Staff Picks Category: Literary fiction

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat []

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In Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Daticat tells a number of stories, each of which interconnects with and is enhanced by the others. The stories are all set in the fictional Haitian town of Ville Rose, a fishing community where fishing is no longer profitable, the lighthouse no longer possesses a lantern, the few wealthy residents worry that their homes will be washed away, and the town mayor is also the undertaker.

The protagonists of these stories are sympathetic, well meaning, good people, but life is not particularly good to them. Neither education nor wealth is enough to escape from the misfortunes of Ville Rose, and few are lucky enough to have either. There are many tragedies in these stories—deaths, crimes, and injustices—and yet I don’t think it is a book about sadness or tragedy. Instead it is about a place and the interconnections between the people there. It is about the connections between a radio announcer and her listeners, a teacher and his pupils, parents and children, and also about the inner lives of them all, and how each one effects the others. It is a beautiful book with stories worthy of contemplation, recollection, and rereading.

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Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis by Ali Smith []

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In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, tucked away between stories about just how cruel gods & monsters & men can be, is a happy myth about a girl falling in love with another girl. In Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith takes this myth of Iphis and Ianthe into the twenty-first century, and the result is a story that celebrates transformation, love, and civil disobedience.

In Inverness, dreamy twenty-something Anthea quits her corporate job, to the chagrin of her serious-minded older sister, Imogen, and promptly falls in love with a graffiti artist. Anthea and her modern-day Iphis joyfully thwart conventions of sex and gender in this decidedly queer retelling. Told from the perspectives of Anthea and Imogen, Girl Meets Boy is written in Smith’s signature (& humorous!) steam-of-conscious style. Her love of wordplay and ear for conversations make it perfect to be read aloud.

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Major Pettigrew’s last stand : a novel by Helen Simonson []

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Debut author, Simonson, has written a delightful and surprising love story that takes place in the beautiful English country town of Edgecombe St. Mary. Retired Major Pettigrew is a proper English widower who falls in love with kindhearted Pakistani widow, Mrs. Ali, much to the chagrin of the community. Drama and humor ensue.

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Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet []

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It looks light (and it is hilarious in places), but the absurdity and the quick dialogue are thinly laid over some very serious questions about belief, cynicism, and the fate of the earth. Yes there really are mermaids, and it’s a quick-flowing, entertaining story. Millet’s language is eloquent and poetic, witty, incisive: a joy to read.

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The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde [, ]

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This latest entry in the Thursday Next series of genre-bending literary absurdist fantasy adventure novels is immensely satisfying.  Fforde doesn’t miss a chance for a farcical or pun-driven punchline; the twists and knots and mobius strips in the overlapping plot lines make perfect sense in the impossible logic of his alternate world, despite (or because of) which, they still provide surprises.  Thursday has been pushed into semi-retirement but nevertheless manages to be at the center of the action, valiantly trying to save the world from Goliath Corporation (mission statement: to own everything and control everybody), the smitings of a wrathful deity, asteroid collisions, overdue library books, and genetically engineered fake versions of herself.  The reader on this Recorded Books version has done a brilliant job of voicing the many characters and pacing the reading with a deadpan nonchalance.

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The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens []

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This was the first novel by Charles Dickens and really a pleasure to read. It tells the story of Mr. Pickwick and his fellow Pickwick Club members as they travel the English countryside and describes their adventures in a very humorous manner but also with a keen eye into the social and political landscape of the time. It was a great re-introduction to Dickens for me and I am looking forward to reading many of his other works.

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Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon []

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Michael Chabon’s mastery of language alone is enough to recommend anything he writes.  But the characters in Telegraph Avenue provide much more to enjoy. The story centers around two friends in Oakland, California who own a used record store that is “nearly the last of its kind.” Archy is black, Nat is Jewish, and their wives are also partners in a midwifery practice.  All of them are beleaguered by cultural and economic realities that endanger their livelihoods, but they keep doing what they believe in.  Meanwhile their children have their own troubles which are drawn sympathetically yet realistically.  The neighborhood, customers, relatives, friends and enemies are portrayed with a warts-and-all detail that makes them very multi-dimensional, believable and relatable.  The story unfolds at a deliberate pace but the humanness of the characters and the joy of Chabon’s writing will draw you in.  For music buffs, there’s an extra nostalgic delight in vintage vinyl.  Clarke Peters reads for Recorded Books in a rich, deep voice, delivering Chabon’s metaphors and dialogue with the power, humor and sly intelligence they deserve.

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Widow’s War by Sally Gunning []

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Set on Cape Cod (in the area which is now Brewster), in the year 1761 we meet Lyddie Berry, whose husband drowns while whaling. She defies convention and chooses not to live with her son-in-law (and who could blame her), and holds onto the law of being able to use (but not own) 1/3 of her husband’s property. She defies social, legal and religious strictures of her time, and makes her way through a world that is not made for independent women. Throw in some romance and intrigue with the details of daily life and you have a very captivating story. The author was led to the subject by her own historical research into her family, and her familiarity with the area is clear in the book.

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The Magicians by Lev Grossman []

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What if Harry Potter and his friends were older and lived in New York instead of England? Despite its references to Narnia and other fantasy classics, The Magicians is not a children’s book. The protagonist is neither hero nor anti-hero — he’s more like an actual human being (granted, with magical gifts) looking for meaning in the world and generally failing to find it. He and his classmates graduate from a secret, elite college for wizards and don’t know what to do with the rest of their lives. (Here’s where the existential literary fiction comes in.) Everything is open to question — was that a quest we were given, or are we just projecting? — and the lines between good and evil are often unclear, or beside the point. The plot is twisty enough and the prose captivating and spiced with humor. There are occasional disappointments, but The Magicians is still an adventure that’s hard to put down. It’s going to make a great movie someday.

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One of our Thursdays is missing by Jasper Fforde []

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Jasper Fforde’s latest offering in the Thursday Next series is a metafictional tour de farce. The original Thursday — literary police Special Operations Agent (ret.) and the star of her own series of novels-with-novels — has disappeared, and it’s up to her fictional character to find her by impersonating the real Thursday. There’s a border dispute in BookWorld between the genres of Racy Novel and Women’s Fiction, and if Thursday doesn’t show up for the peace talks, war might ensue. Fforde sprinkles his story with characters and allusions from the classics and popular fiction, and makes liberal use of puns including setting up whole subplots just for a punch line. His style is uncategorizable and nearly indescribable, at least not in a way that makes any sense, but irresistibly entertaining and uniquely inventive. This sequel refers back to things that happened (or didn’t) in previous titles in the series, and it might help to start with the first installment, The Eyre Affair.

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Room by Emma Donoghue []

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Having read some reviews of this book which described the harrowing situation of the two main characters, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read it or not. I’m glad I did though because the characters of Ma and Jack were so well developed and held my interest so thoroughly that I read this book almost non-stop during a two day period. Emma Donoghue has written a wonderful character driven novel which is absolutely a must read. A previous staff review clearly explains the plot line (Nov.1, 2010)

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