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Staff Picks   Tags: books, entertainment, literature, reading, reviews  

The staff at the Contra Costa County Library loves reading and enjoys sharing choice selections. Our tastes vary widely, so you will definitely find something appealing. We keep this page stocked with new selections, so please check back often.
Last Updated: Apr 17, 2014 URL: http://guides.ccclib.org/staffpicks Print Guide RSS Updates

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Fiction for Adults

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The Light Between Oceans - M. L. Stedman
Call Number: FIC STEDMAN, M.
ISBN: 9781451681734
Publication Date: c2012
In this enthralling tale of early 20th century Australia, a lighthouse keeper discovers a boat washed up on the island where he and his wife live a solitary and childless life. Inside the boat are a dead man and a live baby. The choices the man and his wife make about what to do set them and others on irrevocable paths. The grasp for happiness in one sphere of existence brings others in spheres unknown right down to the psychological edge. Inevitably the birds come home to roost, and then other moral choices must be made. The story ends true to life, but on a note of tenderness. Carol Y., 4-16-2014

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Care of Wooden Floors - Will Wiles
Call Number: Fic Wiles, W.
A college acquaintance is asked to house-sit for his OCD friend's posh flat in an Eastern European city. Things go downhill very fast. The combination of a slacker housesitter who likes to drink with expensive furniture and floors, plus two pet cats, makes for some predictable outcomes and black humor. The twist at the end is very satisfying.
Evelyn 3/16/14

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The Rent Collector - Camron Wright
Call Number: FIC WRIGHT
When I first heard about this book, I was hesitant to read it because it sounded too sad and depressing. Sang Ly lives on the outskirts of Stung Meanchey, a large dump in Cambodia. She and her family pick through the garbage each day to find items to sell so they can buy food. Each day is based on basic survival. To make matters worse, her young son is ill, and she is desperate to find a cure for him. Sang Ly learns that the grumpy "Rent Collector" (also called the cow by renters around the dump) knows how to read. Sang ly is determined to have the Rent Collector teach her how to read so she can in turn teach her son and help him improve his life. The reading lessons developed into beautiful life lessons, and I enjoyed all the literature references. Rather than total despair and depression, although there was inevitably some, I found in this book that hope and happiness can be found anywhere, even in a lowly dump. Reviewed by Bea 5/18/13

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Canada - Richard Ford
Richard Ford's "Canada" is a masterly story of loneliness and fortitude, in which Dell - an elderly man - recalls the disaster that befell him and his twin sister Berner when their parents, out of desperation, decided to rob a bank.
From that moment onwards, life for them is forever separated by the before and after as they are left alone to face an uncertain future. Before she was arrested, their mother arranged for a friend to come and drive them to her brother Arthur in Canada who will supposedly give them a new start in life. But Berner runs away in anger and Dell is left to make the journey without her.As a child alone among strange and unfriendly people in the wilderness of Saskatchewan, he tries to come to terms with his parents' crime and hopes to draw closer to Arthur, go to school and find some peace of mind. Instead he is thrust into a harsh world where he is expected to do hard physical work and live in primitive surroundings while Arthur's dark past gradually envelops him and involves him in violence he could never have imagined.
Ford's beautiful and subtle prose style catches the essence of contemporary American life as none of his comtemporaries do and leaves us with what is destined to become a classic. Bernadette 1/9/13

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Landed - Tim Pears
Shortlisted for the international Impac Dublin literary award, "Landed" tells the story of Owen Ithell - an ordinary man battling ordinary life in all its hardship. Raised in the Welsh countryside by a loving but alcoholic and feckless mother, Owen is frequently sent on extended visits to his grandparents' small farm in the hills, and his childhood and personality are shaped by those experiences and by all that he learns from his grandfather about animals and the land.
He grows up, moves to a city in England, gets married and has children. Working as a gardener, life brings contentment and love; but a car accident completely changes the lives of Owen and his family and he is forced to endure the pain of losing everything and everyone he holds dear. Grappling with the loss of his job and a devastating injury and desperate to see his children, he one day concocts a story to get them out of school before setting off on a quest to reconnect with the land of his birth.The long and ultimately fateful journey becomes a period of soul searching for Owen as he tries to make sense of all that he has lost.
Containing wonderful descriptions of nature and human relationships, "Landed" is a fine example of a well written but under-hyped novel which can easily be overlooked.
Bernadette 12/19/12.

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What Alice Forgot - Liane Moriarty
Call Number: FIC MORIARTY, L.
After hitting her head in an accident, Alice Love cannot remember any of the last ten years of her life. Thinking she is still twenty-nine and a newlywed, she is shocked to wake up in her late thirties with three children, a beautiful wardrobe, and a pending divorce from the love of her life. Somewhere along the way, she apparently stopped talking to her sister and started going to the gym. As days go by and the amnesia doesn't lift, Alice must work to puzzle out just what exactly happened during the last decade, and try to fix the things that seem to have gone wrong. For such a light and entertaining read, "What Alice Forgot" encourages some deeper reflection. Do our lives turn out how we expect? Over time, do we tend to stay the same or do we change drastically? If we end up where we never expected, is it possible to start over?
Reviewed by AS 04/17/13

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The Gunslinger - Stephen King; Michael Whelan (Illustrator)
Call Number: FIC KING, S.
In this epic science-fiction fantasy set against a western backdrop, Stephen King brings you the romance of the Old West and the dark magic of an apocalyptic world. In a strange parallel universe, Roland, the last surviving gunslinger of a world long gone, sets out on a quest across the scorching desert in search for the only thing left that matters to him – The Dark Tower. The story follows Roland on his desperate chase for “the man in black” as he encounters characters and places steeped in mysticism and ancient mythology we can only begin to grasp…Reviewed by Pamela on 11/29/12

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Kristin Lavransdatter I - Sigrid Undset; Tina Nunnally (Translator, Introduction by, Notes by); Sigrid Undset; Tiina Nunnally (Translator, Introduction by, Notes by)
Call Number: FIC UNDSET, S.
The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy is my new favorite book (or books). Published between 1920 and 1922 by Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian author whose childhood was spent among books and artifacts collected by her Medievalist parents, it chronicles the life of Kristin from her charmed childhood, through young love and awakening sexuality, through the trials of marriage and motherhood, to the end of her life. The setting (fourteenth century Norway) makes for some interesting comparison to our own times, but for the most part is just the natural backdrop for the story of a headstrong woman and her sometimes incredible, sometimes very commonplace, life. There is an old translation that is laughably out-of-date (trying to sound "old-fashioned" with lots of thees and thous), but the simple prose of Tiina Nunally's newer translation will both whisk you away to a far-off place, and make you forget that it's not where you permanently reside. Reviewed by Rebekah 9/18/2012

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Untold Story - Monica Ali
Call Number: Fic Ali, M.
Assume that Princess Diana did not die in a car crash, but staged her own death in order to escape a life of hounding by the press and perhaps a paranoid fear that the royal family would do her in. Jump ten years to a small Midwest town where a British divorcee is living a simple life and working at an animal shelter. She has some good friends, and even a boyfriend. She thinks of her boys everyday, but has grown up a good deal. However, there is no one she can entrust with her secret. She can’t let anyone get too close to her. Then, one day, purely by chance, one of the old paparazzi is in town and sees those gorgeous and unmistakable blue eyes (she’s had extensive plastic surgery). Her life is about to crumble, or is it? Reviewed by Evelyn on 06/11/12.

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You Are Free: Stories - Danzy Senna
Call Number: Fic Senna, D.
These eight stories explore the minefields of interracial dating, marriage and living in two worlds. They deal with mixed breeds vs. purebreds, getting into the “right” preschool, childbirth and skin color. Some of the stories are slightly disturbing, but they all ring true to life in modern America. Reviewed by Evelyn on 6/22/12.

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If Today Be Sweet - Thrity Umrigar
Call Number: FIC UMRIGAR, T.
"If today be sweet" is a charming story of a middle-aged Parsi woman--Tehmina--whose husband has just passed away in India and who is on an extended visit to her son Sorab in his adopted city of Ohio. She is torn between her old familiar life and a new one in a strange land where everything seems sterile and impersonal. Though she has a close friendship with a friendly American neighbour and her son's family try their best to make her feel welcome, she misses her Parsi/Indian culture.
This is a book which will appeal to any immigrant who has struggled with trying to understand and assimilate into American culture. It vividly portrays the loneliness of the newcomer, but also celebrates the generousity and warmth of the American people and their wonderful sense of community. Reviewed by Bernadette. 6/7/12.

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The Brutal Telling - Louise Penny
Call Number: M PENNY, L.
When a body turns up in the local bistro of a small town in Quebec, Inspector Armand Gamache has to investigate a case that may involve his neighbors and more than a few of his close friends. Make no mistake: this isn't Cabot Cove, and although he speaks French, Gamache is no Poirot. This book will make you laugh and shudder in equal measure, but either way you won't be able to put it down. Reviewed by Leah 5/29/12

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A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini
This is the best fiction I have ever read! Dedicated to the women of Afghanistan, this novel depicts the journey of two girls who have lived through the evils of war. This book is very well written Hosseini draws the reader into the lives of each character. If you like novels that are based on historical events I strongly recommend this read.The author gives every afghan woman a voice through Myriam and Laila. I do want to warn future readers that there is strong content so if you're brave enough to take the journey with these two afghan women hop on board! Reviewed by Noelia 10/10/08

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All about Lulu - Jonathan Evison
Jonathan Evison’s debut novel is an intensely funny coming-of-age tale about Will, a vegetarian misfit growing up in 1970s Southern California in a motherless household swelling with meat-eating body-builders. Will goes mute after his mother dies, but later regains and beefs up his voice when his new step-mother, a grief counselor, and her daughter, Lulu (the object of Will’s decades-long obsession) move in. Will and Lulu form a geek alliance, which abruptly ends when something forever changes Lulu while she’s away at camp. The rest of the story follows Will in his quest for truth and reveals the devastating impact of family secrets. David Sedaris & Wes Anderson fans should enjoy this book! Reviewed by Melanie, 05/09.

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Any Bitter Thing - Monica Wood
Call Number: Fic Wood, M.
This is a thought provoking, gripping and very timely novel of faith, family, and hidden truths. A devout, but flawed man undergoes a crisis of priestly commitment as he is falsely accused of impropriety in raising his orphaned niece. Lizzy Mitchell was raised from the age of two by her uncle, a Catholic priest. When she was nine, he was falsely accused of improprieties with her nd
dismissed from his church, and she was sent away to boarding school. Now thirty years old and in a failing marriage, she is nearly killed in a traffic accident. What she discovers when she sets out to find the truths surrounding the accident and about the accusations that led to her uncle's death changes her life. Reviewed by Louise 8/17/10

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Arcadia - Lauren Groff
Involving from the get-go: a lyrical look back at another failed American attempt at utopia.
It's hard to believe that Lauren Groff didn't grow up in a commune since she nails this so perfectly. Full of beautiful, descriptive passages, this intense world is seen through the eyes of Bit, one of the more engaging characters ever presented in contemporary American fiction.
"We're all looking for what we lost," he says. "A tight, beautiful community , filled with people he loved like family, living closely and relying on one another , a world with music and stories and thought and joy, of earthly happiness."
Humorous and tragic,this novel is hard to put down and harder to forget.
Beth Girshman, Moraga and Orinda Libraries,
May, 2012

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Beat the Reaper - Josh Bazell
Dr. Peter Brown, once Pietro Brwna, is now in the witness protection program for his, shall we say, questionable past employment as mafia hitman extraordinaire. Aside from being a target for the occasional mugger hoping to score a pill or two off of the guy in a lab coat, the biggest challenge he faces these days is staying awake during his rounds. Until he encounters a patient that recognizes him, that is. This book is the perfect, if not odd, mixture of medicine, martial arts, and the mob. Throw in plenty of dark humor, and let the action begin! Reviewed by Shireen 9/03/09.

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Before I Go to Sleep - S. J. Watson
Usually, when a book is constantly on hold, with a long wait list in our library system, I know it’s going to be good. I wasn’t let down by this thriller. Normally, it takes me a while to get through a book because I want to savor the story. This book kept me up until 2am three nights in a row. In a vein not unlike the movie Memento, this story is about Christine, an amnesiac who has lost her short-term and long-term memories. She wakes up every day not knowing where she is, or who the man in bed with her—her husband, he always reminds her—is. With the help of a neurologist, she starts keeping a journal and hiding it in her closet. She starts creating a semblance of a life for herself by reading her previous entries every day with a reminder from the neurologist. What she discovers as she continues to write out her experiences—writing for her life, it seems—will leave your nerves jangling until you finish the book. Kyrsten 3-8-12

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Breakfast with Buddha - Roland Merullo
Call Number: FIC MERULLO, R
Driving a monk around the midwest at the behest of his daffy sister, Otto Ringling, a New York editor, slowly comes out of his depression and achieves some equanimity. This charming and totally unexpected tale twists the usual "guys on the road" story in an entertaining and wonderful way. Beth G., Orinda Library, 5/15/2012

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Candide - Voltaire
Written in the 1700’s, Candide is a French satire documenting the tale of Candide, a sheltered young man who has been indoctrinated by his philosophy teacher, Pangloss, with an “all is for the best” optimism that is tested at every turn. Each character Candide encounters has a mesmerizing tale. He travels to almost every continent in the Old and the New World, experiencing war, riches, poverty, love, sickness and betrayal. With true wit, the narrator touches on everything from human nature to the meaning of life. One of my favorite parts is when Candide and his servant find the fabled land of El Dorado and procure a batch of giant red sheep. I couldn’t put the book down, and it filled me with ruminations about religion, philosophy, love, government, society, exile, riches and good old hard work. A must-read classic and surprisingly quick read. Kyrsten 6/11/2011

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Cat's Eye - Margaret Atwood
Call Number: FIC ATWOOD
Atwood winds this fictional narrative in and around the emotionally strangled childhood of middle-aged artist Elaine Risley. Jumping through time, Elaine is able to reflect upon the cruel nature of her childhood friends and her struggles to overcome the control they impose upon her. In a sort of quasi-autobiography of Atwood's own life, Elaine reflects upon her past in order to see her latest art retrospective for what it truly is, and tries to find a key for overcoming her submissive tendencies. Atwood has an amazing ability to put readers into the minds of her characters and I found myself feeling the emotions portrayed by Elaine's childhood self as if they were my own. Quite the visceral read. Reviewed by Jeff 1/12/11

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Child 44 - Tom Rob Smith
Call Number: FIC SMITH, T.
I read this award-winning book while waiting for the third in the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy to come out. I mention this because the book is set in Stalin’s Soviet Union, a world where “there is no crime.” In a world not unlike Orwell's 1984, we follow Leo Demidov, a government agent, as he investigates a series of horrific child murders. His investigation is contrary to his programming and seemingly flies against his better judgement, yet one man's plea for help compells him to persist. Because of this, he faces increasingly sinister obstacles on his path. As the story unwinds, Leo learns of the hypocrisy inherent in a flawed system he once believed in with all his heart. The plot is intricately woven to include a number of pertinent topics, including government, censorship and human freedom. It will excite those who couldn’t put down and appreciated the intricate plot of the first book in The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo series. The good news is that this is part of a three-part series with the third book, Agent 6, due out July 2011. Kyrsten 6/25/2011

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Elegy for April - Benjamin Black
Call Number: M BLACK
This novel is set in 1950s Dublin, where free-spirited April has disappeared. Her inner circle of friends tries to brush it off and await her return, but Phoebe fears the worst and enlists the aid of her father, Quirke, a pathologist recently out of alcohol rehab with connections in the police department. Father and daughter enter into an emotional tug-of-war as the mystery unravels.
Benjamin Black is the pseudonym of John Banville, award-winning Irish poet and author, so my expectations were high and I wasn't disappointed.
Reviewed by DM, 5/12/2012

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Free Food for Millionaires - Min Jin Lee
Call Number: FIC LEE, M
This is a sprawling soap opera of a book about a family of Korean immigrants in the New York City of the 1990s. Tension, humor, pathos. Did I mention it's a soap opera?
Completely and totally addicting!
Beth G., Orinda Library, 5/15/2012

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Moloka'i - Alan Brennert
Call Number: Fic Brennert
This work of historical fiction takes place mostly on Moloka’i at the infamous leper colony at Kalaupapa. The story is told through Ruth, the main character, who contracts leprosy or Hansen’s Disease as a child in Honolulu, and grows up, marries, and has a child (which she has to give up to adoption) all at Kalaupapa, where she is able to develop a new family, albeit, one in which loved ones frequently die. The heartbreaking aspects of leprosy, which Hawaiians were unusually susceptible to, are portrayed – how it tore families apart, how it was much feared by the general community – are shown, as well as the changes made over the years in treating the disease. Daily life at the beautiful but isolated peninsula of Kalauapapa are historically accurate and give us a glimpse of a tragic part of Hawaiian history.
Reviewed by Evelyn L. 4/23/12

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Ragtime - E. L. Doctorow
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award, PEN/ Faulkner Award, and Pulitzer Prize, in this book E. L. Doctorow paints a textured picture of life in New York during the bustling years before World War I. He incorporates the stories of fictional characters with historical figures such as J. P. Morgan, Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, and Evelyn Nesbit. The book follows three families: an upper-middle-class Westchester County family, a poor European immigrant family, and the family of a black ragtime musician. He weaves their stories with those of their famous acquaintances to fascinating effect, giving the reader a fun ride through events both historical and fanciful. Will you be able to tell which is which? Reviewed by Liz 8/16/10

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Ransom - Davild Malouf
Arguably Australia’s greatest living writer, David Malouf reimagines the final episode of the Iliad in which Priam, King of Troy, confronts the Greek hero Achilles. The ancient tale is rendered with fresh and modern imagery and characters, yet retains the lyricism of Homer’s epic poem. Ransom is not about war or grief as much as it is about humility, and humanity, and an aging man’s redemptive journey. Malouf opens up vast territories in this slim book that The New Yorker calls “subtle and extremely moving.” Malouf’s Remembering Babylon was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1993. Reviewed by Patrick 5/18/10.

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Rebecca - Daphne Dame Du Maurier
I was surprised that this "classic" was written in 1938 and set in the 20th century. Next surprise - Rebecca is already dead, but it's the memory of her that haunts her widowed husband, his second wife, and many inhabitants of his grand estate, Manderley. That said, it was a compelling story of a young woman who escapes her fate as the companion of a social climber by accepting an impromptu proposal of marriage to the bereaved Max de Winter. Struggling to replace the beautiful and enchanting Rebecca, the new Mrs de Winter is drawn into the mysterious life and death of her predecessor. Set in a world of privilege and indulgence, with tea at four, dressing for dinner, servants and house guests, this is a delightful escape into a vanished time. A great read while waiting for the next season of Downton Abbey!
Reviewed by DM 04-24-12

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South of the Border, West of the Sun - Haruki Murakami
Written by one of Japan’s most highly regarded authors, this book follows the life of Hajime from childhood to middle age as he negotiates love and its disappointments. Existential in tone, this story explores lost love and what happens when it is partially regained. Murakami makes Hajime’s struggle against a deep well of loneliness palpable, pulling the reader into this tale of obsession and loss. Reviewed by Liz 11/3/09

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Tess of the D'Urbervilles : a Pure Woman Faithfully Presented - Thomas Hardy
Hardy’s tragic story of innocence lost and true love thwarted manages to be both heartbreaking and a page-turner. The characters are finely drawn, particularly Tess as she changes and adapts to her life’s challenges. Hardy writes in lush language of the nature of the English countryside and juxtaposes this richness with his evocation of a time of momentous change in the lives of agricultural workers, from ancient folkways to modern economic dislocation. As one chapter led to the next, I couldn’t wait to learn more about this particular time and place and how Tess negotiates her way through it. Reviewed by Liz 11/3/09

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The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood
A deliciously intricate story full of family drama, suspense, and romance. Atwood's writing made me want to savor every word, while her mesmerizing story made me want to quickly get to the next page. Especially intriguing for me was the mysterious sci-fi tale being told within the story. Take a look at the First Chapter Excerpts in our catalog and you'll see what I mean. Reviewed by Theresa 10/16/08

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The Feast of Love - Charles Baxter
Having read Charles Baxter’s, The Soul Thief, and immediately wanting more by this literary novelist and short story writer, I checked out his Feast of Love. This novel, a collection of extraordinary first person narratives of love, loss, and longing told by ordinary people in Ann Arbor, evokes shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Reviewed by Susan 3/16/09

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The Maytrees - Annie Dillard
With a childhood recollection of being drawn to the appearance of a barefoot bohemian-type carrying a canvas across a Cape Cod street and later having established residency in New England, I was drawn to this poetic and spare novel depicting artists living among the Provincetown dunes. Annie Dillard sketches a loving portrait of beautiful yet flawed characters, but it is not so much the plot as the description of the natural environment and setting of this story that made it a worthy read for me. Dillard’s command of language is marvelous. Reviewed by Susan 3/24/09

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The Missing - Tim Gautreaux
This is an Odyssey, with Sam Simoneaux, the main character, as Everyman, wandering the 1920’s landscape of New Orleans and the Mississippi River riverboat scene. Sam faces real physical dangers and he must make moral decisions that affect many lives. Reminiscent of Cold Mountain, this book is full of memorable characters and heart-breaking scenes. Reviewed by Evelyn L. on May 5, 2012.

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The Plot Against America - Philip Roth
Philip Roth imagines an America in which Charles Lindbergh wins the presidential election of 1940. Lindbergh soon allies with Germany, and the country complies. In the home of a young Jewish boy (named Philip Roth), there is discord: his parents are panicked; his older cousin angrily joins the Canadian military; and his brother is a tool in Lindbergh’s thinly veiled program to remove Jewish children from their homes. Knowing that it is alternative history does not make this book any less chilling. As events escalate, the book is increasingly difficult to put down. Reviewed by Liz 8/16/10

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The Space Between Us - Thrity Umrigar
The Space Between Us delineates the clash of two different social classes in contemporary Bombay. Everyday Bhima leaves her shanty in Bombay’s slum to work in the upper class home of Sera Dubash, who she has toiled for for over twenty years. Both have tragic backgrounds, and find solace in each other’s company, only to discover that class makes a difference in the end. Cursed by fate, Bhima sacrifices all for her beautiful, headstrong granddaughter, Maya, a university student whose education -- paid for by Sera -- will enable them to escape the slums. But when an unwed Maya becomes pregnant by a man whose identity she refuses to reveal, Bhima's dreams of a better life for her granddaughter, as well as for herself, may be shattered forever. This novel is poignant and compelling, evocative and unforgettable. Reviewed by Louise 8/17/10

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The Tortilla Curtain - T.C Boyle
Tortilla Curtain follows two story lines which cross paths in Southern California. Two migrant workers struggle to survive in the shadows of a community that wants to build a wall around its houses while a family inside the community struggles to feel secure in their world which they feel is being encroached on by both nature and immigrants. T.C. Boyle is a true talent and takes on a topic hard pressed to produce a happy ending, and is well worth the read. Reviewed by AJ Garza 10/10/08

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Truth and Consequences - Alison Lurie
In this academic romp, Lurie casts her sharp eye and wit on Alan and Jane, a married couple working at fictional Corinth U. He is an architectural historian and she is an administrator. Once of strong body and mind, Alan has degenerated into helplessness after he injures his back. Barely able to work, Alan's vibrant mind has become sodden with painkillers and booze. Good old reliable Jane stoically keeps everything running until visiting poet, femme fatale, and fellow pain sufferer Delia Delaney, enters the scene and becomes Alan's muse. Reviewed by Susan 8/23/10

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Whatever You Love - Louise Doughty
Call Number: FIC DOUGHTY, L.
This is a gripping story of love and profound loss.When Laura loses her daughter in a tragic accident,she is in a state of shock and despair. The writer's passionate narrative, written in the first person, has the effect of drawing us in completely, so that we feel and identify with Laura's pain and devastation as her life falls apart and she descends into a kind of madness.She becomes consumed with seeking retribution for her daughter's death and even she does not realize the shocking lengths to which she will go in order to achieve that end. Reading this book forces us to consider the terrifying possibility that what we love most of all can be snatched from us at a moment's notice. Reviewed by Bernadette 4/30/12.

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Winter's Tale - Mark Helprin
Call Number: FIC HELPRIN, M
This is an American form of magic realism that is completely successful - shining, beautiful, amazing. Is it futuristic or historical? Is it post-apocalyptic or prescient? In any case it's a tour-de-force. I think Helprin downloaded it in a dream since he's never written anything like it before or since. I like reading this book in winter because the descriptions are so gorgeous. Or in the heat of summer for the same reason.
Beth G., Orinda Library, 5/2012

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Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
Call Number: FIC MANTEL, H.
We all know the story of Henry VIII dumping Queen Katherine in favor Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More being executed for refusing to recognize the marriage, so why read a 500+ page account of it? Because it is told entirely through the eyes and experience of Thomas Cromwell. The son of a blacksmith, who became a soldier, wool merchant, accountant, and lawyer, Cromwell rose by making himself useful to powerful men, ultimately becoming Henry's right-hand man. With very little narration, we follow the twists and turns of history just as Cromwell did, getting inside his head, his heart, his conscience. The inner workings of a political mind, subtle and brilliant dialog, all set in a time of historic upheaval make for fascinating reading.
Reviewed by DM 4/24/12


Nonfiction for Adults

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The Famine Plot - Tim Pat Coogan
Call Number: 941.5081 Coogan
ISBN: 9780230109520
If it happened today, it would be labelled as a genocide of massive proportions; yet the famine which afflicted Ireland from 1845-1852 and caused the deaths or emigration of almost two million people has never been acknowledged as such. In this meticulously researched book, the well known Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan chronicles the tragic events of that period and asserts that the British government conducted a deliberate policy of extermination of the Irish people through starvation and the brutality of forced evictions in order to claim the land for themselves. It has been said that God sent the potato blight, but the English sent the famine and indeed there is some truth to this statement. While the potato crop may have failed, there was still an abundance of other crops growing in Ireland;yet they were shipped overseas to feed English mouths while the Irish starved.
Coogan presents a vivid picture of the horrors of that terrible time and shows us how the famine has left deep scars to this day. In addition, the mass emigration of that time has also changed the course of history in countries as far apart as America,Argentina and Australia. In his intelligent and thought-provoking account, Coogan finally calls to account those who were responsible. Reviewed by Bernadette. 5/11/13.

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Talking Pictures - Ransom Riggs
Call Number: 779.2 RIGGS
Ransom Riggs' unusual hobby of collecting old discarded family photos is displayed for the public in his newest book. Riggs allows the images and their notes to tell their stories to us in a way that is both hilarious and heartbreaking. The book begs to answer the question of why family members would ever castoff their family photos and history in such a meaningless way. It also seeks to revive the art of creating lasting photographic images of family beyond the digital age. Reviewed by Teresa 3/26/13.

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Maphead: charting the wide, weird world of geography wonks - Ken Jennings
Call Number: 912 JENNINGS
Ken Jennings (of Jeopardy! fame) has written an engaging and humorous book about his lifelong fascination with maps. He is not alone, and his obsession is mild compared with the ranks of collectors, competitive travelers, geocachers, National Geographic Geography Bee contestants, and fantasy fiction authors he interviewed for this look at the bizarre world of mapheads. Jennings examines the origins of humans' unique need for and ability to produce maps, and the history of cartography. Read this book for an informative and enjoyable armchair journey!
Reviewed by DM 02/13/13

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Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat - Hal Herzog
Call Number: 304.27 HERZOG
Why do most people think it’s OK to swat a fly, but not OK to kick the dog? Which has a better life, a rooster used for cockfighting, or the chicken you buy at the supermarket? How can a dog be considered a pet in America, vermin in India, and lunch in Korea? Hal Herzog is a professor of psychology who specializes in the study of human-animal relationships. In this book, he will entertain you while exploring the mental gymnastics we all employ to remain “stubbornly oblivious” to the paradoxes in our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors toward animals. It's complicated, and Herzog handles serious topics with authority and a touch of humor, providing no absolute answers, but plenty of food for thought.
Reviewed by DM 6/26/2012

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Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell
Call Number: 302 GLADWELL
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell reveals in clear prose what separates men and women with skills, talent, and drive who stand out in society. For example, Outliers begins with a provocative look at why certain five-year-old boys enjoy an advantage in ice hockey-due to the month they are born in-and how these advantages accumulate over time. We learn what Bill Gates, the Beatles and Mozart had in common: along with talent and ambition, each enjoyed an unusual opportunity to intensively cultivate a skill that allowed them to rise above their peers, and each had the drive to put in a minimum of 15,000 hours of practice and work to succeed. Gladwell further shows how culture, circumstance, timing, birth and luck account often for success. However, he makes it clear that no one succeeds alone and shows that hard work and a driving force behind each success are accountable. He also shows that high-IQ alone does not guarantee success in the story failure named Chris Langan who lacked opportunity, community support and an innate and persistent driving force. While this book clearly falls into the popular culture ranks, it makes one think about what really does propel someone to become an outlier. Reviewed by Louise 6/12/12

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El Narco - Ioan Grillo
Call Number: 363.45097 Grillo
This is a fascinating yet horrifying account of Mexico's drug cartels -- it gives us a look inside their hidden world and the brutal war they are waging against each other and also against thousands of ordinary Mexicans who have become victims caught in the middle. Through personal interviews with narco members, the writer chronicles an orgy of unspeakable acts of violence and argues that it poses the biggest armed threat to Mexico since its 1910 revolution. El Narco pervades every facet of life in Mexico -- the path from policeman or soldier to murderer is alarmingly common and thousands of young men from poverty striken barrios make willing recruits. The rest of the world has been stunned by the butchery and confused at the inability of the Mexican government to eradicate it despite the fact that places like Ciudad Juarez are overrun with heavily armed federal troops. Ioan Grillo argues that the U.S. is very much a part of the battleground, yet confused and divided about what to do. A thought provoking read about a movement which is currently spiralling out of control just over the border.
Reviewed by Bernadette. 5/24/12.

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Panther Baby - Jamal Joseph
Call Number: B JOSEPH, J.
Jamal Joseph grew up young, gifted and black in the 1960’s Bronx. As a middle schooler he was recruited by the militant Black Panther movement. By 16 he had been imprisoned as one of the Panthers 21 on New York’s Rikers Island. After release, Jamal joined the underground revolutionary movement. Eventually he landed back in federal prison for 12 years. While there he earned three college degrees and found a new calling. He is now chair of Columbia University’s School of the Arts film division. This is his coming of age story -- lucid, flowing, compelling, and ultimately hopeful. Reviewed by Carol Y. 05/15/2012.

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The Worst Hard Time - Timothy Egan
Call Number: 978.032 EGAN
A gritty tale of farming and small-town life in the Dust Bowl during the "Dirty Thirties" when blizzards of dirt darkened the skies over the southern plains, a region that includes southeast Colorado, western Kansas, the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, and portions of Nebraska and New Mexico. The author weaves together several family histories and adds news sources and government data to make a very readable story. Bottom line, this was a heart-breaking, soul-crushing, man-made disaster, underscoring that "it's not nice to fool Mother Nature." Reviewed by DM, 5/12/2012

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The Dressmaker of Khair Khana - Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Call Number: B SEDIQI
Life throws Kamila’s some unexpected curves. As she is about to graduate with her teaching degree, the political climate of her country, Afghanistan, changes. The Taliban takes over, and women's day to day lives are dramatically altered. Undaunted by the seemingly insurmountable challenges she faces, Kamila finds a way to build a successful business to support herself and her family as well as provide a foundation for other women to support themselves. This is an inspiring and remarkable true story of how one woman’s faith and courage led her to make a change for the better. Reviewed by Bea 5/02/12

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The Dyslexic Advantage - Brock L. Eide; Fernette F. Eide
Call Number: 616.8553 Eide
This book explains dyslexia, a condition that affects 15-20% of the American population. Most people think of it as a condition having to do with difficulties in reading, but it turns out to be much more. Dyslexics’ brains process information differently, which is why dyslexic students usually have difficulties in school. What a “normal” person sees as a routine or rote task is not routine to a dyslexic, who often sees things in fresh or creative ways. If you are dyslexic or know people who are, this book will provide insights into several unique ways that dyslexic brains work. Reviewed by E.Loughran 4/20/12

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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea - Barbara Demick
Call Number: 306.09519 DEMICK
In Nothing to Envy, journalist Barbara Demick provides a fascinating glimpse into everyday life in the isolated totalitarian state of North Korea. Interviews with six North Koreans who defected to South Korea—a kindergarten teacher, an idealistic young doctor, a university student, a homeless youth, and a loyal housewife and her rebellious daughter—yield memorable, highly readable accounts of lives of incredible hardship under extraordinary conditions of political repression and catastrophic economic decline. Reviewed by Mary 11/30/10

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Everybody into the Pool: TrueTales - Beth Lisick
Call Number: B LISICK, B.
A memoir, this book traces Lisick's life as a South Bay suburban teen track star, through her years as a San Francisco artist living in a squat, and on into her life as a Berkeley writer and mother. She writes with a non-snarky humor that is still sharp. Not many people can pull off a description of their newborn son dressed in a filthy sleeper with onion skins sticking to it and come across sympathetically. It is a testament to Lisick’s skill that she does. Reviewed by Liz 8/16/10

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Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul - Karen Abbott
Call Number: 306.74097 ABBOTT
Chicago in the early 20th century comes alive in this well-researched and lively read about two sisters and their famous Everleigh Club, a bordello in an ornate mansion catering to the elite with its themed boudoirs and women lovingly referred to as “butterflies.” The sisters, who kept close tabs on their customers and fought off rival madams, provided their workers with nutritious meals, generous wages, and medical care. Eventually, Progressive Era reformers set out to reform white slavery and the “social evil” of the times leading to the establishment of the Mann act. This book is a great follow up to Devil in the White City. Reviewed by Susan 6/25/10

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Free: The Future of a Radical Price - Chris Anderson
Call Number: 658.816 ANDERSON
In the tradition of Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, this provocative and accessible book upturns our conceptions about business, technology, and the future. Anderson, chief editor of Wired Magazine and author of the bestselling The Long Tail, investigates how Google, Facebook, YouTube, Radiohead, and Linux have reshaped our expectations and marketplaces by giving away the goods. Anderson suggests that the twentieth century notion of ‘no free lunches’ is growing obsolete in a digital world where the cost of storing and delivering products and services online is so close to zero that we have started rounding down. Reviewed by Patrick 12/1/09

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Finding Oz - Evan I. Schwartz
Call Number: 813.4 SCHWARTZ
With the resurgence of interest in all things wizard and Oz in recent years, this timely examination of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is fascinating. L. Frank Baum reached adulthood during the Gilded Age and tried his hand at many occupations: playwriting and acting, publishing, retail merchandising. His initial success was always followed by failure. Shaped by personal and historical places and events, and the spiritual influence of his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, a noted feminist of the era, Frank finally found his true self in storytelling. The characters and ideas in his signature work, from Dorothy to Toto to the Wizard himself are a distillation of late 19th century people and ideas. Part biography, part literary analysis, part history, and always informative, I recommend Finding Oz for adults and teens. Reviewed by DM 11/04/2009

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Why the Dalai Lama matters: his act of truth as the solution for China, Tibet, and the World - Robert Thurman
Call Number: 294.3923 THURMAN
This is a critical book to read even if one is not Buddhist. China will play an important role in the 21st century. How it has dealt, and could deal, with cultural diversity at its doorstep has profound implications for our global future. The Dalai Lama is for the world what Martin Luther King, Jr. was for the U.S. We would do well to become educated about the issue of Tibet, that we may become better advocates abroad for the human rights that we hold so dear here. Reviewed by Carol Y., 11/10/08

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Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival, and the struggle for Iraq - Patrick Cockburn
Call Number: B SADR, M.
A valuable book if you want to understand the religious context behind the political struggle in Iraq today. Violent circumstances forged the personality of the "firebrand cleric" and precipitated his rise to the leadership of the major grassroots political movement in Iraq. Accessible, informative, but not fun reading. Reviewed by Carol Y., 11/01/08

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Four Queens - Nancy Goldstone
Call Number: 940.18409 GOLDSTONE
This is a great women's history title! It's engaging and full of detail about life in 13th century Europe. These four sisters, daughters of the Count and Countess of Provence, became the Queens of France, England, Germany and Sicily and did a lot more than sitting around looking fancy! They formed alliances, waged war, and helped redraw the borders of Europe. Get to know them!. Reviewed by PJ 10/10/08

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Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Men, Women, and the World - Liza Mundy
Call Number: 362.19669 MUNDY
I can't decide if this book was frightening or inspiring, but it was certainly enlightening. I've never thought much about fertility and assisted reproduction before and this book was a well written, thought provoking introduction to the topic. The author is clear, and provides plenty of interesting anecdotes that keep the story from being too technical. Mundy does a great job at presenting the facts without providing any moral judgements on what she's learning. A must read for all women! Reviewed by Catherine 10/10/08


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