Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Staff Review: The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

https://catalog.dubuque.lib.ia.us/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?biblionumber=116883&query_desc=kw%2Cwrdl%3A%20the%20girl%20next%20doorThe Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum, is not a read for the faint of heart.  If, dear reader, you are disturbed by graphic depictions of torture, mutilation, violence, or psychological trauma you might want to opt for some feel-good pulp novel from Nicholas Sparks or his ilk.  If, however, you'd like to delve into the darkness that dwells within us all, check out this tale.

This masterpiece of the macabre is the literary equivalent of a snuff film with a 1950s suburbia backdrop.  Young David becomes infatuated with the titular girl next door, Meg, who has come to live with her aunt and cousins.  Her Aunt Ruth, a latent psychopath and mother of three, takes an instant dislike to the youthful, exuberant Meg.  This dislike quickly blossoms into hate and results in Aunt Ruth ordering her sons to tie Meg up in the basement.  Not content with simple mental abuse, Aunt Ruth turns to the physical and shanghais her sons and their friend David into helping.  David refuses to actually lay hands upon Meg, but he still finds himself fascinated by the brutality he watches her endure.  David wants to help Meg somehow, but he's afraid to take a stand against Ruth and her sons.  If they would inflict such pain on an innocent girl, what horrors might they have in store for David?

Did I mention this book was based on a true story?  Keep that in mind, buckle up, and dive into this torrid tale.

 ~Ryan, Circulation Department

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Staff Picks: Best of 2016

2016 has certainly been an interesting year. For now let's forget politics, economics, and world events, and instead, let's focus on books! This month we asked staff across all library departments to share their favorite reads of 2016. Their selections didn’t have to be new books (although some are); each just had to be “the" book.

As with any group, our tastes are diverse, but each featured book made a strong impact on its reviewer. Some of the year’s best are fiction, some nonfiction, some are children’s books or graphic novels. A few of us absorbed our stories via audio. Altogether we read a whole lot of books and here are our best of the year!

Mike May, Adult Services

Dispatches by Michael Herr

The best book I “read” in 2016 was the digital audiobook version of Dispatches by Michael Herr, which vividly describes the author's experiences as a war correspondent in Vietnam. The print edition was originally published in 1977, but I hadn’t heard about it until the author died this year. Herr’s depictions of combat are as surreal and disturbing as they must have been 40 years ago, especially when told in narrator Ray Porter’s compelling voice. 

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I also really enjoyed His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, a new historical thriller set in 1869 about a 17-year-old Scottish crofter who commits a brutal triple murder in a remote Highland village. Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, this fictional crime story is revealed through police statements, medical reports, newspaper articles, court transcripts, and the killer’s own confession. 

Rachel Boeke, Technical Services

Braiding Sweetgrass: The Wisdom of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This collection of essays contains the author's observations about the natural world and humanity, informed by her identity as a biology professor, a member of the Potawatomi tribe, and a mother. Stories such as the impoverished childhood of Kimmerer's grandfather, the sex lives of mushrooms, and an abandoned Christmas dinner are at once educational, humorous, and heartbreaking. Each essay stands alone, but the book as a whole is wonderfully engaging and leaves readers curious, grateful, and inspired to find connection with the earth - and with each other - at any time of year.

Laura Feyen, Technical Services

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I enjoyed The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It is about an orphaned girl in WWII Germany and her adoptive family, who hide a Jew in their basement. It is an interesting slice of life of civilian Germans in this time period.

Ryan Bankson, Circulation Services

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Would you sell your soul for eternal youth? Mr. Dorian Gray makes just such an arrangement, but the consequences end up being more than he bargained for.

 Danielle Day, Youth Services

Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems

Funny account of Nanette’s first big solo adventure to buy a baguette at the bakery. She travels alone and faces many distractions along the way as she meets and greets Georgette, Suzette, Bret with his clarinet, Mr. Barnett and his pet, Antoinette. But she remembers her mission and buys the baguette from Juliette the baker. The baguette is a wonderful large, warm, aromatic hunk of bread, so Nanette takes a taste and another and more--until there is nothing left. In rhyming pose her mother, whose hug is as warm and wonderful as a million baguettes, understands her and says, “The day's not over yet, Nanette. Let's reset.”

This Book is Not About Dragons by Shelley Moore Thomas

Nope! Absolutely not! No Dragons here! Told by a mouse who insists that this book contains absolutely no dragons, not even a claw nor a flame nor any large, pointy scales. The pictures tell a different story. Readers will know better and enjoy being in on the jokes as flock of dragons chase the mouse to the very end of the book within the book. Suspense builds humorously as the energetic text insists there are no dragons in this book, leading to a clever, unexpected ending. Clever artwork by Fred Koehler provides fun scenes to linger on and details to discover over multiple readings. If you like the Monster at the End of This Book – you will read this book over and over again.

Sharon Daly, Youth Services

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Historical fiction that takes place in 1939 France. Vianne and Isabelle are sisters separated by age and experience, both trying to cope with the occupation of France by the Germans.

Vianne must say goodbye to her husband who is heading to the front lines. Isabelle, eighteen years younger, is headstrong and rebellious and joins the Resistance after being betrayed by her French boyfriend. Both sisters are trying to survive and fight the war in their own ways, all the while attesting to the resiliency and strength of women. As a person who enjoys historical fiction, I was not disappointed by this book, which proves how strong the human spirit can be in the most adverse situations.

Abbey Holt, Technical Services

Bottomland by Michelle Hoover

When two girls disappear from their home in rural Iowa shortly after World War I, their German-American family struggles to solve the mystery while also facing hostility from neighbors due to their heritage. The characters’ German background drew me to the story because it mirrors that of my own great-grandparents, and the mystery woven through the novel kept me intrigued until the end.

Thea Dement, Circulation Services

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

My favorite book of 2016 was The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman. This book is a mixture of fantasy, science-fiction, steampunk, and adventure. Irene is a librarian for The Library, an organization that gathers unique books from different worlds in order to maintain the balance between good and chaos. Irene gets sent to an alternate-reality London with her new assistant Kai to retrieve a dangerous book but gets dragged into a plot far more complicated than it first appears. They discover many other evil forces are looking to nab the book for themselves. To make matters worse, the world they are in is aligned with chaos, making magic and dangerous creatures like werewolves, vampires, and fae commonplace. Sound interesting? This is only the first book in the series - the second is just as fantastic and the third is coming out in January.

Rebecca Leifker, Technical Services

The Art of Holding On and Letting Go by Kristin Bartley Lenz

A coming-of-age story about a young woman who has spent her whole life traveling the world mountaineering with her parents and uncle. While competing in a rock-climbing event in Ecuador tragedy strikes, sending her whole life off course and her packing off to the mountainless landscape of Detroit. Cara must now find out who she is without the mountains and nature to guide her.

Ben Eagle, Adult Services

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

This unconventional, literary suspense novel is set in the Midwest in the early 1900s. The descriptions of the cold Wisconsin winter were both lyrical and bleak. The story moves from a desolate small town in the winter to the livelier and more seductive St. Louis. Psychological games between a wealthy male widower and his mail-order bride make up the meat of this book. Both characters have been severely damaged in the past and are secretly using each other for their own purposes. This dark tale shows the madness that can brew up in long winters and isolation.

At the Existentialist CafĂ© by Sarah Bakewell

Bakewell traces the lives of the early 20th century philosophers most associated with the movement of existentialism. She gives mostly a historical account, but describes each person’s philosophy enough to show the importance they had on our conception of the world. Her writing style and tendency to tie in the influence these people personally had on her make this anything but a dry treatise. I often gravitate toward books about the early 20th century; this book takes the reader through the years leading up to WWII and the aftermath of the war. She talks about the effects the war had on these individuals, how it affected their mindset, and how they lived-out their philosophy (or failed to in some cases). In a time of hard determinism taking root in the scientific and philosophical community, her argument that as a culture we need to reexamine these titans’ work on personal freedom and authenticity is especially persuasive.

Angie Johnson, Adult Services

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Set in a lush, desert world reminiscent of ancient Rome with rich flavors of the Middle East, our two main characters Laia and Elias lead very different lives. Laia is an orphaned girl helping her grandparents sell goods at market. Her life is overturned when militants invade her home and destroy the only life she has known. Elias is a military trainee, days away from graduating and becoming a "Mask." Masks are enforcers who engage in violence and destruction, though Elias feels he doesn't fit in. Just when he is deciding that he might take his future into his own hands, a mysterious and powerful force requires Elias to engage in the battle of his life. Is he warring for honor, for some nefarious purpose, or his very survival? Meanwhile, Laia finds herself embroiled in dark secrets of the empire and those who might rebel against them. She soon realizes she holds more strength (and power) within herself than she ever knew. When these secrets and powers collide, will she end up standing up against or with Elias in the end?

A sequel called A Torch Against the Night was just released this fall. Spectacular and just as good as the first book. I believe it is going to be a series.

Michelle Oberhoffer, Circulation Services

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

News Of The World by Paulette Jiles is a sweet and salty book that I really enjoyed. The setting is the Western United States, post Civil War. A ten-year-old girl who had been kidnapped by Indians and who no longer even remembers how to speak English is rescued and placed in the care of an elderly gentleman who is to deliver her to her remaining family. As they journey through Kansas to Texas, they are confronted with several harrowing experiences, but learn to trust and eventually love each other. Watching the main characters grow and develop a relationship neither of them expected made for a very satisfying read.

Alanda Gregory, Circulation Services

People of The Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil by M. Scott Peck, M.D.

I first read this book over 10 years ago. I've read it again this year because self-improvement is always necessary. This book has allowed me to learn and grow in a way that has helped heal many areas of my life.

This book takes an in-depth look at how our negativity and self-pain can affect our children and loved ones without our even realizing it. Dr. Peck gives examples of cases that he's encountered over years in his practice and how families were affected by very subtle hints of abusive behavior. What one may consider normal, others may look at as unacceptable and downright malicious in nature. However, the many parents, spouses and friends in these cases were oblivious to the "evil" that impacted the individuals they were related to or in relationships with.

I recommend this book to coaches, psychologists, or anyone looking for insight on how to help heal broken communications, broken hearts, and broken relationships. In order to even begin down that path, the reader must acknowledge that healing is welcomed. Dr. M. Scott Peck is a great writer and gives amazing perspectives that aren't just clinical answers to psychological problems.

If you like this book, may I recommend these other books by Dr. Peck:

A Road Less Traveled
In Heaven As on Earth
The Different Drum

Mark Bowers, Circulation Services

Geography is a force to be reckoned with and cannot be ignored when analyzing present conflicts and historical events. The geographic layout of the land has and will continue to directly affect the outcome of wars, the accumulation of wealth, and the general success of a country. Robert Kaplan uses geographic detail to explain why Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, why the Syrian conflict is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and why Russia is always meddling in Eastern Europe. The book also utilizes geography to explain the historical power of the British Empire, the rise of China, and the geopolitical dominance of the United States. Kaplan’s book encourages the reader to look at the world map with a new perspective and the book gives a greater insight into why countries have succeeded and failed on the world stage.

Sarah Smith, Adult Services

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I spent a very satisfying afternoon with this novella, which won both the Nebula and Hugo this year. Okorafor packs an impressive amount of character development and world-building into 96 pages. I'm absolutely looking forward to reading the next title in the series!


The Last One by Alexandra Oliva 

The Last One will be near the top of my Best of list for 2016 for the way that Oliva mixes literary introspection, sharp human observation, and a suspenseful action plot. This is a fully absorbing weekend read that stuck with me even after I finished the last page, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a gripping tale of survival.

For more detail, here's my full review from earlier this year.

Ann Harris, Adult Services  

https://catalog.dubuque.lib.ia.us/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?biblionumber=138032&query_desc=kw%2Cwrdl%3A%20my%20life%20in%20middlemarchMy Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

My Life in Middlemarch is a nonfiction hybrid: one part memoir and four parts literary biography, it tells the evolving story of author Rebecca Mead’s lifelong relationship with the Victorian novel Middlemarch, George Eliot’s masterpiece. Mead first encountered (and fell in love with) Middlemarch as a teen. She re-reads the hefty novel several times over the years, finding that different characters and plot elements resonate as she launches a career, marries, and raises step-children. The novel grows as she grows. 

Eliot, as an author, is known for her intelligence, warmth, and remarkable psychological acuity and she has found a worthy fan in Rebecca Mead.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Staff Review: China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh

A mosaic novel is made up of a series of related short stories that stand up well individually, yet taken as a whole become something bigger. As a non-English major*, I had no idea there was a name for this until last year. Having a name for one of my favorite types of book has helped me in tracking down new books to read.

When I read an article that mentioned Maureen F. McHugh's first book and described it as a mosaic novel, I snapped it up immediately. Published in 1992, China Mountain Zhang was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula and won a Locus Award for Best First Novel, a Lambda Award, and a James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award.

There is some excellent world-building in China Mountain Zhang, and the imagined future holds up fairly well almost 25 years later. Part of why it does is McHugh's focus on the characters: people are recognizably people no matter how different their worlds might be. Because of the focus on the characters' lives, readers learn about the larger setting gradually. A character will reference some historical event in one story, two stories later you'll get a few more details, while other pieces of the background are left almost entirely to your imagination. This added to the book's suspense and made it harder for me to put down at the end of my lunch break.

The central character of the book, the person who ties the various stories together, is Zhang Zhongshan. His name roughly translates to China Mountain Zhang, though his oldest and closest friends know him as Rafael. Zhang lives in a future where China is the center of the civilized world and has the best technology, universities, fashion, etc. Zhang is a native of New York and fortunate in his Chinese father. That his mother is Hispanic is less beneficial to his chances for advancement. Even more damning is the fact that he is gay, something he would be killed for in China. It's less dire in the States, though I suspect the consequences of official discovery would be very grim.

This was probably my favorite book of 2016 and I don't want to give too much else away, so I'll limit myself to one final appeal: there are domed communes on Mars with beekeeping colonists. Politics AND space bees!

~Sarah, Adult Services

*Anthropology, in case you were curious

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Staff Review: The Painter by Peter Heller

The Painter by Peter Heller, the second novel by the author of the highly acclaimed debut novel The Dog Stars, was the library's adult book discussion selection for November.

Heller is an experienced travel and adventure writer who tackled fiction for the first time four years ago. His years spent writing about the outdoors surely show in this beautifully written new novel: his evocations of the landscapes of New Mexico and Colorado shimmer.

The focus of the story is one artist's attempts to come to grips with his darker side, his sudden and seemingly unavoidable urges toward violence when sufficiently triggered. What renders renowned painter Jim Stegner sympathetic is that what sets him off would set us off too: lewd comments about his teenaged daughter, a man's cruelty to a terrified horse. Unfortunately, Jim's reactions to these offenses tend toward the lethal; if only he could content himself with a good punch.

The novel opens with Jim having served time for one such incident and then having fled New Mexico for Colorado, to heal and resume his painting. But as one might expect with such a volatile man, Jim's new tranquility is short-lived. A second incident quickly ensues.

The novel narrates the second episode and its aftermath, taking the reader on a suspenseful journey through police investigations, games of cat and mouse with vengeful men, and Jim's increasingly successful and lucrative art life. We also get romance and plenty of fly-fishing, Jim's outlet and obsession, each fishing scene beautifully described. Heller writes his villains well too.

The novel has an interior life as well: Heller describes his protagonist's frequent musings down memory lane, his many old and new relationships, and his nearly continuous, if not entirely plausible, grappling with his demons.

Where the book let me down (and at times made me mad) was in its depictions of its female characters, who are "fleshed out" rather too much: we're told over and over of their beauty, their body parts, their sex appeal, assets they wield like the men wield their fishing rods and guns. Heller's male characters are never objectified this way. One reviewer called this book "a novel for manly men" and "a well-landed punch on the side of rugged masculinity."  If you ask me, we've catered to that crowd long enough.  

~Ann, Adult Services

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Staff Review: The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper

For the Great Reading Challenge, I’ve chosen to read a book over 100 years old. I read James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers in part because I’ve had a worn dusty edition sitting on my coffee table for the past year, but also (and the reason it’s been taking up table space) because it is set during a time in American history I’ve wanted to better understand. Particularly I’ve been curious about who these settlers were, some of the events that happened in the country before they came, their aspirations, and their continuing effect on the modern world. Basically, I wanted a deeper understanding than the bits I remember from grade school.

The Pioneers is the first book in Cooper’s five stories about his character Leatherstocking. It has a common narrative style of the 19th century: richly detailed with descriptions of the setting and characters, and it strolls along at a leisurely pace. With the book being over 400 pages, it takes some time to get into the rhythm of plot and language. That being said, this style isn’t for everyone. I was a little skeptical when Cooper warned in the introduction that the book is a “descriptive tale” and that he wrote it solely for personal satisfaction. I figured it could go one of two ways: a directionless rambling with explanations of every type of tree he encountered and a long geological survey of the area; or, since it was inspired by personal passion, it might be a unique glimpse into that time period. I was happy to discover that my second speculation was closer. Although the descriptions at the beginnings of chapters (mostly in the first half of the book) can be quite long before any action happens, I feel they add depth to the story and help place the reader into that world.

The Pioneers is loosely based on Cooper’s own life: his father founded Cooperstown, New York, with the parallel in the story being the fictional town of Templeton, founded by Judge Marmaduke Temple (possibly bearing some resemblance to Cooper’s actual father). This character is treated with fairness – he believes in the justness and fairness of the law, but also believes the land is his because of the document given to him from his country. We find a constant conflict with Temple's beliefs in the character of Nathaniel (Natty) Bumppo, also known as Leatherstocking (the Davy Crockett-like hero of Cooper’s novels).

Even though much of the book is descriptive, Cooper introduces an engaging storyline and scenes of suspense.  The reader is introduced to threatening wild animals, hunting mishaps, wild fires, and blossoming romance. The descriptions and narrative serve the bigger part of pushing forward Cooper’s beliefs. The book is written with much reverence toward the Native Americans' lifestyle, but also pathos toward the settlers (well, some of the settlers). He’s highly critical of the settlers, but makes his characters very human and relatable. The character of Leatherstocking, who fought in the French and Indian War and adapted a loner lifestyle with a Native American friend, represents the wisdom that comes from knowing how to live off the land.  Judge Templeton is an intelligent person and understands the need to be conservative with the environment, but coming from a different background also believes in the fairness of the law invented by civilized men. Although presenting opposing philosophies, Cooper is fair with both these characters and paints them as some of the most reasonable in the book, although Leatherstocking is more clearly the hero. 

Some of the settlers represent what we might recognize as our least admirable qualities. Richard, Templeton’s cousin, amplifies this position in his boastfulness and lavish attitude toward the land and animals. His extravagance is displayed when he wheels in a cannon to shoot at pigeons. Not content with the settlers shooting down as many as they can get, he wants to prove that he can get it done in one “fell swoop of destruction.” Cooper’s environmentalist philosophy is displayed in many of the character interactions in the novel.  These early reflections of our impact on the environment remain especially powerful today.

For those ready to invest themselves in this book, The Pioneers acts as a meditation on our American way of life. Although history already took the course the settlers set in motion, these early insights into the minds of the pioneers help us to connect with a larger picture of what it means to be an American, forcing the reader to think critically about our relationship with the natural world. Besides the strong message, the action and drama set up with Cooper’s characters keep the story fun. All five stories starring Natty Bumppo can be checked out from the library under the title The Leatherstocking Tales, containing perhaps the most famous story The Last of the Mohicans.

~Ben, Adult Services