No Exit by Taylor Adams

A hand print appears smeared across a frosty blue window. The cover fades to black at top and bottom, with title and author in

by Piyali C.

It was almost 1 am when I let out a long breath. I did not even realize I was holding my breath and at the edge of my seat till I read the last page of No Exit by Taylor Adams. This is the kind of thriller I like to read – one that allows me ‘no exit’ until I finish the last page. A thriller that is crisp, fast paced and yes, thrilling. In one word – unputdownable! 

Darby Thorne, a sophomore at CU-Boulder, gets a message from her sister Devon that their mother has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and is, most likely, at the last stage of her life. Darby, who was determined not to venture ‘any further off campus than Ralphie’s Thriftway’ (p.4), finds herself racing down the highway in the middle of a fierce blizzard in the Colorado Rockies to reach her dying mother in Utah. Darby’s old Honda Civic does not have snow chains on the tires and the last sign that Darby read before heavy snow obliterated her vision was ‘CHAINS MANDATORY’.  Darby is forced to pull in to a desolate rest stop to wait out the raging snowstorm. She discovers, much to her dismay, there is no cell reception at that rest stop. There are, however, a coffee machine, a vending machine and….. four complete strangers taking refuge, just like her. 

The charge in Darby’s phone is at 17 percent and rapidly depleting. She is desperate to talk to her sister to know more about her mother’s condition so Darby goes out in the snow to search for signal. As she tries to hold her phone up near the cars parked in the parking lot of the rest stop, she sees a little hand – the hand of a child in the back window of one of the parked cars. Shocked at this discovery, Darby moves closer to the car and tries to look inside. The inside is dark and she can detect no movement or sound. She convinces herself that the hand she she saw was nothing more than a trick of light and gets ready to go inside. But before she goes, she wants to put her suspicion to rest so she directs the LED light from her phone inside the back of the car. A child’s face stares back at her. The little girl is confined in a dog kennel in the back of a car in a raging snow storm. 

Darby has no way to call for help and no idea how to rescue this little girl. It is clear that one of the strangers inside the rest stop is a kidnapper who may come out any moment and discover that Darby has uncovered his or her secret. Thus begins a chilling and suspenseful tale of young Darby’s effort to unmask and outsmart a psychopath in an increasingly dangerous and alienating situation as the snow piles up and threatens to bury them in the rest stop at the edge of civilization. 

Darby must keep the little girl alive and stay alive herself to save the child. As the odds pile against her, her determination and will to save the kidnapped child increase exponentially. But is her determination enough to defeat the kidnapper who has an answer for all the challenges that Darby throws their way?

This book is not for the faint of heart. If you enjoy a chilling, suspenseful, edgy thriller that will keep you reading late at night, this is the book for you! No Exit by Taylor Adams is available in print and Large Print formats.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction and keeps the hope alive that someday she will reach the bottom of her to-read list.

Author Works with Naima Coster: What’s Mine and Yours – 2022 One Maryland One Book 

By Piyali C.

Swatches of color in pale green, beige-pink, cranberry, orange read, and yellow are layered above the silhouette of a town. The swatches resolve to be

Tue, October 4 | 7 – 8 pm
HCLS Miller Branch
Register at this link. 

The theme for One Maryland One Book this year was “new beginning.” As a member of the selection committee, I was assigned to read What’s Mine and Yours as a potential title. It took me a while to recognize the theme in this story, but I realized that instead of the theme being overarching, hope or a new beginning, operates somewhat cyclically in this novel.  

The story opens with the prospect of new beginnings – two men stand at the cusp of a beautiful, happy life. Two fathers share a cigarette and a brief conversation one day about their dreams surrounding the amazing lives that they envision for their children. However, disaster strikes soon after and the lives of both those families take vastly different turns than what the fathers dreamed.  

The story revolves around two families who confront each other over a busing initiative in 2002 in Piedmont, North Carolina. Jade has suffered an immeasurable loss in her life already. Now she wants her only son, Gee, to get all the opportunities that she did not have so he can become a successful, sensitive Black man in America. After her husband is incarcerated, Lacy May, a White woman, is equally determined to keep children like Gee away from her White-passing, biracial daughters. She does not want them influenced by the children from the east side of town at their predominantly white school.

However, Gee and Noelle, Lacy May’s eldest daughter, become friends, which soon turns into more when they meet during a school play. The lives of these two families intersect despite the mothers being on opposite sides of the debate over the county’s decision to enforce integration. The busing initiative provides the primary conflict, with the repercussions manifested in the adult lives of the central characters – Jade and Gee, Lacy May and her three daughters. Despite the different directions each character grows, they all manage to find their new beginnings by the end of the book, in big ways and small.  

Although the story begins in Piedmont, North Carolina, the issues addressed in What’s Mine and Yours are relevant to other parts of United States, including in Maryland and even Howard County. The theme of school desegregation to address socioeconomic disparity is especially pertinent as The Baltimore Sun reports, by 2014, Maryland was the third most racially segregated state in the nation, with one-quarter of its schools considered highly segregated.  

The integration efforts described in the book will touch a relatable chord and inspire interesting and, hopefully, productive discussions. While the story revolves around an effort to desegregate schools, the book explores other, hugely relevant issues, such as the struggles of Black teens trying to prove that they are good enough to be in a White-dominated world, the question of why they have to prove that they are good enough, White-passing biracial people and issues that they deal with, complicated relationships between lovers, sisters, LGBTQIA+ identity, infidelity, abortion, and miscarriage – all things relevant to our present moment. 

We are thrilled that Howard County Library system is the only public library in Maryland on author Naima Coster’s six-stop tour! 

A young Black woman with short curly hair, wearing a black V-neck shirt stands by a wall painted in flowers.

Naima Coster is a graduate of Yale University, Fordham University, and the Columbia University School of the Arts where she earned her MFA. She has taught writing for more than a decade in community settings, youth programs, and universities. She currently teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Antioch University in L.A. She is a 2022 mentor for the Periplus Collective.

One Maryland One Book is a program of Maryland Humanities. This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Maryland State Library. We would also like to thank our valuable partners Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) and the Office of Human Rights & Equity (OHRE) and the Last Word bookstore.  

What’s Mine and Yours is available in print and e-audiobook

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction and keeps the hope alive that someday she will reach the bottom of her to-read list.
 

Mrs. England by Stacey Halls

A spruce green cover has botanical illustrations framing a manor house with a woman silhouetted in the doorway.

by Piyali C.

One of my favorite quotes about friendship is the famous one by C.S Lewis: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What? You too! I thought I was the only one.” My friendship began with my library colleague who introduced me to Stacey Halls in the same way. We bonded over Daphne Du Maurier, our mutual love for Jane Austen, historical fiction, and literary fiction. So, when she brought The Familiars by Stacey Halls to my desk and said, “Here read this. I know you will like it,” I knew I should drop everything and read it. I did not like it – I loved it.

The Familiars is a story of two women in early seventeenth century England, both fighting for survival. Mistress Fleetwood Shuttleworth is determined not to lose her fourth baby like the ones before and Alice Gray needs to prove she is not a witch during the infamous Pendle Hill witch trial of 1612. Alice is a skilled midwife with extensive knowledge of herbs, and Fleetwood needs her help to save her unborn baby as well as her own life. When Alice is accused of witchcraft and imprisoned, Fleetwood is ready to go to any lengths to prove her innocence. Not only is the story superbly written and well-paced, it shows tremendous character development of the protagonist. One may wonder if all the steps taken by Fleetwood in her quest to free Alice are plausible given the time period, but I embraced her actions wholeheartedly and willed her on to succeed. 

In Mrs. England, Norland Institute graduate Ruby May is looking for a fresh start after the family she worked for emigrates to United States. Although the Radlett family would dearly love their Nurse May to travel with them to America, she is unable to do so for a reason undisclosed at the beginning of the story. In 1904 women from the upper echelon in England are completely dependent on nurses for the care of their children, preferably from the prestigious Norland Institute. Nurse May gets her second assignment without much delay. However, she will have to travel to cold, foggy West Yorkshire to take charge of four children of a wealthy couple, the Englands of a mill dynasty. After reaching her destination, she is surprised to find that she is taking directions about the children’s routine from the friendly and easy-going Mr. England, while Mrs. Lilian England is aloof, cold, and withdrawn. While Ruby develops a nurturing and loving relationship with the children, she simply cannot figure out the mysterious couple for whom she works. When she feels the lives of the children are in danger, she must dig deep within her and ultimately face her fears. While caring for the England children and figuring out the power dynamic in the Edwardian marriage of the Englands, Ruby learns to make peace with her past and only then can she break free from the chains that hold her captive psychologically. 

Fans of Daphne Du Maurier will love this atmospheric, gothic tale and the shroud of mystery surrounding both Nurse May as well as Charles and Lilian England. Although Nurse May’s character is likeable, the readers know she is hiding a secret so a niggling doubt about her reliability as a narrator remains in the readers’ minds. When we get introduced to the England family, the readers have a challenging time believing the authenticity of Charles England’s affability. There is something inauthentic about his outward friendliness. Lilian England is easy to dislike due to her coldness towards her children. Yet there is a vulnerability in her which questions even our dislike for her. Readers vacillate between who to believe – the charming Mr. England or the aloof Mrs. England. And just when we think the mystery has been resolved, we read the last line – just one single line and get a jolt. All the twists and turns that captivated us and kept us turning pages, all that we believed was resolved gets thrown into question and as we finish the book, we start rethinking the whole mystery all over again. 

Mrs. England is available in print, in ebook and in eaudiobook. 

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction and keeps the hope alive that someday she will reach the bottom of her to-read list.

The Class Mom series by Laurie Gelman

The image shows a mom with shoulder-length brunette hair, in a white t-shirt and blue jeans with her back to the viewer. Her right hand is raised and her index finger and thumb form the "l" in the book's title, Class Mom.

By Piyali C.

Most people at their workplaces dream of moving up in the chain. They aspire to be assistant managers, managers, or chiefs of staff, and hopefully rise to the top. I dream of starting new book clubs. I already co-facilitate two book clubs at the library – Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction. But if I am allowed and time permits, I dream of starting yet another one that I will name “Light but not Fluffy.’ And Laurie Gelman’s Class Mom along with its sequels will surely feature as some of the chosen titles.  

My love affair with Gelman’s writing started when I discovered Class Mom on the shelves while I was shelving a cart at the library. The jacket looked interesting, so I took it home and read it in two sittings. I met Jennifer Dixon in Class Mom for the first time and fell head over heels in love with her character. In Class Mom, Jennifer Dixon raised two daughters as a single parent before she met Ron, fell in love, married him, and had an adorable baby boy, Max. The story of Class Mom (as the name suggests) revolves around Jen assuming the role of class parent when Max enters kindergarten. Jen is a different kind of class mom than, most likely, you or I have encountered. Her emails to the parents are funny, irreverent, snarky, and raise some eyebrows. Although Jen’s best friend, the PTA president, thinks Jen is perfect for the job, there are many parents who disagree. As we read about Jen’s never-ending commitments to both her child’s school and her own personal life, we wonder how Jen will possibly get everything done. But she does, with an inordinate amount of humor, grace, and – yes – snark.

The cover shows a mom with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a high-visibility vest and holding a "stop" sign that reads "A Class Mom Novel." She has her back to the viewer and appears to be working as a school crossing guard.

In the sequel, You’ve Been Volunteered, Max is in third grade and Jen has been roped into being the class parent again. But this time she must deal with not only the micromanaging PTA president, but also extremely difficult parents who are not charmed by Jennifer’s management of parental politics or the tone of her emails, which remain tongue in cheek, irreverent, and sassy. Apart from the drama in school, Jen’s personal life goes through some turbulence as well, as she deals with her overworked husband and helps her older daughters navigate adulthood. On top of all that, Jen’s elderly parents may also need some supervision. In this book, yet again, Jen juggles all her responsibilities with humor, empathy, sometimes failure, but mostly humor.

The cover shows a Mom in a yoga pose, with shoes, homework, and sports equipment cluttered around her foot. She holds a coffee cup in one hand, a cell phone to her ear, and a grocery bag strung over her arm, with the hose of a vacuum cleaner wrapped around her standing leg.

Yoga Pant Nation is the third hilarious book in this funny series. Max is in fifth grade, so this is Jen’s last year as a class parent in William Taft Elementary school. This year may be her most challenging one yet as she has been entrusted to raise 10,000 dollars to buy devices for fourth and fifth graders. Jen has no idea how she will raise such immense funds with her team of parent volunteers. She is also aspiring to be a spin instructor as well as caring for her two-year-old granddaughter Maud (yes, 53-year-old Jen is a grandmother now). On top of that, her dynamic parents Ray and Kay seem lethargic and forgetful. Jen wonders if it is time for them to move to an assisted living facility. Read this book to find out if Jen Dixon will finally admit defeat. 

Jennifer Dixon is sure to make you laugh as you read about her life. Laurie Gelman puts just the right blend of insanity, charm, love, and sarcasm in Jennifer Dixon to make her readers fall in love with this high-achieving, super snarky, well-meaning mom. If you were or are a class parent or an active member of the PTA, you will relate to Jen. If you have not participated in any of that, you will look at her life with awe and perhaps thank your lucky stars that you have never had to deal with her challenges. No matter which side you are on, one thing is certain: you will laugh. And we all could use some laughter in our lives.

Class Mom, You’ve Been Volunteered, and Yoga Pant Nation are all available in print, and a fourth book, Smells Like Tween Spirit, is due to be published in August.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction and keeps the hope alive that someday she will reach the bottom of her to-read list.

Border Less by Namrata Poddar

A bold illustration shoes a woman's back with her hands raised in a dancing posture, while a votex swirls above her with botes and planes.

By Piyali C.

Dia stretches her arm over her head and forms a mudra with her fingers as she answers phones at a call center, Voizone, in Mumbai. Her customer is irritable and rude. However, if she can resolve the call within seventeen seconds, she has a chance at a promotion in Manali. Thus begins the story of a young woman, Dia Mittal, a passionate dancer who is financing her education by working at a call center in Mumbai and taking care of her family. Dia, however, is representative of modern Indian youth who refuses to stay contained within borders, be it geographic or societal. So instead of listening to her mother’s remonstrations about getting married, Dia dreams of a life that has a higher purpose than matrimony. Although dancing is Dia’s passion, she is realistic enough to know she will not make a name by dancing as a junior artist in Bollywood movies.

Dia wants more from life. Her desire to create her own destiny takes her far from home to the United States where she discovers the dichotomy of belonging to more than one country. After many years of living afar, Dia cannot fully belong to India or relate to her family including her widowed mother. While in United States, Dia is unable to assimilate to the culture and people, even her own people – the desis. She exists in a strange limbo. Namrata Poddar proves her expertise as a storyteller by dividing Dia’s journey in two parts – Roots and Routes. We meet young Dia in Roots. She is still vulnerable, slightly unsure of how her journey in life will unfold, but despite the uncertainty we discover her steely determination to embark on that journey. In Routes, we travel with Dia as she meets new people, finds love and a successful career that transcends borders. Through her eyes we read about the experiences and perspectives of the South Asian diaspora in United States. Through her we discover that although many Indian men and women left their country for better opportunities, they brought with them the patriarchy and prejudices that were, perhaps, a part of their lives when they emigrated.  

Poddar intersperses certain chapters within her story with perspectives of narrators other than Dia without really telling us whose voice we are hearing. Each voice is unique and gives us a glimpse of a slice of life, be it on a passenger train in Mumbai or the struggles of an immigrant who came to the US in the 1960s and built a successful life from scratch. As I read those chapters, I felt a little lost but Poddar guides her readers back to Dia’s life, and it all makes sense at the end. Dia Mittal’s life is by no means smooth or untroubled, however, through it all, her fierce determination to fight boundaries remains constant and just when we think she is going to lose her love and her family, she manages to steer her life back into the path that she has created without losing herself. Not once does she give in to the established patriarchy that threatens to engulf her. 

Although Dia Mittal’s journey is the common thread in this lyrical, superbly told story, many layers interweave to explore themes of belonging, otherness, assimilation, gender, identity, expectation, and as the book jacket says, “a negotiation of power struggles, mediated by race, class, caste, gender, religion, place or migration.” The title Border Less itself, I am sure, will evoke many thoughts among those who like to read and discuss books. I hope book clubs choose this title not only to enjoy Namrata Poddar’s beautiful storytelling but also, perhaps, to understand what it means to cross borders to forge a new path, both physically and metaphorically. 

Border Less is available in print.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction and keeps the hope alive that someday she will reach the bottom of her to-read list.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

The book cover depicts a pale orange curtain falling waves, with dappled stripes of bright yellow sunlight across it. The title and author's name, with "winner of the Pulitzer Prize," are superimposed in white script.

By Piyali C.

In the simple, succinct, and gorgeous prose that is her trademark, Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Namesake, Interpreter of Maladies: Stories, and other works, writes about the observations of a single, unnamed woman living alone in an unnamed city in Italy in Whereabouts. Each chapter in this book reads like a page from a beautifully crafted journal. They are chronicles of our protagonist’s day to day life – be it walking over a bridge where she occasionally comes across her ex-boyfriend, or her sojourn to her favorite sandwich store where she buys the same lunch every day, or her trip to the swimming pool where she meets women who share their stories with each other verbally, or even the stories they share through each hard-earned wrinkle on their faces or their swollen feet or the extra flesh in their midsection. The woman of our story quietly listens. Through her ruminations about her past we come to know about her parents, their eccentricities, her relationship with them, her mother’s financial dependence on her father, and her subsequent financial education to her daughter which influences the woman’s monetary decisions all her life (and not necessarily in a helpful way).

The narrator is lonely sometimes, and sometimes she cherishes her solitude. She is frustrated with the sameness of her life sometimes, and sometimes she is content simply sitting at the piazza in front of her apartment observing frenetic activities in her neighborhood. She falls asleep at night reassured by the noise of traffic and wakes up deep in the night, disconcerted at the silence around her when the sounds of automobiles have ceased. She could be any of us – a juxtaposition of contrasts – and perhaps this ‘everywoman’ trait of the protagonist makes the book and her so relatable.  Her keen sense of observation is what many of us lack these days. It was such a joy to see the world – her world and for a short time our world, too – through her eyes. Even after the book ended, I seemed to linger by the side of the piazza eyeing the sandwich store and looking at the men and women living their lives in that unnamed city in Italy. This is a deeply contemplative novel made up of vignettes from a middle aged woman’s everyday life. There is no catastrophic event in this story, no climax or anti climax. It simply tells the tale of life and in doing so it becomes strangely captivating. At the end of the day, I agree with the description that the publisher provides for this short novel – “Whereabouts is an exquisitely nuanced portrait of urban solitude…”

I would like to share a snippet just to whet your appetite for this truly beautiful literary novel so you can borrow it from Howard County Library System for your next read. There is a passage where the woman comes face to face with the man she once loved in the middle of a bridge. Lahiri writes

“We stop in the middle and look at the wall that flanks the river, and the shadows of pedestrians cast on its surface. They look like skittish ghosts advancing in a row, obedient souls passing from one realm to another. The bridge is flat and yet it’s as if the figures – vaporous shapes against the solid wall – are walking uphill, always climbing. They’re like inmates who proceed, silently, toward a dreadful end” (6-7).

This is simply one example of many where I felt Lahiri painted pictures for me with her words.

Whereabouts is also available in large print and in eBook and eAudiobook format via Overdrive/Libby. Whereabouts is Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel written in Italian, as well as the first time she has self-translated a full-length work.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

This beautiful blue cover features the portrait of a young woman, done in paper art She has long dark wavy hair, a tiara and is surrounded by flower. The book has a sticker that says "Reese's YA Book Club" and a mentions "The New York Times Bestseller".

by Piyali C.

High schooler Izumi’s life is relatively uneventful with her single mom, her bad tempered terrier mix Tamagotchi, and her Asian Girl Gang (AGG), comprised of three other girls from diverse ethnicity in their primarily white Mount Shasta High School. Sure, it is not always easy being Japanese American in a mostly white Mount Shasta, California but Izumi has made it work so far. She even changed her to name to Izzy from Izumi for a while to make it easy for others until her friend Noora convinced her otherwise. Izumi’s mother, a Harvard educated botanist, has tried her best to raise Izumi alone with love and support and, for the most part, Izumi is content. She would, however, like to know who her father is. Izumi’s mom refuses to divulge any information about her father. All Izumi knows is that her parents met at Harvard when both were students there, and Izumi is the product of their brief liaison. Izumi’s father does not even know she exists.

One day, while snooping around in her mom’s room ransacking her expensive make-up stash, Izumi’s friend Noora comes across a book Rare Orchids of North America. Noora flips open the book to find a poem in ‘slanted handwriting’ dedicated to Izumi’s mom, Hanako, by someone named Mak. A little research by Noora reveals that the aforesaid Mak is none other than Makotonomiya Toshihito, the Crown Prince of Japan and also Izumi’s father. In other words, Izumi is a princess.

Within days, Izumi’s life is turned upside down when a simple email sent by her to her parents’ common friend inquiring about the Crown Prince results in her father finding out that she exists. She travels to Japan at her father’s invitation, a country she always dreamed of visiting, as a princess, complete with Royal Imperial Guard and cavalcade. But being a princess comes at a cost. Izumi has to navigate palace protocols, conniving cousins, royal etiquette, learning a new language, paparazzi, and her own romantic feelings for the head of her Royal Imperial Guard. On top of all this, she has to build a relationship with her father, the Crown Prince. Both the father and daughter grow and evolve in their relationship as they learn to be a parent and child. But life is not a fairy tale even in this modern day fairy tale. A betrayal of trust almost destroys Izumi’s budding relationship with her extended imperial family, her love as well as her newly found father.

While writing a heart warming, happy story of love and discovery, Emiko Jean very effectively interweaves the universal dilemma of Asian Americans (or any minority for that matter) about whether they belong or where they belong. Izumi is never ‘fully’ American in Mount Shasta, California and she is never ‘fully’ Japanese when she travels to Japan. That uncertainty is true in the lives of most immigrants and the author makes a very convincing case in her delightful novel Tokyo Ever After.

Pick up this book when your brain craves some respite from all that it is dealing with. Let this book take you to a world where you know the end will be happy even if the means to the end is full of twists and turns, ups and downs. Let the story convince you of ‘happily ever afters.’

David Yoon, author of Frankly in Love, sums the book up perfectly – “Emiko’s flair for sumptuous detail —- Food! Castles! Swoony confessions! Court Drama! Cherry blossoms by the million! —locked me up helplessly into a world of splendor I never wanted to leave.” This young adult story elicited a satisfied yet wistful sigh from me as I turned the last page and it also ignited a burning desire to visit the city of Kyoto. One day…..

Tokyo Ever After is available in print and eBook format through Overdrive/Libby.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

The book cover, in faded pinks and yellows, shows a young Korean woman with hair parted in the middle, sculpted eyebrows, and full makeup and lipstick, wearing a yellow top and looking slightly off to the side. She is surrounded by yellow flowers as if in a garden bower.

By Piyali C.

If I Had Your Face drew me in at the beginning, lost me a little bit in the middle, and captivated me again towards the end. Through the eyes of four narrators, Ara, Kyuri, Miho, and Wonna, Frances Cha brings us not only the personal stories of these women but also the social tapestry of modern South Korea in terms of beauty standards, feminism, women in the work force, a challenging economy, sexuality, matrimony, and societal expectations.

Kyuri works as a room salon girl – an opportunity afforded to only the “prettiest 10 percent.” She accompanies and caters to the sexual needs of rich men, who in turn ply her with designer bags and expensive makeup. Kyuri has surgically altered her entire face to attain the flawless beauty that is vital to her job and, ultimately, her prosperity. (Interestingly, according to businessinsider.com, “with the highest rate of cosmetic surgeries in the world and nearly 1 million procedures a year, South Korea is often called the world’s plastic surgery capital.”) Although her life seems enviable, Kyuri is in heavy debt and emotionally wrecked. On top of everything, she makes one bad decision that threatens her entire livelihood.

Ara has lost her voice due to some violence in the past. The author piques our interest, hinting about the violence throughout Ara’s narrative and disclosing the incident towards the end. She is a hair stylist and a huge K-Pop enthusiast. Ara’s K-Pop fantasy is her escape to a dreamworld that is very different from the harsh reality of her life.

Miho is an orphan who won a scholarship to study art in New York City, who obsessively creates art influenced by her friendship with a girl named Ruby. Ruby dazzled Miho with her personality, wealth, influence, and charisma. She also introduced Miho to the upper echelon of South Korean society. Miho, however, can simply look into the lives of the rich from the periphery. She is not allowed in.

Wonna, who lives in the same building as the young women, is trapped in an uninspiring marriage. She is pregnant and terrified of losing her baby. She has to hide her pregnancy for as long as she can so she does not lose her job. Moreover, she does not know how she and her husband will raise the baby in South Korea’s brutal economy with their combined meager salaries.

Then there is Sujin who works at a nail salon and yearns for Kyuri’s surgically altered, perfect jawline because her goal is to emulate Kyuri and become a room salon girl herself. She is willing to go through painful jaw surgery and subsequent complications from it if she can attain the beauty that society dictates women ought to strive for. She is Ara’s roommate, and we know about her mostly from the narratives of her friends, Ara and Kyuri.

All our protagonists come from impoverished backgrounds. They are desperate to leave their past behind and move up in life despite the barriers that society constructs for them. But when their friendship is put to test in their quest for upward mobility, what do they do? Does societal pressure shatter their tentative friendship, or will their friendship ultimately save them?

The book tells the unique story of these women and their relationship with one another. While each individual story is interesting, the picture of South Korean society that emerges from the collective stories and through the perspectives of these unique individuals is what makes If I Had Your Face a captivating read. Frances Cha, a former travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul, writes her vivid and realistic debut novel which Publishers Weekly hails as, “an insightful, powerful story from a promising new voice… Cha navigates the obstacles of her characters’ lives with ease and heartbreaking realism.”

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha is available at Howard County Library System both in print and as an eBook via Overdrive/Libby.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

Classical Indian Dances – Kathak and Bharatnatyam

An Indian woman wearing an elaborate red and multi-colored embroidered dress raises her arms, with her hands flexed above he head. Background is purple and blue.
Jaya Mathur dancing.

by Piyali C.

Dance is an ancient and celebrated cultural tradition in India and its origins go back into the ancient times. There are eight schools of classical Indian dance, each of which can be traced to different parts of the country. Register to join us on Wednesday, June 16 at 7 pm to learn more about these dance forms from Jaya Mathur.

During an enlightening and entertaining evening of virtual Indian Classical Dance class, Jaya Mathur, of ‘Rock on with Bollywood’ fame, will share an overview of the history of two famous dance forms from India – Kathak and Bharatnatyam, as well as her personal journey of continuing these traditional dance forms as a first-generation American. She will demonstrate some mudras: the portrayal of mood through facial expression and hand gestures, and the audience will have the opportunity to experience dance performances through videos. 

According to kathadance.org, the Kathak form of Indian classical dance originated in Hindu temples in the northern part of India to aid in worshipful storytelling, portraying the epic tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata (the two grand Indian epics). However, this particular dance form was not confined within the walls of temples for long. Nomadic Kathak dancers and storytellers took this dance and traveled throughout the nation with added emotions and theatricality, and it soon transitioned to a means of storytelling and entertainment. Over time, Kathak became an integral part of court culture under the patronage of Mughal kings and, as a result, this dance form imbued within itself influences of both Hindu and Islamic traditions.

Bharatnatyam, according to nrutyashala.com, was performed in the temples of southern India by devadasis, or dancers dedicated to God. The devadasis were women who were trained in this dance form since childhood, and they dedicated their lives to performing in front of idols in temples. They were educated in Sanskrit and were trained to perform as well as choreograph Bharatnatyam, accompanied by singers and musicians. Over the years, Bharatnatyam also underwent changes as devadasis lost their status in society and rajnartakis (or court dancers), under the patronage of Hindu kings in southern kingdoms in India, continued this form of dance in courts to entertain kings and royalty.

Bharatnatyam and Kathak remain two very popular forms of Indian classical dancing to this day in India and are practiced by Indians all over the world. Jaya has performed at many different venues, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. Locally, she has choreographed with the Kinetics Dance Theater.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

The book cover has the title and author's name in white lettering against a background of stripes of varying widths in shades of blue, purple, and green.

By Piyali C.

Books have their unique ways of clearing the lenses through which we view life. They tell us stories of people whose struggles may not have found a prominent place in history books. Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman revolves around one such nugget of history.

The central theme of the book is the fight against Native dispossession from North Dakota by the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe, which was led by Louise Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau. The protagonist of the book, Thomas Wazhashk, is created in the image of Gourneau, who fought against a 1953 bill introduced by Senator Arthur V. Watkins to terminate the rights of the Chippewa tribe over their land in the reservation; Gorneau led a delegation of tribal Council Members in protest. Like Gourneau, Thomas is a night watchman in a jewel-bearing plant, the first factory located near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. Thomas spends every night guarding the factory, and during the day he meets with tribal elders as they plan to take their protest against Watkins’ bill to Washington, DC. Their efforts, however, require money the tribe does not have.

Thomas’s wife, Rose, not only supports him in this endeavor, but also is a pillar of the Chippewa community whose identity Thomas and other tribal leaders seek to preserve. Many women from the tribe find employment in the factory, putting beads on jewelry. One of these women is Patrice Paranteau, who happens to be Thomas’s niece. Patrice is a fierce, strong, independent young woman who single-handedly takes care of her mother and brother and continues to look for her sister, Vera, who went to the Cities and never came back. Unlike the other women in the tribe, Patrice is not looking for a husband and children, although there are a few men who desire her affection. She wants self-sufficiency and financial independence so she can stop her alcoholic and abusive father from hurting her mother and brother. Patrice saves every penny to fund her search for her big sister, Vera. Rumor has it that Vera has been seen in the city with a baby. Patrice never gives up hope that Vera will return, even after she finds despairing signs of Vera’s death when she goes to Minneapolis to look for her. During her search for Vera, Patrice encounters extreme violence and ugliness that endangers her own life, yet she remains undaunted. Louise Erdrich does not shy away from showing her readers the violence and exploitation that Native American women are subjected to in real life.

Although the novel revolves around the Chippewa tribe’s determination to stop the Termination Bill, Erdrich weaves a beautiful and sensitive story of love, loss, and hope, with characters who will remain in the heart of readers long after they finish the book. Each character created with utmost love and minutiae is a beautiful composite of the whole Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe, who band together to fight for their existence and identity under Thomas’s leadership. For me, the character of Patrice Paranteau embodies the indomitable spirit, the fierceness, the mysticism, and the harmony of Native American tribes.

This was a spectacular book, incorporating the struggles of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe as well as their resilience and sensitivity. I am still wandering in the pages of the book where the line between reality and paranormal sometimes became blurry, but it made perfect sense in the world that Erdrich creates for her predecessors. My library-sponsored book club, Global Reads, discussed this book a few weeks ago. We all agreed this was a beautiful story, an important story, a story that needs to be read to learn how people with little power rose up to the all-powerful government to demand what was rightfully theirs.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich is available in print as well as in ebook and eaudiobook format from Libby/OverDrive. Louise Erdrich is the author of seventeen novels and the owner of Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.