truth about her mother and sister sink in. …”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Elegant aspirational novel of life in post-revolutionary Iran. “The whole town knows the story–the real one–though no one talks about it, because that’s our way. We prefer pretty lies to ugly truths.” Twin sisters Saba and Mahtab Hafezi live at the end of the universe–or, more specifically, in a tiny rice-farming village deep in the Iranian interior, having moved from Tehran to escape the eyes and hands of the mullahs and revolutionary guards. …There’s precious little magic to it and a lot of dust and grime. Still, in Nayeri’s richly imaginative chronicle, everyone dreams there, not least Saba, whose expectations crumble in the face of a reality for which she’s not prepared, having instead devoted herself to moving to America and studying endless English word lists in anticipation (“What is abalone?” she wonders). Her mother, a small force of nature, is a fierce champion, though she’s not happy that Saba is out in the sticks: “I won’t have her raised in this place…wasting her days with village kids, stuck under a scarf memorizing Arabic and waiting to be arrested.” Alas, a mother’s protectiveness is not a big enough shield, and Saba finds herself caught up in events much larger than she can imagine. It takes a village full of sometimes odd, sometimes ordinary people to afford Saba the wherewithal to realize her dreams, which take her far, far from there. Lyrical, humane and hopeful; a welcome view of the complexities of small-town life, in this case in a place that inspires fear instead of sympathy.

When is it available?

This book can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard

By Stephen Jiminez

(Steerforth, $26, 368 pages)

Who is this author?

Stephen Jimenez, a journalist, writer and TV producer, has won many awards for his work.  He was a 2012 Norman Mailer Nonfiction Fellow and has written and produced programs for ABC News 20/20, Dan Rather Reports, Nova, Fox, Court TV and others. He has won a Writers Guild of America Award, the Mongerson Award for Investigative Reporting and an Emmy. Jimenez has taught screen­writing at New York University and other colleges. He lives in New York and Santa Fe.

What is this book about?

We’re all sadly familiar with the 1998 brutal murder of 21-year-old Wyoming college student, Matthew Shepard, which energized a nationwide revulsion against hate crimes that target gay people. That revulsion is righteous, and the details of Shepard’s gruesome death are appalling, but according to Stephen Jimenez’ book, the Shepard case is in reality very different from the commonly accepted version. Jimenez is himself a gay man and 13 years ago, he set out to write a screenplay about the killing. But after extensive research, including more than 100 interviews, he has come to believe that Shepard and his murderer had had sexual contact, that they were both involved in selling methamphetamine and that the killing was not about anti-gay hate but about the grim realities of the dangers of drug trafficking.

Why you’ll like it:

Whether you ultimately accept Jimenez’ conclusions or not, you should respect his solid experience as an investigative reporter and his courage in writing a book that upends a well-accepted version of a very disturbing story. He might well have titled his book, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Although he is gay, he is being attacked as a tool of anti-gay forces by some, but praised by others for following his research even while it led to shocking and unexpected revelations. Even if his revised version of the story is true, the Shepard case will remain a crucial turning point in America’s changing perceptions about anti-gay hate crimes and about gay men in general. Reading this provocative book may not be an enjoyable experience, but it will be enlightening.

What others are saying:

From an review: “Stephen Jimenez’s The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard”  is a compelling story of a journalist’s determination to ascertain why Matthew Shepard — a gay University of Wyoming student — was viciously killed in 1998. The story that had been told in the media, and to some extent in the courtroom, was that Shepard had made a pass at two strangers in a bar, who became outraged, took Shepard to a remote spot, bashed his head in, and left him affixed to a fence, to die. It was the anti-gay hate crime of the century, and while the rationale for including anti-gay attacks under hate crime law was clearly established long before the Shepard murder, his case became a symbol and rallying point for such legislation.

“Jimenez, however, uncovered another story, one that was to some extent unappreciated at the time of the crime, but was also intentionally hidden for a variety of motivations. Among those motivations were fear, courtroom strategy, and the desire of media, activists, and others to believe the powerful story of a gay man being brutally killed for no other reason than he made an unwelcome pass at a man he happened to meet in a bar.

“Shepard and his killer, Aaron McKinney, were not strangers after all. In fact Aaron McKinney was a bisexual, who had had sex with Shepard. And both were dealers of methamphetamine.

“Jimenez makes a strong case that the unappreciated lesson of the Shepard murder is one about the dangers of methamphetamine. This book is a well-constructed narrative of a 13-year investigative quest by a talented author whose passion for uncovering the true story rings clear. Highly recommended.”

Says The Daily Beast: “In the book, Jimenez upends our understanding of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard 15 years ago in Laramie, Wyoming, a crime that quickly came to be regarded as an open-and-shut case of anti-gay violence. Jimenez spent 13 years reporting the story and interviewed more than 100 sources, including convicted killers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, prosecutor Cal Rerucha, and friends and lovers of Shepard’s from whom the public has never before heard.”

“What if nearly everything you thought you knew about Matthew Shepard’s murder was wrong? What if our most fiercely held convictions about the circumstances of that fatal night of October 6, 1998, have obscured other, more critical, aspects of the case? . . . None of this is idle speculation; it’s the fruit of years of dogged investigation by journalist Stephen Jimenez, himself gay. In the course of his reporting, Jimenez interviewed over 100 subjects, including friends of Shepard and of his convicted killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, as well as the killers themselves. . . . In the process, he amassed enough anecdotal evidence to build a persuasive case that Shepard’s sexuality was, if not incidental, certainly less central than popular consensus has lead us to believe,” says Aaron Hicklin, Editor-in-Chief of Out magazine, in The Advocate.

“No doubt Jimenez will face criticism for his powerful book. Why did he have to dig around and stir things up? Won’t people who are opposed to equal rights for LGBT people use his exposé for their reactionary purposes? How do these revelations harm those who built programs teaching tolerance based on the Shepard murder? How will Shepard’s family feel? . . . The movement for equality for gay people is important, not because of what happened to Matthew Shepard on an October night 15 years ago, but because no one should be less valued as a human being because of who they are or who they love. . . . When combating hatred and bigotry, the truth is always important,” says The Jewish Daily Forward.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “An award-winning journalist uncovers the suppressed story behind the death of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student whose 1998 murder rocked the nation. …The tragedy was “enshrined…as passion play and folktale, but hardly ever for the truth of what it was”: the story of a troubled young man who had died because he had been involved with Laramie’s drug underworld rather than because he was gay. …Jimenez meticulously re-examines both old and new information about the murder and those involved with it. Everyone had something to hide. For Aaron McKinney, one of the two men convicted of Shepard’s murder, it was the fact that he was Shepard’s part-time bisexual lover and fellow drug dealer. For Shepard, it was that he was an HIV-positive substance abuser with a fondness for crystal meth and history of sexual trauma. Even the city of Laramie had its share of dark secrets that included murky entanglements involving law enforcement officials and the Laramie drug world. So when McKinney and his accomplices claimed that it had been unwanted sexual advances that had driven him to brutalize Shepard, investigators, journalists and even lawyers involved in the murder trial seized upon the story as an example of hate crime at its most heinous. As Jimenez deconstructs an event that has since passed into the realm of mythology, he humanizes it. The result is a book that is fearless, frank and compelling. Investigative journalism at its relentless and compassionate best.”

When is it available?

This book can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain Branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

The Signature Of  All Things

By Elizabeth Gilbert

(Viking Adult, $28.95, 518 pages)

Who is this author?

Elizabeth Gilbert, who began her writing career as a journalist, is rather a rarity as an author: equally at home writing fiction, nonfiction and memoir, she has been acclaimed for “Pilgrims,” a short story collection, her novel “Stern Men” and “The Last American Man,” which was a finalist in the nonfiction category for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her 2006 inspirational memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love,’ was a New York Times No. 1 best-seller and a huge international success, with more than 30 translations into other languages. Its 2010 film version starred Julia Roberts. Not enough praise? She was named one of the most influential people in the world in 2008 by Time magazine.

Gilbert will speak on Friday, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m. the Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts at Sacred Heart University, 5151 Park Ave., Fairfield. Tickets are $35 and include a copy of the book. Reservations: .


What is this book about?

This historical novel, set in the 18th and 19th centuries, is the story of a Philadelphia family whose fortune derives from the quinine trade in South America. Henry Whittaker’s daughter Alma, a brilliant young woman who becomes a botanist and a champion of  of evolutionary theory, has money and a deep respect for science. She falls hard for Ambrose, an artist who makes gorgeous paintings of orchids and opens a door for Alma into the world of the spiritual and magical. Both are seeking the meaning of life, through traveling across the world and moving from the Age of Enlightenment into the Industrial Revolution, and all the while challenging accepted scientific and spiritual ideas.

What does the book’s title mean? Here is what Gilbert told the Salon website:

“The title of the book is actually the title of a theory that was posited in the 16th century by a mad German mystic named Jakob Böhme who believed that God had hidden in the design of every plant on earth the secrets as to that plant’s usage. And I loved the weird magical thinking of that theory. It’s sort of on the border between mysticism and the beginnings of taxonomy and science, and I have a character in the book who still upholds that idea, which is a sign that he’s a romantic and maybe a fool?

Why you’ll like it:

I’ve never been a fan of books about searching for spirituality, so I never read “Eat, Pray, Love.” But I find well-written books about history told through the experiences of compelling characters to be well worth my time, and I expect you will find that to be the case with this book. Reviewers are almost unanimously praising Gilbert’s deep research and the knowledge she brings to light, as well as a vivid and emotionally satisfying writing style.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “After 13 years as a memoirist, Elizabeth Gilbert ….has returned to fiction, and clearly she’s reveling in all its pleasures and possibilities. “The Signature of All Things” is a big, old-fashioned story that spans continents and a century. It has an omniscient narrator who can deploy (never heavy-handedly) a significant amount of research into the interconnected fields of late 18th- and early 19th-century botany, botanical drawing, spiritual inquiry, exploration, and, eventually, the development of the theory of evolution….Born in 1800, Alma learns Latin and Greek, understands the natural world, and reads everything in sight. Despite her wealth and education, Alma is a woman, and a plain one at that, two facts that circumscribe her opportunities. Resigned to spinsterhood, ashamed and tormented by her erotic desires, Alma finds a late-in-life soul mate in Ambrose Pike, a talented botanical illustrator and spiritualist. Characters crisscross the world to make money, to learn, and, in Alma’s case, to understand not just science but herself and her complicated relationship with Ambrose. Eventually Alma, who studies moss, enters into the most important scientific discussions of the time. Alma is a prodigy, but Gilbert doesn’t cheat: her life is unlikely but not impossible, and for readers traveling with Henry from England to the Andes to Philadelphia, and then with Alma from Philadelphia to Tahiti to Holland, there is much pleasure in this unhurried, sympathetic, intelligent novel by an author confident in her material and her form.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Gilbert’s sweeping saga of Henry Whittaker and his daughter Alma offers an allegory for the great, rampant heart of the 19th century. ….Gilbert’s descriptions of Henry’s childhood, expeditions and life at the luxurious White Acre estate are superb. The dense, descriptive writing seems lifted from pages written two centuries past, yet it’s laced with spare ironical touches and elegant phrasing–a hummingbird, “a jeweled missile, it seemed, fired from a tiny cannon.” Characters leap into life, visible and vibrant: Henry–”unrivaled arborist, a ruthless merchant, and a brilliant innovator”–a metaphor for the Industrial Revolution. Raised with Dutch discipline and immersed in intellectual salons, Alma–botany explorations paralleling 19th-century natural philosophers becoming true scientists–develops a “Theory of Competitive Alteration” in near concurrence with Darwin and Wallace. There’s stoic Beatrix, wife and mother; saintly Prudence, Alma’s adopted sister; devoted Hanneke de Groot, housekeeper and confidante; silent, forbidding Dick Yancey, Henry’s ruthless factotum; and Ambrose Pike, mystical, half-crazed artist. Alma, tall, ungainly, “ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose,” and yet thoroughly sensual, marries Ambrose, learning too late he intends marriage blanc, an unconsummated union. Multiple narrative threads weave seamlessly into a saga ….A brilliant exercise of intellect and imagination.”

From Booklist’s starred review: “Gilbert, the author of the phenomenally successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love (2006), returns to fiction with her first novel in 13 years, and what a novel it is! Taking her sweet time and digressing at will into areas ranging from botany to spiritualism to illustration, she tells the rich, highly satisfying story of scholar Alma Whittaker. ….But her plain appearance and erudition seem to foretell a lonely life until she meets gifted artist Ambrose Pike. Their intense intellectual connection results in marriage, but Ambrose’s deep but unorthodox spiritual beliefs prevent them from truly connecting. Alma, who has never traveled out of Philadelphia, embarks on an odyssey that takes her from Tahiti to Holland, during which she learns much about the ways of the world and her own complicated nature. Gilbert, in supreme command of her material, effortlessly invokes the questing spirit of the nineteenth century, when amateur explorers, naturalists, and enthusiasts were making major contributions to progress. Beautifully written and imbued with a reverence for science and for learning, this is a must-read.

When is it available?

If you want to explore this book, travel to the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Dwight, Goodwin, Mark Twain and Park branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Dissident Gardens

By Jonathan Lethem

(Doubleday, $27.95, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

Jonathan Lethem, New York-born and Bennington College-educated, is one of the highly talented trio of authors I think of as The Three Jonathans: Franzen, Safran Foer and Lethem, whose incisive and insightful fiction is at the apex of contemporary American literature.

Lethem’s novels include “Fortress of Solitude” and “Motherless Brooklyn,” a literary blockbuster that won the designation Novel of the Year from Esquire as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award and Salon Book Award, and also the Macallan Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger. His work also includes two story collections, a novella and an essay collection, and you may have read his contributions to The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney’s and more. He lives in Brooklyn….where else?

What is this book about?

Communists.  But not the scary spies of innumerable espionage thrillers or the sad, wan, material-goods-deprived Russkies or the evil minions of Stalin. No, these are the robust, home-grown, outspoken, opinionated, often Jewish but not exclusively so, passionate, in-your-face radicals that have been part of the American fabric from the intellectual brio of the 1930s to the Civil Rights Movement to just-yesterday’s Occupy Wall Street protestors.

Lethem gives us this valuable lesson in American political history in a saga of one family, chiefly through two indomitable women: Rose Zimmer, known as the “Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens,” and her equally tough-minded daughter, Miriam, and through  the generation that follows. They’ve got far more, shall we say, fierce testicular fortitude than the men in their lives, who include an uppity German Jew, a chess hustler, a black cop and his brilliant son and an Irish folksinger and his son he has with Miriam. Full of vivid, often annoying, yet compelling people, this may be Lethem’s best yet.

Why you’ll like it:

Lethem’s not just telling a story: he’s giving us a valuable perspective on American history, a way to understand a period that’s still a little too close for many to have fully understood it. And he does it by creating characters that go beyond memorable to leaping-off-the-page powerful. He accomplishes this with deep research. mordant humor and breathlessly evocative writing: comparisons to Philip Roth are already mounting.  This is an exhaustive (and perhaps for some, exhausting) journey to the recent past. Hold on to your hats and dive in.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: While collective memory might offer some hazy grasp of McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklists, all but forgotten is the real American Communist Party and its Depression-era heyday. In this epic and complex new novel, Lethem considers what happened to the ACP, as well as some other questions, about maternal isolation and filial resentment. The book begins with the case of Rose Zimmer, in Queens, New York, who was officially ousted from the party in 1955 for sleeping with a black cop. Rose’s daughter, Miriam, is a teenager at the time, and she soon discovers the pull of Greenwich Village bohemians. Rose’s and Miriam’s stories are interwoven, as the narrative moves back and forth in time, uncovering Rose’s doomed relationships, as well as Miriam’s fiery determination to escape her mother’s rage. Miriam’s son, Sergius, also comes into the story—as a child and an adult, juxtaposing three generations—along with Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose’s black cop boyfriend, an unexpected member of the family by proxy and the most interesting character of the book by far. Cicero formed an unexpected relationship with the bitter, Jewish woman as a kid, and, in turn, became a beneficiary of her intellect. All together, the cast makes for a heady, swirly mix of fascinating, lonely people. Lethem’s writing, as always, packs a witty punch. The epoch each character inhabits is artfully etched and the book is as illuminating of 20th-century American history as it is of the human burden of overcoming alienation.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A dysfunctional family embodies a dysfunctional epoch, as the novelist continues his ambitious journey through decades, generations and the boroughs of New York. Having scaled the literary peaks of Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and the Chronic City (2009) of Manhattan, one of America’s premier novelists sets his sights on Queens, though the title of the opening section, “Boroughphobia,” suggests that this is a place to escape–or at least for a daughter to escape from her mother. The mother is Jewish, strong-willed, contrarian Rose Zimmer, a Communist booted from the cell because of her relationship with a black policeman. (“Everyone thought it was an affair between Jew and black but it wasn’t. It was between cop and Commie.”) Her husband had returned to Germany as a suspected spy, leaving Rose to raise Miriam, a red-diaper baby transformed by the ’60s, a “Bolshevik of the five senses” who became irresistibly sexy, “not for her bodily self but for her appetite: she devoured the ripe fruit of the world.” The setup of this novel is so frequently funny that it reads like homage to classic Philip Roth, yet the book, like the end of the 20th century, takes a darker turn, as hippie naïveté leads to more dangerous activism, illusions shatter, and old age takes its toll. … The novel’s social realism finds ’60s folk fixtures such as Dave Van Ronk and the Rev. Gary Davis mixing with Miriam and her eventual husband, Tommy Grogan, a musician who moves from a traditional Irish family trio to protest songs, a career eclipsed (like so many others) by the rise of Bob Dylan. But it also features Archie Bunker (if only in Rose’s mind) … In “a city gone berserk,” pretty much every character struggles with identity, destiny and family. …”

Booklist’s starred review says:  “Lethem extends his stylistically diverse, loosely aligned, deeply inquiring saga of New York City (Motherless Brooklyn, 1999; The Fortress of Solitude, 2003; Chronic City, 2009) with a richly saturated, multigenerational novel about a fractured family of dissidents headquartered in Queens. It’s 1955, and witty, voluble, passionate Rose Zimmer—an Eastern European Jew, worshipper of Abraham Lincoln, and street-patrolling leftist—has outraged her communist comrades by having an affair with Douglas Lookins, an African American policeman. She, in turn, is wrathful when she catches Miriam, her smart and gutsy15-year-old daughter, in bed with a college student. Lethem circles among his tempestuous narrators and darts back and forth in time, landing on historical hot spots as he traces the paths of radical Rose; Douglas’ brainy, skeptical son, Cicero, who becomes an audacious college professor; intrepid Miriam, who marries a folksinger desperately searching for authenticity, and their woebegone son, Sergius, who is led astray by a sexy Occupier. Lethem is breathtaking in this torrent of potent voices, searing ironies, pop-culture allusions, and tragicomic complexities. He shreds the folk scene, eviscerates quiz shows, pays bizarre tribute to Archie Bunker, and offers unusual perspectives on societal debacles and tragic injustices. A righteous, stupendously involving novel about the personal toll of failed political movements and the perplexing obstacles to doing good.”

“Lethem is as ambitious as Mailer, as funny as Philip Roth and as stinging as Bob Dylan…”Dissident Gardens” shows Lethem in full possession of his powers as a novelist, as he smoothly segues between historical periods and internal worlds…Erudite, beautifully written, wise, compassionate, heartbreaking and pretty much devoid of nostalgia,” says the Los Angeles Times.

Says Janet Maslin in The New York Times, “… In “Dissident Gardens,” a novel jampacked with the human energy of a crowded subway car, Jonathan Lethem attempts a daunting feat: turning three generations’ worth of American leftists into a tragicomic tale of devolution. He has couched this as a family story and written it so that someone’s hot breath is always in the reader’s face…It’s a big book set in small spaces—kitchen, classroom, folky nightclub—that keep its battles personal at all times…[a] wild, logorrheic, hilarious and diabolical novel. …”

“In the past two decades, Jonathan Lethem has written, co-authored or edited 23 books, picking up a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant along the way. He shows no signs of flagging in his rich ninth novel, “Dissident Gardens,” an evocative, deeply sympathetic work about three generations of New Yorkers caught up in personal and global politics…It’s also no small thing that this famously Brooklynite author has brought to life some of the neglected borough of Queens — and so much life, so artfully, persuasively created. ,,,” says

When is it available?

You can borrow this book now from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!


By Monique Coffey

(Viking, $16, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

Trinidad is where Monique Roffey was born and it’s where the story she tells in “Archipelago” begins. After receiving her education in the United Kingdom, Roffey became Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Sussex, Chichester, and Greenwich universities and has written several novels, among them “sun dog” and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle,” which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2010 and the Encore Award 2011. She has also written a memoir, “With the Kisses of His Mouth.” “Archipelago” won this year’s OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, and Roffey is being hailed as a new and powerful voice in Caribbean fiction.

What is this book about?

Water destroys; water heals. It is a devastating flood that ruins Gavin Weald’s home – and life – in Trinidad, killing his infant son, a tragedy that in turn inundates his wife with a severe depression that incapacitates her. Gavin himself is nearly drowning in sorrow. – he can’t concentrate on work and can barely care for his six-year-old daughter, who suffers nightmares when the next rainy season comes to the island. What to do? His solution is brave, if alarming: he takes his little girl, aptly named Ocean, and their dog Suzy and sets out on his boat to experience – appease? conquer? – the sea. As they sail through archipelagos on their way to the Galapagos Islands, father, daughter and beloved dog find challenges, courage and, at last, a way to cope.

Why you’ll like it:

Add this to your shelf of books about the power and glory of the wild ocean, along with “Moby Dick” and “Kon-tiki” and “The Life of Pi.” Roffey tells her dramatic tale with a calm and precise voice that contrasts beautifully with the untamable, unpredictable nature of Nature. The story is inspirational without becoming treacle-y and Roffey’s powers of description add immeasurably to this moving tale of love and redemption.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “…. A flood in Trinidad destroys Gavin Weald’s house and drowns his baby boy. Desperate to shed his grief, he sails with his six-year-old daughter Ocean and their dog Suzy to the Galapagos, heedless of the danger. Roffey wastes no opportunity to infuse her story with metaphors and lessons that point Gavin toward redemption. He has owned the sturdy Romany for years, since finding it afloat without its skipper, who may or may not haunt her decks. Ocean is a deep old soul, whose posttraumatic-stress tantrums help her discover a philosophy that she can use to guide her dad to a kind of salvation from sadness. There is many a reference to Ahab and Starbuck, and events and encounters, from an albino whale to a woman’s tattoo (“further” it reads), are fraught with meaning. That this story has been told many times only speaks to its enduring resonance. Roffey … is a masterful writer whose words are subsumed in the pictures they paint and the tales they spin.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Unmoored by catastrophe, a father takes his daughter and dog to sea in this gentle novel from Orange Prize finalist Roffey … It’s been almost a year since a disastrous flood in Port of Spain, Trinidad, drowned Gavin’s infant son. …. They can’t get over their losses in a house filled with memories, Gavin decides; he boards his boat Romany with Océan and their dog Suzy, determined to fulfill his youthful dream of visiting the Galapagos Islands. As they sail west toward the Panama Canal, stops along the way at various islands give Roffey the opportunity to make some pointed observations about wealthy tourists, and she draws a quiet parallel between the legacy of colonialism and her characters’ emotional state…: Gavin worries at first, as both Océan and Suzy retch with seasickness while he struggles to guide Romany through a squall, that he’s made a terrible mistake; ongoing references to “Moby-Dick” underscore the sea’s capacity to inflict harm, as does a shipboard fall that leaves Océan with a nasty wound. Island doctors stitch up her leg, and we see father and daughter slowly reawakening to happiness as they experience tranquil days amid the natural beauty of the Caribbean….. A bit short on narrative energy, but appealingly warmhearted; readers will empathize with the endearing characters and want them to have a happy ending. “

Library Journal says: “…. As in other novels, particularly “Moby-Dick,” the sea becomes a life source that forces Gavin and Ocean to come to terms with heartbreak and accept the profound changes in their lives. Written in a style as fluid as water, Roffey’s narrative weaves a perfect description of land and seascapes and explores the value of friendship and various types of love. VERDICT As heart-grabbing and memorable as her other books… this new work will have readers cheering for Gavin, Ocean, and Claire. An excellent choice for book groups.”

“Engrossing. . . . Roffey here creates an incrementally powerful reflection on grief, an acute study of a father-daughter relationship, with a compelling account of climate change and a transformative journey. . . . The novel shows what remains in the heart when we have lost what we love, and the inner resources needed to rebuild a life from its ruins,” says The Independent.

When is it available?

Sail over to the Barbour, Blue Hills or Mark Twain branch of the Hartford Public Library to borrow this book.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!



After Her

By Joyce Maynard

(HarperCollins, $25.99, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Joyce Maynard first gained fame as a very young writer in 1972, when The New York Times published her essay “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life.” It struck many readers as presumptuous, but attracted the attention of reclusive author J.D. Salinger (you may have heard of him) and, after she dropped out of Yale,  led to a 10-month affair between the 18-year-old woman and the 53-year-old man – which struck many as even more presumptuous.

But Maynard was more than just Salinger’s brief paramour. She went on to become a New York Times reporter, magazine writer, radio commentator, syndicated columnist and author of eight novels, including “To Die For” and “The Good Daughters, four books of nonfiction and the  bestselling memoir, “At Home in the World,” which detailed her relationship with Salinger. . Her bestselling novel,. “Labor Day,” is being adapted by director Jason Reitman for a film starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. Maynard lived in New Hampshire for many years and now lives in California.

What is this book about?

Inspired by true crimes — the Trailside Killer case in Marin County, California, in the late 1970s – this is a coming of age novel blended with a murder mystery. Sisters Rachel and Patty, daughters of a charismatic, handsome detective and his sadly cheated-upon wife, are growing up bored in Northern California and watching with  alarm as their father fails to solve the growing number of  “Sunset Strangler” murders of young women that happened on a nearby mountain where the sisters often play. Patty reveres her big sister, who fancies that she can read minds and has visions, and the two devise dangerous games to entertain themselves. Then Rachel tries to help her father by risking her own life to expose the killer, a ploy that backfires, ruining his career and changing all their lives. Many years later, Rachel tries again to discover the killer and in so doing, digs up a family secret.

Why you’ll like it:

Maynard gets the way young girls think and is a born storyteller. Besides the compelling murder mystery, she spins a tale of a family damaged by divorce and the complicated ways girls seek to find themselves and enter womanhood. Maynard is particularly good on the intricacies of sisterhood, and she deftly combines the thriller aspects of the unresolved murders with the more mundane yet still moving details of a broken family and bonds that are bent but not broken.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Bestselling author Maynard (The Good Daughters) returns with the story of a broken family rocked by a real-life Bay Area serial killer. Rachel Torricelli and her younger sister, Patty, idolized their father, a homicide detective with a voice like Dino and an insatiable love for women—especially his daughters. After divorce split up their home, he mostly disappeared, and Rachel, who recounts the story as an adult (and a mystery writer), was content playing backyard games and bossing Patty around. But their play is tinged with darkness in the summer of 1979, when murders begin occurring along Marin County’s hiking trails. The girls’ father is on the case and his sudden star power makes Rachel popular, but she can’t resist chasing clues (some courtesy of “visions”), putting her and her sister in harm’s way. Maynard captures the way that memory works in fragments: Rachel recalls “My Sharona” as the soundtrack of the summer, fusing her perspective with that of the killer, who sings it to his victims. Her retelling also flip-flops seamlessly from her teenage anxieties to the front-page news—a testament to Maynard’s narrative dexterity. This cinematic coming-of-age murder mystery satisfyingly blends suspense with nostalgia.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Cycling through big themes–love for a flawed father and a loyal sister; the pursuit of a serial killer; coming-of-age/receiving of family wisdom–Maynard’s latest starts strong but fades. Thirteen-year-old Rachel Torricelli, inseparable big sister of Patty, narrates the story, set in the San Francisco suburbs of the late 1970s. Both girls adore their father, Anthony, a charismatic but inconstant police detective who quits the family home when Rachel is 8, leaving their fragile mother depressed and short of cash. The girls’ playground, right behind their house, is Mount Tamalpais, a place full of possibilities, until the Sunset Strangler begins raping and murdering women there. With her handsome father on television leading the murder investigation, Rachel suddenly finds herself popular and attractive to boys. Her busy imagination–she aspires to be a writer–leads to speculation on sex and death and “visions” of the killings. But, despite authorial teasers, the story loses momentum as the sequence of murders grows and Detective Torricelli fails to solve them, diminishing him in the eyes of everyone. With the time frame speeding up, the novel thins out, ending in a speedy, decades-later wrap-up that offers more tidiness than conviction. There’s fluency and insight here but also a shortage of subtlety, with the book’s underpinnings too visible through its skin.”

Library Journal says:  “….This title is loosely based on the Trailside Killer case that terrified Marin in the 1970s. Here the case is seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old, giving Maynard’s … thriller an interesting twist on what would otherwise be a simple reworking of a cold case of serial murder. Rachel is so focused on saving her father and her parents’ failed marriage that everything else in the world around her is merely a blur.”

“Part family reminiscence, part girl detective story, “After Her” combines the intimacy of one teen’s coming-of-age with the suspense of a serial killer mystery. With warmth and redeeming humor, Joyce Maynard delivers the terror and confusion of adolescence,” says author Stewart O’Nan.

When is it available?

You can find this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Dwight and Goodwin branches.

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Vanished Downtown Hartford

By Daniel Sterner

(The History Press, $19.99, 176 pages, Including a 16 page color-photo insert)

Who is this author?

Daniel Sterner is a lifelong resident of Connecticut. He majored in history at Wesleyan University and earned a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Chicago, and he has an undying love for historic buildings. Sterner has served as a historic interpreter at the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe Houses in Hartford and the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield. He runs the website, Historic Buildings of Connecticut, and also is the author of “A Guide to Historic Hartford, Connecticut,” both of which have won awards from the Hartford Preservation Alliance.

Sterner will give a free talk about “Vanished Downtown Hartford” on Thursday Oct. 3, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the West Hartford Public Library, 20 S. Main St., West Hartford and another on Nov. 4 at 2 p.m. at the Mandell Jewish Community Center, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford.

What is this book about?

Where has historic Hartford gone? Some of it, dating back to the 18th century, remains, but much has been lost to misguided urban renewal schemes, contemporary replacementss (some beautiful, some not so much) and most shamefully, to make way for parking lots. This book reproduces 19th-century illustrations of bygone buildings. The city has evolved….some would say devolved…architecturally and culturally, and while some historic buildings have found new life (the Old State House became a museum, some old banks became new ones), but much of the face of historic Hartford has been lost. Sterner’s book brings it back and documents how and why things changed.

Why you’ll like it:

Sterner’s amply illustrated book will rekindle memories for many who grew up in the Insurance City and  stayed  or left for the suburbs or other cities or states, and it will stir up a wave of nostalgia for those who fondly remember and still miss G. Fox & Co. and the other downtown department stores, the elegant movie theaters, hotels and ornate banks that graced the city back in the day. If you lived here then, you will be flooded with memories. If you are a newcomer to the area, you will be amazed by what the city used to be.

What others are saying:

Says Ken Gosselin in The Courant: “In 1990, a local Hartford bank reassured city leaders that plans for an office tower at the corner of Main and Asylum streets were real and the 45-story edifice would be built.

Just one thing stood in the way: the 78-year-old Hartford-Aetna Building, the city’s first skyscraper. Over the protests of preservationists, the 11-story building came tumbling down.

Today, nearly 25 years later, there is no tower, only a parking lot.

Hartford’s first skyscraper isn’t alone in its departure from the downtown skyline. Architectural gems like the New Palace Theater, the original YMCA building, the hotels Heublein and Garde, are all no more.

“Hartford is famous for having so much torn down,” Daniel Sterner, the author of a just-published book about lost buildings in downtown Hartford, said. “It’s one thing if you replace one building with another, but when it becomes a parking lot, that’s another thing.”

Sterner’s book, “Vanished Downtown Hartford,” provides a tour through the downtown area, chock full of engravings and photos tracing the city’s development — and redevelopment — beginning in the early 1800s. He paints a history of a living, breathing downtown area with old buildings being torn down and new ones going up.

But the book quickly raises the thorny issue — and not just for Hartford — facing cities in the 21st century: what should be demolished and what should be saved.

“Not every vanished building from the past could have been saved or even necessarily should have been saved, but by thinking about the great landmarks of Hartford’s past, we can better reflect on what should be built in the future and which of today’s historic treasures should not be lost,” Sterner writes.”

Says Elaine Grant, writing in Hartford Magazine: “So, which of today’s historic treasures should be preserved? In addition to the obvious landmarks and monuments, Sterner says he hopes some of the lesser-known historic buildings are spared the wrecking ball. “Maybe even some of the buildings that people might consider to be nondescript,” Sterner says. “I hope that those would be preserved. They may not stand out as masterpieces, but they give a sense of the city in an earlier time.”

When is it available?

“Vanished Downtown Hartford” has reappeared on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills, Goodwin, Mark Twain and Ropkins branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!