The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

May 6, 2021 by

[Tricia]

In some ways reading this book reminded me of watching one of those 1950s Douglas Sirk films – lush, colorful, melodramatic, but with an underlying social commentary. The book takes place in Jaipur India in the 1950s, a few years after India gained independence from British colonial rule. The book centers on Lakshmi, a woman in her thirties who makes a living as a henna artist and an herbalist and healer for wealthy women. Lakshmi has worked very hard to establish her business and her position, after having escaped an abusive marriage as a teenager and come to the city to build a life for herself. Her dream is to build a house of her own, and she is nearly there when her life is disrupted by the arrival of Rahda, Lakshmi’s 13 year old sister, after the death of their parents. Lakshmi was not aware she had a sister, given that when she ran away from her marriage as a teenager, her parents were ostracized by their community and have refused contact with her. Lakshmi had not wanted to have children, and struggles with being responsible for Rahda, who has grown up in difficult circumstances and was considered to be bad luck back home. Rahda is obsessed with British literature and Hollywood movies, and bristles under Lakshmi’s attempts to make her understand and follow the rules and restrictive role demanded by Lakshmi’s work catering to the elite of Jaipur. Rahda’s choices, and in many ways her very existence, ultimately jeopardize Lakshmi’s precarious role in this world.

I appreciated the ways in which the stark realities of poverty, abuse, unwanted pregnancy, and the narrow and restrictive roles of caste and gender, refuse to stay out of sight in this book, no matter how hard the wealthy characters, and to some extent Lakshmi herself, try to ignore them. While Lakshmi’s independence and success are admirable, It is painful at times to watch her struggle to keep her role in this wealthy society in light of the cruelty it often shows to those like her and her sister. But I also appreciated that there is compassion shown to almost all of the characters in the book, with empathy particularly for the difficulties and challenges of even the most privileged women, whose lives on the surface seem easy. This is a highly readable book, and there is a sequel that is coming out in June which I very much look forward to reading.

I listened to the audio version of this book on Hoopla. The book is also available at the Library, and as both an eBook and an audiobook on Libby/Overdrive. The sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, is on order at the Library.

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Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

April 27, 2021 by

[Tricia]

This vibrant, rich debut YA fantasy novel tells the story of Tarisai, who we first meet as a lonely, isolated child. Tarisai is the daughter of The Lady, a mysterious woman who drops in and out of Tarisai’s life. Tarisai has the gift of being able to read, change and erase people’s memories when she touches them, which leads to a childhood of people avoiding her touch. She is eventually brought to the Capitol to compete to become part of the Prince’s Council of 11, a council of gifted children who will swear loyalty to the Crown Prince for life, and form a family in which they are able to telepathically communicate. This is the dream for Tarisai – to have this kind of closeness and connection with others. However, her mother has implanted in her an order to kill the Crown Prince if and when she is anointed as part of his Council.

I loved the world building of this book, which is rich and vivid and inspired by pre-colonial West African history and folklore. I was immediately drawn into this world and Tarisai’s story. The book does a nice job of weaving in broader issues of imperialism and the role of culture, with Tarisai’s personal struggles with trust and loyalty, and finding her voice and her purpose. I also appreciated the nuances in the positions and beliefs of the characters, where things are more complicated than just good vs evil. This is a highly readable and enjoyable book – I gobbled up the audiobook in a couple of days. I’m really excited to read book 2 when it comes out!

You can find this book at the Library and both the eBook and the audiobook on Hoopla.

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

April 12, 2021 by

[Tricia]

I love it when historical fiction reminds me, as it so often does, of how much I don’t know. This was the case in many ways with Libertie. For one thing, the book introduced me to the life of Dr. Susan McKinney Steward, the first Black woman physician in New York, and only the third Black woman to become a doctor in the country. The book, inspired by Dr. McKinney Steward’s life, is told through the eyes of Libertie, the daughter of a Black woman doctor, growing up in a free Black community in Brooklyn during the Reconstruction era. At the heart of the story is the complicated relationship between Libertie and her mother. Libertie idolizes her mother growing up, but struggles with her mother’s expectation that she too will become a doctor.

One of the things I liked most about this book is the that it provides such a fascinating snapshot of two particular places during this pivotal time – first, the free Black community in Brooklyn where Libertie grows up, and then Haiti, where Libertie moves when she marries a Haitian doctor. The racial, political, religious and class dynamics the author depicts in both places during this time were fascinating. I also realized how little I know about the history of Haiti, which is something I need to dig into.

One of the most striking aspects of this book to me is its focus on the mental health impacts of slavery. As a child Libertie sees her mother treat several people who are brought to her directly after having escaped slavery. Even when their physical wounds are healed, the psychological toll, what we would recognize today as PTSD, is something that her mother struggles to treat. There is also a fascinating dynamic throughout the book between those like Libertie and her mother who were freeborn, and those, including many of her mother’s patients, and two college friends of Libertie, known as The Graces, who had been enslaved.

There was so much to think about from this book, and I think it will stay with me for a while. I’m very glad I read it.

Libertie is available as both an ebook and an audiobook on Hoopla, as well as at the Library.

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Nick, by Michael Farris Smith

April 5, 2021 by

[Lesley]

It has been an incredibly long time since I read The Great Gatsby and I thought about re-reading that before picking this up. I’m glad I didn’t. The writing is stunning; stark and slick like Fitzgerald when depicting Daisy’s life and Jay Gatsby’s parties and odd behavior but meditative and melancholy in Nick’s voice. We get the original novel’s story from this unusual inside observer. Nick’s military history and his own struggles cut through the empty superficiality that both Daisy and Jay are suffering through. And, seeing them through Nick’s eyes, we start to see the real humanity behind the superficial.

I did re-read Gatsby after I finished this. It is still a seminal work, no doubt. But in some ways I liked Nick better — or more that I like Gatsby more having read Nick.

The Great Gatsby in our library catalog (book, audiobook, movie, graphic novel, about the book), libby/overdrive, hoopla

Nick in our library catalog

Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger, by Lisa Donovan

March 29, 2021 by

[Lesley]

This is a very satisfying and moving combination of memoir and food writing. I wasn’t familiar with Lisa Donovan before this book was recommended to me – what a story‚Ķ I’m not sure exactly what to say except that this made me think in some ways of Ruth Reichl’s writing. Life and food and heartbreak and cooking and family and the world all somehow wrapped up in one book and it all fits together. Find it in our catalog.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

March 23, 2021 by

[Tricia]

Looking for a comfort read? This whimsical, gentle fantasy really hit the spot for me during turbulent times. It tells the story of Linus, who works for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He is a rule follower whose job is to check in on orphanages for magical children, to make sure they are safe and that the children’s magic is being handled (contained) properly. While not particularly inspired in his position, he does believes in the work he is doing. However, when he is assigned to spend a month at a house for the magical children who are considered the most dangerous, his world view begins to shift. Along with Linus you get to know and love the unusual, magical children who live there. Linus also begins to fall for Arthur, the mysterious head of the orphanage. This is a lovely, big-hearted, hopeful book about creating your own family, and finding your own voice and power. You can find this book at the Library and on Libby/Overdrive.

Title details for The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune - Wait list

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, by Garth Nix

March 21, 2021 by

[Lesley]

More, please! I loved this book — I would read 100 more in a booksellers series. Are you listening Garth Nix??

I’m a librarian, so any weapon-wielding, superhero, secret book people society is going to be right up my alley. Then throw in that the first left-handed bookseller that Susan (more about her in a minute) meets is named Merlin and his sister (a right-handed bookseller) is Vivien and I’m in.

It’s 1980’s London and when Susan Arkshaw sets out to track down the father she’s never meant with only her nearly untethered mother’s “clues” she stumbles into the shadowy realm of the booksellers. Or maybe it is more that they stumble into her, it’s hard to say. Merlin and Vivien are the generation that is starting to push back against the old way of doing things and teaming up with Susan speeds it up.

Merlin is completely hilarious – he can barely get out of his own way – and Vivien is the total opposite, always in control and super capable. Yet neither one could succeed (or survive) without the other – and it turns out they both need Susan. One reviewer said this reads like Derek Landy, Lev Grossman, and Neil Gaiman all in one — I already thought Garth Nix was in this camp, and it’s a decent way to describe his writing. I do think this is quite a bit lighter than I expect from Grossman or Gaiman but the humor, playfulness, and sharp dialog are here.

Will Susan learn who, or what, her father was/is? Are the booksellers on the side of good or evil – or somewhere in between? And, what about Susan’s mother? There are a lot of questions and mysteries in this book and the ride is so fast and so fun I wasn’t in a hurry to get the answers! You can find this book at the Library, and as an ebook and audiobook on Libby/Overdrive.

Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist by Judith Heumann

March 15, 2021 by

[Tricia]

While I love learning about women who have made amazing contributions to the world, it also pains me in some ways to think about why these stories aren’t more widely known. I certainly felt this way reading Vanguard by Martha Jones about the history of Black women fighting for Voting Rights. It was especially poignant for me learning about Judy Heumann since I have been directly impacted by the things she worked on, and yet I only just learned about her from my daughter. So for this Women’s History Month, I want to recommend Being Heumann, Judy Heumann’s fascinating memoir. Heumann is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. Judy contracted polio at 18 months, and uses a wheelchair. Her parents were advised by doctors to put Judy into an institution, but their experiences in Nazi Germany led them to reject that idea. Her mother fought for her right to a public education, which she had been denied. Judy naturally grew into her activism, inspired by the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Rights movement, as well as by her parents. To me the most riveting part of the book was the story of the weeks long 504 Sit-In that Heumann led at the San Francisco US Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare in 1977. The Sit-In was part of a nationwide effort by disability rights activists to persuade the US Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare to finally sign the regulations that would enable Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities by any program receiving federal funds. This is very much, as the title indicates, an activist’s memoir, and while there are important aspects of Heumann’s personal life that come through, the focus of most of the book is on the fight for the civil rights of people with disabilities. This was an eye-opening book for me and one I very much recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about this fight, and this extraordinary woman. The book is available at the Library.

Being Heumann by Judith Heumann and Kristen Joiner

7 Ways, by Jamie Oliver

March 6, 2021 by

[Lesley] I really should leave the cookbook reviews to Cindy, but this one is my speed! I was immediately attracted to the structure: 18 common ingredients, each with 7 different recipes. In my house, we do use some foods over and over again: chicken, broccoli, eggs, fish, potatoes… And there are days when I feel like if I have to make another quiche, I’m going to run away from home.

Now I can make cajun coddled eggs or cauli chicken pot pie. My family occasionally eats red meat, can be picky about vegetables, needs leftovers for lunch, and includes a vegetarian. That can make dinner tricky. This cookbook is the epitome of flexibility. A steak recipe that sounds like flavors the vegetarian would enjoy? Swap out one of the other ingredients (eggplant, sweet potato, mushrooms). Like the preparation of this main ingredient but not the sauce? Find some other sauce that you can use.

The ingredients lists on the recipes are nice and short and each recipe fits on one page with a picture facing. For the most part, I found the ingredients to be things I usually have at home, though a few recipes would be a challenge for my basic pantry. Still, I felt like it would be easy to substitute something that I did have in those cases.

I made the potato lasagna which was delicious. Oh, and I had more than my baking dish would hold so I made a second one with broccoli – see, flexible! As often happens with a new recipe, I learned a few things that I would do differently, but given how yummy it was, I will definitely make it again with those tweaks.

I can also see how I could make it with different ingredients or spice combinations. I liked the technique of incorporating chopped up asparagus stalks into the sauce – the sauce stayed smooth but was thicker than with a roux alone and the flavor was much richer. That’s something I’ll use in other dishes.

I flagged a bunch of other recipes my family wants to try (swapping things in and out) including:

  • Cauli Chicken Pot Pie
  • Sweet Potato & Chicken Chop Suey
  • Eggplant & Ricotta Pasta
  • Asian Egg & Bean Salad
  • Beef & Guinness Hot Pot
  • Cajun Coddled Eggs
  • Quick Stuffed Potato Naans
  • Mushroom Toad-In-The-Hole
  • Quickest White Fish Terrine

Click here to find 7 Ways by Jamie Oliver in our catalog.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

February 25, 2021 by

[Tricia]

I have to admit that I was a bit reluctant to read this book, because it seemed as though it would be unbearably sad. I was thankfully convinced to read it by a member of the Library Book Group (thanks Liz!). What I found is a book that is almost unbearably beautiful. The story is based on the fact that Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet (or Hamlet, as the names were used interchangably back then) died at age 11, and that four years later he wrote the play Hamlet. From this fact, and the few other known facts surrounding Shakespeare’s life, O’Farrell has woven a lyrical, mesmerizing, story of this family, and their life in Stratford. One thing I really appreciated in the book is that it is the story of a family in a particular place and time, and the fact that we still know about one member of that family today is not really the point. Shakespeare himself is the only main character never named in the book, he is only known in terms of his relationship with other people – he is alternately referred to as the husband, the father, the Latin tutor, the brother. He has a much smaller role in the novel than I had expected, as he spends most of his time in London building a separate life in the theatre. The focus is on more on his family, and the impact that his career and his art had on them, although there is a powerful exploration towards the end of the impact that the death of his son might have had on his art. Agnes, his wife, is more of the central character, and she is fascinating – magical, a healer, an unusual person struggling to make a life for herself and her children in the claustrophobic household of her in-laws, and trying to understand her husband’s need to pursue his dreams in London. I was particularly taken with details such as the way the author makes you feel the day to day impact of the lack of education on women– how frustrating it can be to not be able to read, especially when letters are such a valuable mode of communication. You also witness how these people manage to live their day to day lives while navigating the painful mortality rate of children, the fear of dying in childbirth, and the ever present threat of the plague. You come to know Hamnet as a sweet, regular kid who shares a deep and beautiful bond with his twin sister Judith. And you see how the different members of the family deal with the loss of Hamnet. This is a haunting, beautiful book. Yes it is sad, and it is beautiful and well deserving of all the accolades it received. Hamnet is available at the Library and on Libby/Overdrive.

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell