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Staff Picks Reviewer: Faith

Airbow by Maria Kalaniemi & Sven Ahlbäck []

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What is Finnish button accordion music, anyway? If you like Sharon Shannon, you’ll love Maria Kalaniemi.

She’s virtuosic, soulful and versatile. On this album she teams up with Swedish fiddler and scholar of folk music Sven Ahlbäck for a selection of traditional Scandinavian tunes and original compositions. They are both technically brilliant and have a wonderful synergy together. Johan Hedin joins them on nyckelharpa (Swedish keyed fiddle) and Swedish singer Susanne Rosenberg is featured on a few tunes. The music is spare, gorgeous, with a haunting energy that’s both ancient and contemporary. This is great listening for fans of Nordic or Celtic folk, fiddle tunes, or the undeservedly-maligned accordion.

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The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson []

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Bill Bryson is at his sincerely sardonic best as he roams his adopted country in search of what he loves best: quaint villages, good hiking, exquisite views, mysterious ancient sites, and odd people to make fun of–including himself. It’s just as unputdownable as all his other travel memoirs.

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The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips []

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Marie Phillips, author of the delicious satire Gods Behaving Badly, now turns her gift for parody on the legends of King Arthur and his knights of Camelot. It’s a bit of Terry Pratchett meets Jane Austen meets The Princess Bride. The underdogs at Camelot are the heroes of this comic novel: Sir Humphrey of the Table of Less Valued Knights (the rectangular one in the draftiest corner, where they only get leftovers and watered-down wine) takes up a quest to find a damsel’s missing fiancé. Meanwhile in the neighboring kingdom, the freshly-minted and unwilling Queen Martha runs away from her destiny while another knight is tasked with bringing her back to the exceptionally unpleasant Prince-Consort-who-wants-to-be-King Edwin. Nobody is quite what they appear, except perhaps the elephant Jemima. Even the Lady of the Lake is a substitute, annoyed with having to hold on to the magic sword while the original Lady has run off with Merlin. Full of wit, surprises and off-the-wall characters, this contemporary re-visioning of medieval myths is a lot of fun.

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Stuffology 101 by Brenda Avadian, MA, and Eric Riddle []

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I was going to have a photo taken of me reading this in front of a pile of boxes we haven’t unpacked since the last move, but I couldn’t find the camera.
Stuffology is a refreshing contrast to The life-changing magic of tidying up even though it promises similar benefits to getting rid of excess stuff. They’re serious about their subject but light-hearted in their approach. Get rid of the accumulated objects that are weighing your life down and you’ll be better able to focus, function and live fully in the present. Plus they coined the acronyms CHAOS (Can’t Have Anybody Over Syndrome) and POOP (Piles Of Overwhelming Paperwork).

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Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips []

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The immortal Greek gods are in reduced circumstances in the 21st century, living in a dilapidated house in London and pretty tired of each other’s company by now. Their relationships among themselves and their interactions with the modern world are perfectly in character, smart and very funny. Now that the gods have had to get day jobs, Aphrodite does phone sex, Artemis is a dog walker, and Apollo is still chasing mortal women. It’s an ingenious concept and Phillips carries it through cleverly, unpredictably and hilariously. This is Phillips’s debut novel and I can’t wait for the next.

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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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Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites by J.S. Bach; performed on double bass by Edgar Meyer []

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This is one of the most amazing CDs I have ever heard.  Edgar Meyer is a musician’s musician who is in high demand in the classical, folk and bluegrass worlds.  He has partnered with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell,  Bela Fleck and Mark O’Connor, and he composed a violin concerto for Hilary Hahn.  Here he partners with Johann Sebastian Bach in a new interpretation of the suites for solo cello with a much deeper voice.  He solves the technical problems of the bass — larger reach and slower-speaking strings, for example — with a technical mastery that is just mind-boggling. But this is not just virtuosic fireworks.  The bass sings under his fingers.  And you can hear the 30 years of practice and love for the repertoire in this recording.  Meyer is right up there with Casals on my shelf.

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Down the Nile: alone in a fisherman’s skiff by Rosemary Mahoney []

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I liked this independent, determined woman. In the late 1990s, Mahoney, an American writer and experienced recreational rower, got the idea of rowing herself down the Nile.  This is not allowed and virtually never done — tourists always travel on cruise boats or feluccas (small sailboats piloted by their owners). When she set out to buy a small rowboat in Egypt, she was met with disbelief.  Women, even western women, did not travel alone. To a fisherman, rowing was work, so why would she want to do it herself?  Felucca captains and boat owners assumed a woman couldn’t know how to row. Eventually she succeeds in her adventure, and it’s both more and less than expected but always fascinating.

Mahoney is empathetic and eloquent. She engages in conversations with Egyptian men and women she meets, learning a great deal about cultural differences, rampant poverty, and the restricted status of women. She quotes extensively from 19th-century European travelers, notably Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, and gives a selective history of tourism in the region (including colonialism and theft of artifacts) which puts the present-day in context.  So much has changed and so much is the same.  In particular, her descriptions of the river and its natural environment — the wildlife, vegetation, water and sky — are poetic and timeless.

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The 100 year old man who climbed out the window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson []

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I picked this up because of the intriguing title and because it was Swedish without being a grim, dark thriller.  It does have crime though, so you won’t feel deprived.  Anyhow, this crazy old character escapes from a nursing home and goes off on a series of adventures that recall his long and fascinating life.  It’s ironic, absurd, clever and surreal, populated by unique and sometimes famous figures from the past and present.  It shares the unlikely Forrest Gump just-happened-to-be-in-the-right-place-at-the right-time premise, so be prepared to suspend your disbelief once and for all.  Once you do, it’s wickedly entertaining, fast paced and very funny.

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple []

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A couple of creative, perceptive and witty misfits star in this novel.  Mother, wife and lapsed architect Bernadette lives in Seattle with her high-tech superstar husband and too-smart-for-social-success teenage daughter.  They live in a beyond weird old house and can’t cope with their perfectly privileged and PC neighbors or private school.  The format is as original as the characters: the story unfolds through letters, emails, diary entries and school documents.  Maria Semple wrote for TV’s Arrested Development, so you’d expect the dialogue and plot twists to be hilarious, and they are; there are scenes that would be fabulous onscreen.  There’s also sincerity and real character development in these quickly-turning pages.

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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 long earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter []

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As a longtime Pratchett fan, I was looking forward to a fantasy full of humor and parody.  This isn’t it, but I’ve been drawn in and am still reading.  Stephen Baxter is known for his prolific science fiction novels.  The Long Earth posits an infinite number of other worlds just like ours, each in its own universe–except they are completely undeveloped by humans.  In the very near future, a reclusive scientist develops a way to step between worlds by building a “stepping” box so simple any teenager can make one.  Large numbers of people begin popping back and forth, creating complex consequences and changing the world(s) in ways that no one can keep up with.  I’m enjoying interesting characters such as 13-year-old Joshua, who is more comfortable in the primordial forest of other Earths than in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, and a computer in the shape of a vending machine named Lobsang who claims to be a reincarnated Tibetan motorcycle repairman.

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