Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

A young woman faces to the right, wearing black clothes and a fluttery grey cape holds a knife in each hand looking determinedly ahead, with a shadowy urban landscape full of towers behind her.
The cover of Mistborn: The Final Empire.

by Ben H.

What happens if the chosen one fails? What if the hero fails to defeat the dark lord? 

Brandon Sanderson’s original Mistborn trilogy imagines what that could look like.  

Full disclosure, I haven’t finished the trilogy yet, but I love the first two books so much (The Final Empire and The Well of Ascension) that I can’t resist writing a review. I’ll write a retraction if the third book is garbage (but it won’t be). 

A thousand years ago, someone gained access to a source of power, defeated something called the Deepness, and… remade the world into a dull, cruel, lifeless, ash-strewn place. He is now the Lord Ruler and has ruled over the world for a thousand years in what he ominously calls the Final Empire.  

The nobility live in finery in castles and vast manors, and the skaa are their hopeless and ragged servants. There is no middle class. Skaa are treated as subhuman.  

Vin is our protagonist. She is a half-skaa street urchin, thief, and con-artist. A mysterious thief named Kelsier rounds up a thieving crew for one huge job. He collects those with magical abilities and Vin rounds out his team.  

The magical systems are Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy. Allomancy is the most common and the most relevant for this review. Magic users ingest tiny amounts of metals (like copper, steel, or gold) and “burn” them in order to gain abilities. Some metals make you powerfully strong, some metals allow you to pull and push against other metals, basically giving you the ability to fly or hover, and some metals allow you to influence people’s emotions. 

The books mostly take place in Luthadel, a city that feels like Dickensian London seen through an Orwellian lens. There are elements that feel steampunky to me (Yes, I do think steampunky is a totally acceptable adjective). The main thrust of the plot for The Final Empire is the preparation for Kelsier’s big heist. À la Ocean’s Eleven, we slowly get introduced to each character and each character’s ability. 

Once the crew is assembled, Kelsier reveals that the scope of the heist is grand beyond imagining. Sanderson does a phenomenal job writing action sequences using his magic systems. They are a blast to read with real page-turning action.

If you read Mistborn, pay attention to the theme of disguise and appearance. I’d argue that clothing and dissimulation are major themes. Can the clothes you wear change how you feel? Change your personality? Change your characteristics? Are you a fraud if you look like something you don’t feel you are? What happens when you start to feel like the thing you’ve been pretending to be? Vin and company wrestle with a lot of these questions as the story unfolds. 

Speaking of epic-fantasy (smooth segue and recommendation alert), Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series is incredible (and set in the same extended universe as Mistborn). 

He is also the man responsible for finishing Robert Jordan’s sprawling The Wheel of Time series. Sanderson wrote the last three books of the 14-book series, and he wrapped up the epic story beautifully. Although it took me about 10 years to finish, you might be able to finish the books before the series premieres on Amazon on November 19.  

If you have the fantasy itch, try Sanderson’s Mistborn books. You won’t be disappointed. If you are, come talk to me at the Central Branch and I’ll try to convince you that you’re wrong. 

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

A woman with long dark hair embraces a man who is looking away amid leafy plants. The colors are all night-time blues and purples. Her face is pensive.

by Ash B.

[Content warning: sexual assault, PTSD, bullying, homophobia, and racism] 

“If I don’t pull apart things I actually did wrong from things that weren’t my fault, I’ll never really be able to really apologize for anything. Deciding everything is your fault is, in the end, as meaningless as deciding nothing is[…] I need to apologize for what is my fault, for what I did wrong, but not for the wrong that was done to me. 

Ciela Cristales just might be my favorite protagonist of 2021. 

The story begins with her dropping off an unconscious boy at the hospital on the night that changed her life – the night that she and this boy, whom she does not know, were both assaulted at the same summer party. She drops the boy off and intends to seal off the memories of the event as if they never happened.  

However, this proves difficult when the trauma she experienced results in the loss of the magical gift she inherited from her grandmother: the ability to sense exactly what type of pastry someone wants before they even know it themselves. If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, then consider how this ability, “the most precious thing my bisabuela could ever have left me,” has passed down for generations and is part of the success of her family’s pastelería business. For Ciela, losing this magic is losing a part of herself – but it wasn’t just lost, it was taken through the cruelty of her peers. 

I’ll be honest, I was a bit hesitant to read this one because of the intensity of the storyline’s subject matter. I personally tend not to read heavy books, as they can leave a significantly negative impact on my mental health. However, I knew from reading their social media that McLemore put a lot of care into this story, purposefully including hope and healing along with an emotionally accurate representation of trauma. (McLemore themself is a survivor.) 

This information from the author, combined with my pre-existing love of their writing style, was enough to motivate me to give The Mirror Season a try… so I threw myself into reading it, and wow, did it devastate me in the best type of way. Honestly, few books have ever made me cry as much as this one did, and it provided me with some much-needed catharsis. 

Ciela is gradually forced to confront the extent of her trauma – including specific details of the event that she represses through most of the book – due to the development of her relationship with Lock, the boy who was assaulted at the same time she was. They are able to form a unique friendship due to their shared experiences of sexual violence, connecting to each other in ways that other folks might not understand; for example, making jokes out of their trauma as a coping mechanism. McLemore crafts these characters, and their world, so well and with so much care. They truly felt like living, breathing people with real, raw, messy lives that are worth learning about and empathizing with. 

Stylistically, McLemore combines elements of YA contemporary fiction with what they do best: magical realism written in lush, atmospheric prose. It’s the type of writing where the reader is left with some uncertainty regarding “is this all literally happening, or is this metaphorical?” during certain passages. For much of the book I questioned whether Ciela was perceiving some of these things as an expression of her trauma, or if real objects were legitimately turning to mirrored glass – and I believe that this uncertainty is well-suited for the representation of Ciela’s experience of reality after such a traumatic event. McLemore does not shy away from portraying the difficulties of PTSD, including nightmares and flashbacks, which can cause challenges in discerning between one’s past and present realities. 

I haven’t been through anything anywhere near what these characters have been through, but reading this book honestly helped me process my own feelings of the sexual harassment I have experienced as a queer trans person: the shame, the anger, the visceral disgust when remembering the event, the internalized victim blaming, and the sense that other people are entitled to disrespect the bodies and the personhoods of Othered individuals. In the case of Ciela, her Latina and pansexual identities create intersections in the ways she is objectified and harassed by her white, straight, cisgender peers. 

One aspect of this representation that I appreciate so much is that while this is a story about a queer person experiencing trauma, this is not a Queer Struggle story. Her struggle is not about being queer specifically. The classmates that assaulted her throw the word “lesbian” at her in a derogatory manner, but Ciela is not struggling with coming out or coming to terms with her sexuality. She is open about being pansexual (i.e., attracted to people regardless of gender) and her prior same-gender relationships, and she is accepted for it by herself, by her loved ones, and by Lock. Personally, I felt like the vibrant queer world around Ciela far outweighed the homophobia, so the overall tone of the book is queer pride, resistance, and joy. This, combined with the arc of Ciela of coming to terms with how to cope with her trauma in a healthy way, makes for an ultimately empowering story of growth and courage. I honestly could see this taking the place of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in future high school classrooms. 

So yes, this is a very emotionally challenging book, and no doubt will be highly triggering for some readers, but it is very healing. I really encourage anyone interested in this book – teens and adults alike – to give it a try, while being mindful of what you need to care for yourself. Check in with your current mental health and support system as you find the space and time to process this story in whatever way you need. I truly hope this book reaches as many readers who will benefit from it as possible. Copies of The Mirror Season can be requested through HCLS here.

For resources regarding sexual violence, visit www.rainn.org. For local support, community engagement, and more, check out HopeWorks of Howard County (formerly the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County) by visiting hopeworksofhc.org. 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A red cover with a yellow border features an illustration of a Vietnamese man's face. Includes award stickers for the Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Literature

by Eric L.

I may have opened another post like this, but if you’ve not read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, do yourself a favor. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, and awards aside, it’s a great book.  

The Sympathizer is an “epistolary-like” novel, as the entire thing is written as a confession of a spy from the north who has deeply infiltrated the south, and the American support apparatus. He is an aide to a general, and really has a good feel for the elite as well as those of lower social stature. 

Superficially, it is the story of the child of a Vietnamese teenager and a French priest, who does not fit in because of his parentage and is teased and taunted. In turn, this creates a protagonist of conflicted mind and spirit who artfully chronicles his experiences in Vietnam and America. He makes the profound comment that it is really the immigrants who should be the anthropologists of American society, as well as many other insightful observations throughout the book. 

He chronicles the chaotic escape from Vietnam (you’ve probably seen the footage) when the United States withdrew in 1975. When one views this sort of thing, they’re horrified by the carnage and desperation, but I’d not considered the bureaucratic tasks such as making lists of who evacuates and the intermediary steps. Spoiler alert: the Vietnamese don’t just land in their suburban American homes on a direct flight from Saigon. Sadly, these events seem apropos right now irrespective of your feelings about American wars and intervention globally. I could not even imagine trying to escape my country for fear of political reprisal. 

As someone of a certain generation, I grew up watching the fictional films about the Vietnam War and worried about the specter of the reinstatement of the draft. Perhaps, more broadly, the Vietnam War was the degradation of the cultural capital and hubris that the United States, as a country, carried until this loss. I always felt for the boys who were involuntarily ripped from their lives and sent across the world as soldiers in an ideological battle they likely only rudimentarily understood. It’s a logical reaction, since they were the protagonists of these films, if not the heroes at least sympathetic anti-heroes, and they were like me. 

A Vietnamese character comments that this cold war has always felt hot to them. That said, it’s enlightening for me to read a work of art by a Vietnamese expatriate like Nguyen (by the way, it’s set to be an HBO miniseries). The details concerning the quotidian lives that many of his compatriots lead in the US (California to be specific), and how it’s difficult for former men of power to become relatively powerless in their new country, are very well done. One portion of the book even chronicles the protagonist’s experience working as consultant for a movie about Vietnam, loosely based on Apocalypse Now (if you not seen this film, borrow it and watch it).  

The Sympathizer (also available as an eBook) is a page turner, a spy novel, a thriller, and oddly humorous; however, I would not describe it as straight satire. In my opinion, what makes this debut novel great is that it is the work of a free thinker and an excellent writer. It may seem banal to say that there is a lot going on in this novel (it may even be worth a second read), but I’m not sure how else to phrase this. Nguyen’s writing is dense, but not difficult to read, and the story just flows. I intend to read his collection of short stories, The Refugeesand eventually the sequel, The Committed, which was published in 2021. Try them, you may like them. 

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.

Two Tales of Two Sisters

An ornate curved dagger with a jeweled hilt appears against a swirling red background, with "Magic is in her blood" at the top and Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand across it along the bottom.
Book cover of Empire of Sand

by Kristen B.

Empire of Sand opens with a young woman painting a window sill with her blood, looking to ward against the daiva spirits of the wild sands. In some ways, the rest of Tasha Suri’s duology revolves around these older spirits that have been subjugated by the Ambhan Empire – and by those who consider them monsters and those who count them as family. Suri’s books are set in a lush, vibrant world based on the Mughal Empire – complete with vast deserts and verdant oases. Here, the Emperor governs but the Maha rules. Here, the upper class consists solely of Ambhan people and the Amrithi are outcast because of their magic.

Mehr is the privileged child of the regional governor, acknowledged but nonetheless the daughter of an Amrithi courtesan. She possesses the full inheritance of her mother’s people, but is protected by her father’s influence. Mehr lives in an uneasy truce with her step-mother, who has adopted Mehr’s younger sister as her own daughter to be raised as an Ambhan noblewoman. Mehr has no ambition for a noble marriage, but when she is discovered practicing Amrithi magic, she is given little choice.

The Maha rules the Empire through the prayers of his mystics. When Mehr accidentally divulges her abilities, she is forcibly married to the powerful mystic Amun and taken away to live a sequestered life in a distant oasis. At the Maha’s Temple, Mehr learns that she and her husband are expected to perform the Rite of the Bound. This magical rite, a choreographed dance with particular poses and gestures, allows the magic of the desert daiva and older gods to flow through the Maha and into the Empire, extending its territory and influence. Through their practice and discipline, Mehr and Amun learn about each other and the tragedies that brought each to the Maha’s temple.

It is this romance of desperation and rebellion that powers the second half of the book. I read this novel in large gulps, needing to know what happened next. As much as I enjoyed the world building, I truly came to love both Mehr and Amun, rooting for them to find a way to be together and free of the Empire. The underlying themes of colonization and prejudice give Empire of Sand an unexpected sense of gravity. There is no doubt but that individual lives were used and abused for the supposed greater good. The consequences of generations of such cruelty cannot easily be constrained or controlled.

A spear points downward against a patterned blue background, with "A curse is upon the throne" in gold script above "Realm of Ash" overlaying the spear, and "Tasha Suri" at the bottom.
Book cover of Realm of Ash

The second book, Realm of Ash, deals with the unfolding repercussions from Mehr and Amun’s story, but from another perspective entirely. We encounter Mehr’s younger sister, Arwa, again as she makes her way to a distant convent for widowed noblewomen. Arwa was, indeed, raised as an Ambhan noblewoman and married a military officer with a bright future. When the garrison is massacred by daiva, Arwa is one of the few survivors and chooses to absent herself from high society. Not entirely surprisingly, the convent is a hotbed of Imperial politics and Arwa soon finds herself on the way to the capital city to serve in the retinue of a princess.

Where her sister has the magic of the Amrithi rites, Arwa discovers that she has a different ability that allows her to access the memories in her blood, remembrances of her ancestors, in the Realm of Ash. The princess’ illegitimate brother lives in nocturnal solitude, researching and experimenting for a way to restore the Ambhan Empire to its former safety and prestige. Arwa must learn to embrace her Amrithi heritage to help the prince and to accept her own worth. Again, a forbidden romance (Ambhan noblewomen may not remarry) lies at the heart of a rebellion against a court built on deception and corruption. And again, I found myself rooting for these two against all odds.

In some ways I preferred Realm of Ash because it shows more of the interconnected elements of the Ambhan Empire, the military and the regular people of Jah Ambha (the capital city), servants and spies. As Arwa and her prince flee into the desert and join a pilgrimage, the wide variety of life outside of palaces and temples make for a wonderful sense of place and history. The bigger picture at play in the second book is, perhaps, only made possible by the laser focus of the first novel.

The fantasy genre is chock-full of strong heroines, women who can outfight anyone and snark about it after … the term kick-ass is usually employed. Mehr and Arwa gave me a much more grounded reality, finding their courage in the face of terrifying odds. Neither young woman wants to be an agent of change or is a rebel at heart. Both have learned to keep their heads down and mouths shut so as not to attract attention or draw criticism. They do have, however, an unerring sense of fairness and a desire to be allowed to live their own lives, loving whom they choose. These sisters indelibly alter their entire world by being brave enough to take the chances presented to them, sometimes fearlessly and sometimes with only a hope and a prayer.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.

Death in Her Hands

The cover is in green, with the semi-profile of a woman in light blue; its edges are jagged as if pixilated on a flickering TV screen. At the very bottom of her profile, where the chin would be, is a tiny human silhouette in black, facing her as if approaching.

By Ben H.

“Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body” 

Vesta, the amazingly unstable 72-year-old narrator of Death in Her Hands, is my favorite of all of Ottessa Moshfegh’s growing roster of eccentric narrators. The main conceit of Death in Her Hands is that Vesta must solve a murder mystery. Before we know anything else about Vesta, we learn that she found a note in the woods (quoted above) and believes that she needs to solve the mystery (there is no body).  

Based solely on that note, Vesta envisions a detailed backstory for Magda and the murderer. She imagines one plausible idea after another and adds details until she’s created a truth that is incredibly real to her. A wild journey, Death in Her Hands occurs mostly inside Vesta’s head. Moshfegh immerses the reader so far into Vesta’s isolated, almost solipsistic, world that it’s jarring when Vesta interacts with anyone other than her dog Charlie. She must interact with others because her investigation takes her all around her small Northeastern town. She visits the public library, picks up a hitchhiker, visits odd neighbors, runs from wild animals, and finds clues. As she finds clues about the murder, she drops clues about her own mysterious past.

The book is a murder mystery, and Moshfegh plays with that genre and those tropes, but it is also a psychological drama. Moshfegh is an accomplished writer who gives the reader enough information to know that Vesta is not trustworthy, but not enough information to completely dismiss the murder as a figment of her imagination. At times Death in Her Hands reads more like Woolf’s The Waves or Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49Vesta’s thoughts carry us like waves; and her investigation doesn’t always make sense, but it always almost makes sense.

It’s easy to believe Vesta. She’s likable and very persuasive.
You almost believe that she’s solved the mystery! 
…Then you realize that you aren’t sure that there ever was a note. 

The book explores mental health, aging, abusive relationships, and isolation. Those don’t sound like cheery topics, but Vesta is a funny narrator, and she makes it an enjoyable ride: “My God, he could be crouched behind the kitchen door, and there you’d be, standing in your socked feet and bathrobe, agog at the knife glinting in the rack. Had you used it to chop onions? Had you forgotten that you’d wandered down for a midnight snack, left the knife out, et cetera? Were you still dreaming? Was I?” 

Moshfegh is a master of cultivating a dreamlike quality (she nailed it in McGlue as well). When everything seems off, it’s hard to know if anything is real. If you like dark, brilliant, insightful, inventive writing, I think you’d enjoy Death in Her Hands.

P.S. This is ostensibly a review of Death in Her Hands, but it’s really a recommendation to go read ANY Ottessa Moshfegh (she’s incredible). If you’re looking to have a weird weekend, pick up a bunch of Moshfegh from your local library and get lost in her wild world.  Also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook via Libby/OverDrive.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

The Switch

The book cover, in pastel shades of green, yellow, lavender, and pink, shows an older woman in a black cloche hat and yellow top in the upper right-hand corner, standing in front of an apartment building, and a younger woman in jeans and a flowing white top with a bag over her shoulder, walking a dog on a farm in the lower left-hand corner.

By Eliana H.

This is the third year I’ve participated in The Ridiculous Reading Challenge, an activity co-organized by some good friends of mine in which they combine the annual reading challenges set by several publications into one spreadsheet full of categories to inspire participants to stretch our reading habits. For 2021, there are 117 different categories. Wish me luck in managing a unique book for each of them!

When one of the friends who runs the Ridiculous Reading Challenge mentioned enjoying The Switch, by Beth O’Leary, I was excited to note that it took place at least partly in Yorkshire. With family and friends living there, as well as it being a beautiful place, I knew it would be a perfect fit for the category of “a book set somewhere you’d like to visit in 2021.” Yorkshire is definitely the top of my list for where I want to visit when it’s safe for my family to do so. What I didn’t know when my friend shared the book was how much I would love the story.

The Switch tells the tale of two Eileen Cottons – a grandmother and her granddaughter, who goes by Leena – both feeling a bit stuck in their lives. They’ve struggled since the loss of Carla, Leena’s sister and Eileen’s other granddaughter. After a panic attack at work, Leena is given a mandatory two-month vacation from her job as a business consultant. At loose ends about what to do with that time when she should be finding her way back to herself, she ends up suggesting that she and her grandmother swap lives for two months. Eileen makes her way down to London for the adventure she didn’t get the chance to have in her youth, and Leena heads north to Yorkshire to slow down and take over the responsibilities Eileen has in her small village. Neither woman has quite the experience she expected, but both learn quite a lot about themselves and the people around them during their sojourns. With a cast of lively supporting characters, it is a joy to follow Eileen and Leena on their journeys. The book made me chuckle and choke up in turn, and I’m so glad to have read it. I hope you will be too.

The Switch is also available from HCLS as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive. Beth O’Leary is also the author of The Flatshare and The Road Trip (available from Libby/OverDrive as an eBook and eAudiobook).

Eliana is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. She loves reading, even if she’s slow at it, and especially enjoys helping people find books that make them light up. She also loves being outside and spending time with friends and family (when it’s safe).

Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment

by Aimee Z.

The cover of Heroic Measures shows the cityscape of New York, fading from deep gray-blue at the top to a reddish-orange near the bottom, with the title, author's name, and a silhouette of a dachshund in white superimposed in the foreground.

Septuagenarians Ruth and Alex Cohen have made a momentous decision: they are going to sell their Lower East Side flat in one of the Big Apple’s most desirable locations. According to their realtor, they’ll easily net a million dollars, which is enough to retire with their precious and equally senior dachshund, Dorothy. In their tiny kitchen, Alex wearing his hearing aids and Ruth in her serious bifocals study the open house listing due to appear online in a matter of hours as two calamitous events occur.

Over the radio, a news alert interrupts the broadcast. A large truck in the Midtown Tunnel has overturned. Traffic in Manhattan is suddenly gridlocked. The driver, now deemed a suspected terrorist, has fled, heightening domestic security all the way to Queens.

Ruth and Alex smirk and shake their heads. Ruth, in her heyday, and Alex by association, was once considered a Communist threat; a schoolteacher in her perky beret and peep-toe pumps who’d somehow found herself on the FBI’s secret enemy list.

But their moment of musing about the past is soon shattered with the appearance of Dorothy. The little dog lets out an ear-piercing howl, and to her parents’ horror, Dorothy’s bottom goes out. A race to the vet ensues, and despite the snarl of traffic, news anchors on the scene, and a now significant anti-terrorism military component, Ruth and Alex manage to get Dorothy to the pet ER.

There, they learn that Dorothy has slipped a disc and needs surgery. Devastated, Ruth and Alex return home to their landline ringing. Their euphoric realtor informs them that a bidding war is already brewing on their apartment. With their dog in the hospital, Ruth and Alex must now contend with an open house.

A parade of prospective buyers pours in the next day. Trend-setting young gentrifiers with way too much money, they tramp through the dated apartment speaking offhandedly about gutting everything – especially Alex’s beloved art studio. One woman in boots, eager to feel the apartment’s embrace, plops down on the couple’s bed, lotus-style, waiting to see if her restraints of self-centeredness dissipate.

It’s all completely hilarious, but it’s Dorothy who steals the show. In the hospital, recovering from surgery, she suspects the vet and his team of conspiracy – all over a mysterious wee-wee pad! Heroic Measures takes readers on a clever, satisfying journey, so wry and wicked, at one point I laughed out loud – startling my own dogs.

Heroic Measures is the basis for the film 5 Flights Up, starring Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton and available as a DVD from HCLS.

Aimee Z., now retired, was part of the adult research staff at HCLS East Columbia Branch. She lives on a lake with her two labs, Dixie and Belle, who enthusiastically approved the content of this review in exchange for a peanut butter and jelly biscuit.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

The title appears against a painting of a green landscape and blue sky with white clouds, with a silhouette of a girl leading a horse and cart in the bottom left

By Jean B.

I love a book with a map, so News of the World captured me even before page one. Throughout my reading, I pored over the sepia endpaper map of Texas circa 1870, with its bright red line tracing a path from Wichita Falls along the northern border with Indian territory, all the way down to San Antonio and the Rio Grande. As you might guess, given the map, this is a book about a journey – across both rough territory and psychological barriers. As the characters made their way along the bright red line, Giles’ beautiful prose transported me into this time and place and into the lives of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, age 71, and Johanna Leonberger, age 10.  

It’s the Reconstruction era in Texas, a time of political turmoil and uncertainty, random violence and unexpected kindness, across an incredibly varied landscape. Captain Kidd, a survivor of three wars, has dedicated his life to connecting people through information. He is alone, having lost his wife and his printing business in the Civil War. Kidd now makes his living by traveling through small towns, performing live readings of newspapers from around the country and the world to isolated residents hungry for stories of faraway places and remarkable events. Suddenly, his nomadic routine is disrupted by an unsought responsibility – he must deliver Johanna, a traumatized orphan who has lived as a captive of the Kiowa tribe for six years and knows no other family, back to her relatives near San Antonio. Traversing that 400 mile path, the characters must overcome challenges small and large and, in the process, build mutual trust and companionship.

I would not call myself a fan of Westerns, in either novels or movies, but Paulette Jiles’ exquisite descriptions of the plants, weather, and settlements of this landscape drew me in. Her writing made me want to ride a horse through the hills, canyons, and prairies of Texas (minus the deadly threats along the way). Maybe I’ll do that someday, but in the meantime, luckily, we can get the visual experience by watching the 2020 movie based on the book! Starring Tom Hanks as Captain Kidd, the movie garnered four Oscar nominations, and you borrow the DVD from HCLS.  

While both the book and the movie open a window into a beautiful yet treacherous moment in Texan history, News of the World goes much deeper than a travelogue. Across the miles, the tragic characters discover the power of empathy to leap differences in age, language, experience and loss. Although the book is barely 200 pages, it paints a picture of great historical and personal complexity. If you’re looking for some armchair traveling this summer, News of the World is a journey worth taking – and it comes with a map!

Available in print, large print,audio CD,  ebook, and eaudio, as well as DVD.

Jean B. is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. A fan of historical fiction and nonfiction, she also enjoys exploring the natural world through books and on foot.

Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam

The cover shows tree branches in a dark silhouette with a dark blue sky, with the corner of a turquoise swimming pool and a lighter blue diving board with triangular metal handles in the foreground. The title, in block letters, is in complimentary shades of turquoise and blue.

by Aimee Z.

Is allyship a myth?  

Rumaan Alam explores this and more in his astute and fascinating third novel, Leave The World Behind. It begins simply enough:  A white Brooklyn family leave their hipster digs for an Airbnb week in the Hamptons. Like many Americans, Amanda, Clay, and their two teens view a beach vacation as an entitlement. It must be perfect – down to the SPF that won’t hinder your tanning goal.  

En route, Amanda orders Clay to stop at a small grocery store where she buys staples for the week: sustainable napkins, sourced maple syrup, even, Alam slyly adds, that “politically virtuous ice-cream, Ben and Jerry’s.” They pull up to the modest beach cottage and are delighted with the view of the water, a hot tub – even a pool. They barbecue, break out a $12 bottle of wine, swim – Amanda and Clay even have vacation sex that night.  Everyone falls into a blissful sleep as you, the reader, curl up with what feels like another mindlessly generic beach read.  

Then: there’s the proverbial knock at the door. It wasn’t a good thing for Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, and it surely can’t be for Amanda and Clay. They know that the only good door knock anyone ever gets is from an Amazon delivery driver. Eventually, Clay peeks through the chained door and is greeted by an elderly African-American couple: G.H. and Ruth. 

Calmly and politely, they explain that they are the owners of the Hampton vacation house that Amanda and Clay are enjoying. Amanda clutches her phone, Alam writes, like it’s a soft toy. She’s convinced they are scammers. Worse, this is a home invasion – especially when G.H. and Ruth cook up some lie that all of Manhattan (where they were staying) has succumbed to a total blackout. 

Suddenly, that beach read you thought you were enjoying has become something entirely different – its focus now a witty and revealing spin on the social dynamics between black and white. And it is. Sort of. 

Eventually, G.H. and Ruth (over G.H.’s private stash of very old whiskey) convince Amanda and Clay that some kind of crisis must be taking place. No internet, a consistently blue TV screen, as well as dead cell phone reception are worrisome though not alarming – until Amanda and G.H. spot a flock of pink flamingos in the pool and an unearthly sound, capable of chaos, brings them all to their knees. 

Eloquent and urgent, especially as we come out of this last and devastating year, Leave the World Behind is the one book everyone must read. 

Leave the World Behind is also available at HCLS as an ebook and an eaudiobook through Libby/OverDrive.

Aimee Z. is part of the adult research staff at HCLS East Columbia Branch. She lives on a lake with her two labs, Dixie and Belle, who enthusiastically approved the content of this review in exchange for a peanut butter and jelly biscuit.