Posts filed under ‘New releases’

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

heart goes lastPub Date: September 2015

Fiction (Adult)

320 pgs.

The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood’s latest, carries all the hallmarks of her recent excellent works, especially the Oryx and Crake trilogy. Dystopian situation? Check. Strange, surreal hybrid animals? Check. Sharp social feminist commentary? Check.

Stan and Charmaine are a married couple forced to live in their car after a nationwide economic collapse.  One day, at the dive bar where she scrapes in a menial income, Charmaine sees a TV ad that promises a new life, complete with a desirable job, comfortable house, and stylish clothes, to anyone who signs up.  The catch? Every other month must be spent in a prison facility.  Even with this caveat, the deal is a no-brainer to Charmaine. Soon, she and Stan are beginning their new lives in the town of “Consilience,” next door to Positron prison.  How bad could it be? Famous last words of a dystopia, right?

Actually, not that bad, as it turns out. To me, the book almost felt like Atwood-lite.  Where were the unsettling implications? The tone starts changing halfway through the book, becoming both more farcical, and almost exclusively fixated on sex and desire.  If the book had begun with a “chilling” premise, the reader becomes decidedly un-chilled as the book goes on and the narrative becomes amusing instead of troubling. It even ends relatively happily.

Still, Atwood’s imaginative and darkly humorous prose and aforementioned sharp social commentary make pretty much anything by her worth reading, in my opinion.  Lovers of either dystopian books or dark comedy should check this one out.  So should die-hard Atwood fans, even if it leaves a little something to be desired.



November 20, 2015 at 5:33 pm Leave a comment

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanPub Date: July 2015

Fiction (Adult)

288 pgs.

The case of Go Set a Watchman is a unique one to be sure, and the controversy surrounding its publication is intriguing. Written before Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, but chronicling events set after the events of Mockingbird, Watchman re-introduces readers to Mockingbird‘s iconic characters, except with a decidedly bleaker, more cynical tone.  In other words, the rose-colored glasses of childhood are gone.

That said, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Watchman.  Then again, I had never connected with Mockingbird all that much, and do not have much use for hero worship. As a reader, I always like the characters in my novels to be realistic and flawed. Also, I listened to the audiobook which featured Reese Witherspoon’s superb narration.  In Watchman, we meet a grown-up Scout as she travels home to Maycomb Alabama from New York City, where she has been living. It is the mid-1950s, and the Civil Rights Movement is starting to gain momentum. Scout’s –Jean Louise’s–visit home to Alabama occurs shortly after the Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. During her visit home, Jean Louise encounters her father at a meeting of segregationists who are disturbed by the growing influence of the NAACP in Maycomb and the rest of the South. The notion that Atticus Finch could be racist comes as a shock to Jean Louise, much as it will to loyal fans Mockingbird’s Atticus, who famously promoted Thomas Jefferson’s slogan “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none!” 

Watchman hinges on Jean Louise’s realization about and growing disillusionment with her father and conditions in the South, the North, and the country as a whole. Again, the chance to defend a black man arises, and Atticus wants to take the case – but his reasons in 1954 at age 72 are much more complicated than promotion of “equal rights.” Through many arguments with her father; her beau Henry, a local Maycomb boy; her aunt Alexandra and her uncle Jack, Jean Louise is forced to dismantle the idyllic vision of Atticus that she has kept close to her into adulthood, and replace him with the older, more complicated version who nonetheless is a piece of her own soul. She confronts what, at some point, every child must: realizing that her memory of Atticus is really a memory of her childhood self.

Watchman is a shorter, tauter book than Mockingbird, with more nuance and a better reflection of reality.  It is a product of its time, and Scout herself is not without her own racial prejudices, of course.  The bulk of the book is the aforementioned discussions, arguments and struggles Jean Louise has with her family and herself, but happily, readers will also find anecdotes of the childhood Scout, Jem, and Dill, alive and well in Jean Louise’s memory.

I would recommend Go Set a Watchman to readers who are open to another side of a beloved story.


September 1, 2015 at 5:17 pm Leave a comment

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

boston girlPub Date: Dec. 2014

Fiction (Adult)

336 pgs.

The Boston Girl is the newest offering from local favorite Anita Diamant, author of the bestselling The Red Tent.  Here, Diamant serves up another fascinating slice of historical fiction, her preferred genre.

In 1988, Addie Baum, born in 1900, has been asked by her granddaughter how she became the woman she is today.  Through this simple and somewhat contrived but effective framing device, readers of The Boston Girl are treated to a tour of early-twentieth-century Boston through Addie’s eyes.  Addie, spunky and intelligent, tells stories of growing up as a first-generation Jewish girl in Boston’s North End; of summer adventures at Rockport Lodge in Rockport, MA; of friendship, falling in love, and familial tribulations of her youth and young adulthood. The book is laid out in a straightforward fashion: Addie’s stories more than carry the narrative and are satisfying throughout.

We were lucky enough last month to welcome Ms. Diamant to speak here at the library.  She addressed a crowd of 150 as she answered questions about the book and offered interesting facts about the history behind the fictional story, such as the background of the real Rockport Lodge, and of real conditions in the North End in the early 1900s. Diamant’s comments added more layers to Addie’s story. All in all, The Boston Girl is a mild, mostly sweet, yet still intriguing, inspiring and emotionally satisfying coming of age story that has massive appeal to many different kinds of readers.


June 24, 2015 at 2:34 pm Leave a comment

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

stationelevennorthamericahiresPub Date: September 2014

Fiction (Adult)

362 pgs.

In the midst of this bleak, gray winter wasteland, I decided to read…a novel set in the post-apocalypse. Am I a masochist? Possibly, but hear me out. Was this a relentlessly bleak and depressing reading experience? Actually, not at all.

Station Eleven, the debut novel by Emily St. John Mandel that was a National Book Award finalist, seemingly does the impossible: it’s a beautiful, plausibly-rendered and yes, uplifting novel about the end of life as we know it due to a flu pandemic. But this novel is also about relationships, acting and theater, celebrity and the specter of fame…you know, our everyday concerns in our mundane, pre-apocalyptic world.

In the novel’s opening scene, we meet Arthur, a famous actor currently appearing onstage in Toronto in a production of King Lear.  Suddenly, Arthur collapses onstage, suffering a heart attack.  An audience member hurries onstage to administer CPR, but it’s too late – Arthur has died.  Coincidentally, that same night, a Russian plane carrying passengers infected with a deadly flu virus lands in North America.  Soon, 99% of the theater-goers in Toronto and the rest of the world that night will have something in common with Arthur – they’ll be dead.

Station Eleven is about various people connected to Arthur in the years before and after the flu pandemic. The audience member who lept to Arthur’s rescue is Jeevan, an ex-paparazzo-turned-EMT who shares a history with Arthur. He manages to barricade himself in an apartment after being warned by a friend.  Kirsten, a child actress onstage with Arthur in the King Lear production, also manages to survive. Twenty years later, Kirsten is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a nomadic theater troupe traveling landscape that has been drastically altered by the flu pandemic.

The novel jumps back and forth in time, and I appreciated this framing device. Large portions of the book focus on Arthur’s life, his prior marriages, how he became interested in acting.  Woven in with those portions is the story of Kirsten’s life with the Traveling Symphony, and the challenges presented to them. It was almost like reading two different books, except that Mandel kept enough threads running between the two different worlds that it worked beautifully.  And, I found it realistic – after all, if a flu were to befall us next month, that does not mean celebrity gossip, social media, and all the petty things that sustain us day-to-day never existed.  Mandel does an excellent job bridging those two worlds.

One of the things that I found most refreshing about Station Eleven is its lack of judgement regarding the flu pandemic and the collapse of society.  Mandel does not spend her time dwelling on what society may have done to cause the pandemic, how it may have been prevented, etc.  The flu–and subsequent wipeout of 99% of humanity world-wide–simply happens, and the lives of a few people are examined decades after, and decades before, this event.

Fans of dystopian, post-apocalyptic and futuristic fiction will undoubtedly enjoy Mandel’s debut, but even if this type of fiction is not your usual thing, check this one out.  Mandel has created a world that is at once chilling, hopeful, and above all, recognizable.


February 12, 2015 at 11:50 pm Leave a comment

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

leaving-time-400-929Pub Date: October 2014

Fiction (Adult)

416 pgs.

Jodi Picoult is an extremely popular author here at the library, and, well, pretty much everywhere else.  She is one of those authors that has cranked out one book per year for the last fifteen years or so.  I started reading her a couple of years ago; the audio versions of her books hooked me because they are all brilliantly performed by a full cast.  Her books do follow a bit of a “form:” told from multiple first-person perspectives, about current controversial or hot-button issues, and usually involving legal situations.  Picoult fans, used to her books coming out in the Spring of each year, had to wait a bit longer for this latest book, which was released this Fall.  But…was it ever worth the wait!

Like most of Picoult’s books, Leaving Time is intricately plotted and emotionally wrought.  It deals with a very specific subject many of us know little about: animal behavioral science, specifically of elephants.  If nothing else, reading this book will give you great insight into the emotional lives of elephants.  What sets this Picoult book apart from others, though, is a delicate balance of science and supernatural. At its core, Leaving Time is a ghost story.

Alice Metcalf, a scientist who studies elephant behavior, has been missing for ten years. One night when Alice’s daughter, Jenna, was a toddler, a late-night altercation at the family elephant sanctuary left one person dead (presumed to be trampled to death by an elephant) and one person – presumed to be Alice – missing.  Now thirteen, and still searching for her missing mother, Jenna enlists help in the form of Serenity Jones, a washed-up former celebrity psychic, and Virgil Stanhope, the detective who worked on her mother’s case.  As Jenna, Serenity, and Virgil navigate the past, they finds things to be less and less as they appear.

The spooky story winds its way through tales of infidelity, police cover-up, fiercely protective elephants, and the mind of Jenna’s brilliant but mentally-ill scientist father who is languishing in an institution.  Picoult keeps us guessing until the end, and I was impressed by the way she tied the story together.  If you’re new to Picoult, this would be a good one to pick up, and if you’re a long-time fan, you won’t be disappointed.  Leaving Time is a striking book that is not quite like anything out there.


December 19, 2014 at 3:44 pm Leave a comment

Kiss me First by Lottie Moggach

kissmefirstPub Date: July 2013

Fiction (Adult)

320 pgs

As Freddie Mercury once sang, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” For some, the physical “real world” is supplanted by another world, the virtual world.  Property is purchased, relationships are formed, and lives are lived mainly online.  In Lottie Moggach’s fascinating first novel, we meet twenty-something Leila, who lives in a depressing London flat, works a data-entry job and spends most of her time caring for her ailing mother.  After her mother passes away, reclusive Leila goes from spending most to all of her time online.  As Leila withers away in her apartment, she blossoms online.  In online forums, she finds she is more comfortable participating in discussions and expressing her opinions than she’s ever been in so-called real life.

When Leila discovers a debate forum called Red Pill, she quickly makes a name for herself as one of the top commenters, and gains the attention of the site’s founder, the mysterious Adrien.  When Leila and Adrien meet in person, Adrien offers Leila an intriguing opportunity to change her identity.  Leila is asked, essentially, to become another person.

Tess is a beautiful, charismatic, troubled woman.  She is preparing to commit suicide but wants to spare her friends and family pain.  After her death, Leila will assume her online identity.  This requires lots of intense research on Leila’s part, which she throws herself into whole-heartedly.  Before long, Leila becomes consumed with details of Tess’s past and present.  But what actually happened to Tess?

Moggach’s novel could be considered a psychological thriller. It’s an intense study of “reality” versus “illusion,” complete with an unreliable narrator. Although the subject matter is very current, Kiss Me First is an old-fashioned mystery at its core.  It is not a warm-and-fuzzy book, but a shrewd, meticulous, and intriguing read with twists and turns to keep mystery fans happy.  Give this unique novel a try.


October 4, 2013 at 1:26 pm Leave a comment

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

ImagePub Date: June 2013

Fiction (Adult)

384 pgs.

Say what you want about Lionel Shriver’s novels–they may not be universally liked, but they always provoke reactions.  She is skilled at attacking timely topics and writing complicated books complete with prickly characters dealing with said topics.  Her latest, Big Brother, focuses on obesity, health, and the diet industry and how these things play out in the context of a typical Midwestern family.

Pandora is a successful middle-aged entrepreneur married to Fletcher, a health nut, and stepmother to his two teenage kids. One day, her brother Edison, a down-on-his-luck New York jazz pianist, contacts Pandora and proposes a visit after a few years with little contact. When Pandora arrives at the airport to meet her brother, she is shocked to discover he has become so obese that he doesn’t recognize him.  Of course, Edison starts wreaking havoc on Pandora and Fletcher’s orderly household, and gives no indication of leaving.  Soon, Fletcher gives his wife an ultimatium–“him or me”–and Pandora chooses her brother, moves in with him, and vows to help him lose weight.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this novel, especially Shriver’s descriptions of living with obesity, the prevailing culture of thinness, the struggle to lose weight, the definition of true hunger, and the uneasy distinction between being healthy and simply being thin. Shriver is an expert at portraying the interplay between family members, and gives all of her characters detailed, interesting backstories.  (She delves into the worlds of New York jazz musicians, washed-up Los Angeles television stars, and Iowan caterers, to name a few.) Her characters’ internal monologues are always rich and fully-realized, even if dialogue between characters was at times a little too pretentious and not entirely believable.  (Also, Shriver has a penchant, one that this reader found off-putting, for giving all of her characters very odd, unwieldy names–Pandora Halfdanarson? Fletcher Feuerbach? Edison Appaloosa? Really?) There is a twist ending that some readers may find enlightening; others may find it somewhat unsatisfying. Despite this, I found this book to be a wholly “worth it” read, and eagerly look forward to her next offering.


July 17, 2013 at 4:55 pm 1 comment

Older Posts

A Blog for Patrons and Friends of the Topsfield Town Library


Recent Tweets: