Am I Southern? Does It Matter? 

A Black woman with short hair looks pensively downward. Along the bottom, a black and white photo of slave quarters is superimposed, and the edges are faded like an old photograph.

by Eric L.

I recently read Kindred by Octavia Butler in my book discussion group. It was my first exposure to Butler, and I like both her style and the book overall quite a bit. We also read the graphic novel as a supplement. I recommend it, too, as the illustration and style were excellent.

Written in the 1970s, the plot concerns a Black woman from Los Angeles who is mysteriously transported back to the antebellum south, specifically to the eastern shore of Maryland. It continues to happen, and each time the protagonist remains a bit longer. The time she stays in the past is greater than the length of time she is missing from 1970s L.A. It goes without saying that the past is terrible for a Black woman. 

Hence my question about being southern. As someone from Baltimore, I tend to view myself as an “enlightened north-easter.” However, the racial history of this country is something that should be given some thought. It’s not just a southern plantation owner issue that ended in 1863.

Dana is a writer. Her husband is also a writer, and he is white. I’d rather not give too much away so you can read the book to determine why this is happening, but in a little bit of a spoiler, she has relatives on this plantation that she returns to again and again. One of them, who eventually becomes the plantation owner, is white; the other is a Black woman, technically a “free” woman. It’s not exactly the freest environment even if you’re not enslaved.

Her reminiscence about how she met her husband is sweetly romantic and interspersed throughout the book. The juxtaposition of the recent past, the present, and the distant past is an interesting story technique. At one point, her husband purposefully holds on to her during one of her time travels in an effort to accompany her. As a white man, he obviously has a much higher social standing than she does and hopes to provide some protection. He is successful, to some extent. She wonders if he will somehow be changed by spending time in this time period. Really, she’s wondering how anyone could not be changed, herself included.  

The discussions and disagreements between the two of them about common misunderstandings between men and women, Black people and white people, are telling. The whole book offers a compelling study in empathy. The protagonist’s own status as a free Black woman and a visitor to the plantation, along with her relations with both white people and enslaved persons, highlight ideas of jealousy and privilege. That said, Butler deftly deals with the concept of how we all think we’d comport ourselves in oppressive situations. When one’s actual survival is at stake, how outspoken could anyone be with a very real threat of state-sanctioned terror and beatings?  

To be clear: this is not a defense of race relations in the 1970s, or now for that matter. The protagonist experiences profound culture shock (e.g., I could beat you for speaking to me that way). For me, this story further acknowledges the history of those who resisted and fought back against nearly insurmountable odds. The protagonist is forced to reckon with her own privilege in the antebellum south and her relatively comfortable life in 1970s America. She leads you to this by thinking that, in just a few years, Harriet Tubman begins bringing enslaved people to freedom. As a reader you wonder, how? 

This book is the type of fiction that weaves a thought-provoking story with great social and moral commentary. It is my kind of read: messy, complicated, and realistic (except for the time travel). 

In sum, I think I am southern. Maybe many Americans are?

Kindred is available in print, e-book, and e-audiobook.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan

Image of a woman in a red shirt, red lipstick, and a white apron holding a cookbook across her chest. Red gingham boarder

by Kristen B.

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan could be easily categorized (and perhaps dismissed) as “women’s fiction” since it offers a solid look at four women’s lives in 1942 Britain. I rather despair of idea that novels about women and their daily travails are some how less weighty or less literary than more masculine options. This book is a highly readable reminder that not all the wartime effort took place on the continent and upon the seas, amid spies and battles. The first page provides a list of what a week’s worth of rations were for an adult – and let me tell you, it wasn’t much! Rationing continued in the UK for more than a decade after the end of the war, and I have wondered if we could have sustained that kind of national effort. We tend to look back at the 1950s of a time of growth and prosperity in the US (although not for all demographics), but it was a very different prospect for our allies.

World War II poster featuring a woman in gloves and hat talking to a grocer that read: Help Win the War on the Kitchen Front.

It naturally fell to women to figure out how to make rations stretch to feed their families. In the days before packaged or frozen foods, everything was local and homemade, and the reality was that nobody got enough to eat by modern standards. Gardens (along with pigs, chickens, and bees) were a survival strategy, not just patriotic palaver. The BBC really did host a show called The Kitchen Front, which included ideas and recipes to make rations work and stretch – whether it was tinned sardines, Spam, or some other unfamiliar type of protein, like whale meat. This book starts with that show and adds a fictional local contest to find a relatable female host.

Of the four main characters and contestants in the book, Audrey spends her entire waking life working to feed her family and maintain their house. Her husband was an early RAF casualty, and she has three growing, hungry boys. Her husband was also an artist who mortgaged their home to the rafters, and she is left baking pies and cakes to try to make ends meet. Her home and garden become the center of the story in crucial ways.

The other three main characters each have their own private battles to fight. Gwendoline is Audrey’s sister, though she married up with the local fat-cat businessman and landowner. While a social success, the marriage and the man have proven to be unhappy decisions. The kitchen maid and apprentice cook at Gwendoline’s manor house, Nell, needs a little confidence in her own skills. She provides a young, hopeful perspective. The final woman, Zelda DuPont, worked as a French-trained chef in fancy London hotels before the war brought her to head the canteen at Gwendoline’s husband’s pie making factory. Zelda has fought tooth and nail to succeed in a man’s world before an unscrupulous, handsome cad leaves her heading to the country, an unmarried mother to be.

The convenient machinations of the contest and various plot lines bring all four women together, with Gwendoline having a connection to each of the women but Audrey operating as the beating heart of the story. The plot is mostly predictable, but I didn’t mind that at all. The characters are so wonderful, each in her own way, that I loved spending time with them. Not only did I need to know who wins the BBC contest, I enjoyed their unique points of view and individual struggles. Is it better to marry for love or money and position? Is it better to have a career or raise a family? It is better to be in service or more independent? There are no right answers, but women still struggle with these questions and the myth of “doing it all.” But when we support each other and do it together, everyone wins.

The Kitchen Front is available in print, large print, ebook, and eaudiobook.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball (but not all at the same time).

The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

The cover shows line drawings of ocean vegetation floating against a background of blue water. The title is lettered in shades of pink, orange, and yellow.

by Ash B.

Not to be dramatic, but The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake is one of the most underrated novels I’ve read. It received positive reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly – and yet it still seems like not many people know about it. That’s why I eagerly recommend it whenever I can! 

Violet Larkin is a wild child – partying and doing all manner of things that a 16-year-old girl probably shouldn’t be in New York City. After her younger brother attempts suicide and her own reckless behavior worsens, her family sends her to stay with her uncle for the summer in the small coastal town of Lyric, Maine.  

Descended from a shipwreck survivor who supposedly founded Lyric, Violet is convinced that disaster runs in her blood. As she struggles with inner turmoil, she becomes determined to uncover the long-lost location of that shipwreck and the truth of her family history. With the help of new, unexpected friends, Violet discovers so much more – about herself, about love in all forms, and about surviving the emotional wrecks of life. 

After Violet starts working at the local aquarium in Lyric, the story seems like it might include a very “boy meets girl” romance with her coworker, but it delightfully diverges into something more refreshing. While there is a slow-burn teen romance with a bit of a “twist” love interest, that is far from the focal point of the book. I would say the core of the story is the complexity of mental health and the importance of allowing oneself to be (safely) emotionally vulnerable. The narrative balances the mending of relationships within Violet’s family, the importance of Violet building new friendships in Lyric, and the development of Violet’s relationship with herself. 

It is such a beautiful story of healing and connection. I really appreciated how Violet, an amazingly complex teen protagonist, opened my eyes to how mental illness and trauma can impact and manifest in such different ways depending on each person. For someone such as myself, anxiety typically causes retreating into oneself, isolating, and fearing the outside world. Social anxiety and generalized anxiety can really go hand-in-hand in this way, at least in my experience.  

However, for Violet, her anxiety – the storm she feels inside but doesn’t know how to healthily cope with – is sometimes the catalyst for her extroverted, often-risky behaviors such as partying, (underage) drinking in social settings, and flirting with much older men. Over the course of the novel, I grew to understand why someone like Violet might engage in those types of behavior (that would personally make my anxiety even worse) as a means of trying to avoid their inner struggles. 

This is a YA novel that I think can help so many people, teens and adults alike. It shows the importance of communication, self-love, healthy interpersonal relationships, and being kind to oneself while growing up. It challenges the idea that teens who “act out” are “bad” or “broken,” instead showing the nuanced reasons why unhealthy coping behaviors are used by young people who are struggling. Not to mention that it is beautifully written with crossover appeal for both YA and adult fiction readers. 

The characters of The Last True Poets of the Sea settled into my heart and have made a permanent home there. I read this book for the first time over a year ago and I still can’t stop thinking about it. When a book lingers with you long after you finish the final page, that tends to be a good sign. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy and I’m planning on re-reading it during my own trip to Maine this summer! If you’re interested in a contemporary coming-of-age story, I really hope you give this one a read.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Their favorite place to read is spread out on a blanket under the shade of the tree. 

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Deep green mountains fade to brilliant yellow and orange to the top and bottom of the cover. Dark branches cross the orange sections, with leaves traced in gold.

by Kristen B.

A highly lyrical novel, The Mountains Sing talks about the price of war and who pays it. At one point, one of the characters muses that if only everyone could spend more time reading books, maybe we would spend less time fighting wars. It seems like a particularly timely sentiment.

Set in Vietnam, The Mountains Sing is told between a grandmother and her granddaughter, with one timeline taking place during the 1950s and the other in the 1970s. Both decades were particularly turbulent ones, covering the rise of the Viet Minh, the Land Reform movement, and the war between north and south that so fatefully embroiled America.

America has repeatedly told the story of its Vietnam War, particularly in films such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Nguyen’s book provides another perspective, almost entirely. A noted author and poet in her homeland, this is her first novel in English. On her website, she explains that the second language allowed her to frame a story that she didn’t necessarily know how to tell in her native tongue.

Tran Dieu Lan was born to a well-to-do farming family that owned their land and employed several people in their hometown in the middle region of Vietnam. Politics eventually brought the downfall of the small landowners, forcing Dieu Lan to flee her home with five children in tow, grieving her oldest who escapes separately. She slowly, reluctantly leaves them in relative safety along the long walk north to Hanoi, promising to come back to find them once she’s settled.

Her granddaughter, Huong (or Guava), grows up in Hanoi and goes to school during the worst of the American bombing raids and after as the communist government establishes itself. The two women live together in the old city while all the members of the in-between generation are taken away by the war in one way or another. Huong’s own troubles and those of her extended family illustrate the trials of ordinary Vietnamese people during the turbulent times. She struggles to understand the adults in her life, and how the war changed them.

As the book progresses, Dieu Lan rediscovers her entire family as she originally pledged – both as children when they fled their village and later as the war ends. Grandma’s story is an agonizing portrayal of the hard choices women make to survive.

The title references a small native bird. Huong’s father carves a wooden version for her while he’s gone to war. The name of the bird translates to “the mountains sing” for its constant song, but its survival became endangered after Agent Orange was used on the upland regions. The symbolic heart of the book, the wooden carving comforts Huong and reminds us of the fragile nature of peace and the continued hope that, one day, the mountains will sing again.

The title is also available as an eBook and an audiobook on CD.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball (but not all at the same time).

The Pull of the Stars

The cover shows an old-fashioned, open pocket watch against a dark blue background, with simple hand-drawn celestial objects including moons, stars, and planets scattered around it.

By Julie F.

Many novels depict the brotherhood of men at war. Donoghue celebrates the sisterhood of women bringing life into the world and those who help them along this perilous journey.” – Wendy Smith, The Washington Post, July 21, 2020

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue mesmerizes in the best possible sense. Both the pacing and the claustrophobia of this novel are intense – but it’s claustrophobic in a way that fully serves the plot, as the reader finds themselves in the tiny, overcrowded pandemic maternity ward of a Dublin hospital in 1918, basically the size of a closet, with the Spanish flu raging and World War I coming to a close. The little room is witness to so much – grief, pain, joy, love, trauma, fear, friendship, teamwork, unity, discovery – with the stories of nurse Julia Power and her influenza-ridden patients at the forefront of the action. The reader is propelled through the story, into this place where the characters’ trials and triumphs, representative of those experienced by women across the globe and across millennia, are so poignantly described. It is a story that will impress the reader with its introspective attention to detail and historical accuracy.

Nurse Power is a formidable character: efficient, tenacious, fearless, full of seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy. Yet she is still young and, although not naive, full of uncertainty in a world where children randomly end up orphaned, babies and/or mothers die in childbirth, unequal outcomes are dependent upon wealth and social class, and soldiers like her brother Tim return from the war front unable to speak – or don’t return at all. She tries so hard to keep a cheerful spirit for her patients and for her young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, yet at one point finds herself asking, “Back to this moment – what would be asked of me this morning?” (169). Her story echoes those of countless women who served their communities and countries in wars past, nurses and doctors and midwives and ambulance drivers who never shirked what was asked of them.

Post-2020 readers will find much of the pandemic description sad and uncannily eerie; Donoghue delivered the manuscript to her publishers in March of 2020, two days before Covid was declared a pandemic. But at heart, while still managing to address the random heartaches individuals experience in a world rent asunder by war, disease, and traumatic personal loss, The Pull of the Stars remains a hopeful, inspiring story (as is the author’s more famous and equally claustrophobic Room), about women’s solidarity and strength when tackling what seem to be insurmountable medical issues.

The Pull of the Stars is availalble from HCLS in print and large print, and also as an ebook and an eaudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch who finds her work as co-editor of Chapter Chats very rewarding. She loves gardening, birds, books, all kinds of music, and the great outdoors.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

An orange sun against a yellow background sits above ink drawing of bannermen on horses sitting on a hill behind their commander. A black banner flies from the upper right corner across the sun.

by Kristen B.

Do you believe in destiny? Can you inhabit someone else’s?

The main character of She Who Became the Sun spends the length of the book reflecting on these questions. Zhu Chongba “steals” her brother’s foretold fate of greatness and wrestles with what it means to be great. Little sister (never gets her own name) is the only member of her family to survive famine and bandits, and, as an act of desperate will, decides that her brother’s fortune is still Heaven-mandated and waiting to be claimed. So, she becomes him. Throughout the rest of the book, Zhu Chongba is her name even though her pronouns remain female. Sometimes, it was jarring because of how thoroughly Zhu Chongba lives that persona.

The newly claimed identity takes her to a monastery, where she gains an education and makes a lifelong friend in the rascal Xu Da. Eventually, the monastery falls to the politics of rebellion between the native southern Chinese and the ruling Mongolian dynasty, the Great Yuan. Zhu Chongba seizes every opportunity that comes her way and ends up as a general in the rebel Red Turban army. There’s more to it than that, but it’s rather breathtaking how quickly the story moves.

The Red Turbans claim the right to rule because they possess the Mandate of Heaven, in the person of a child prince. In this book, the Mandate of Heaven manifests as actual physical (colored but not hot) flame. The politics within the rebel government is cut-throat, almost literally, and Zhu Chongba has to negotiate through fraught situations without choosing (or appearing to choose) sides. As part of this, she befriends another woman caught up in court politics. Ma Xiuying (Yingzi) has a kind but clear-eyed perspective that Zhu Chongba comes to value.

On the other side of the equation, General Ouyang commands the Mongolian Prince of Henan’s forces. He is a rare eunuch and the only surviving member of his family, all of whom were killed for treachery. Instead of being killed, he was castrated and enslaved to the Prince of Henan’s oldest son, who ended up befriending Ouyang and promoting him through the army. However, Ouyang nurtures rage and revenge in his heart and has his own plans for destroying the family that executed his. The Henan province’s ruling family is beyond dysfunctional with an overbearing father, a people-pleasing heir, and an adopted son who spitefully refuses warrior ways to administer the family estates and fortune.

I don’t know how much of the Mongolian part of the story follows historical precedent, but it provides a fascinating counterweight to Zhu Chongba and her ambitions. Both Chongba and Ouyang grapple with their senses of self, internally and in relation to those around them. The continued nuanced exploration of gender identity and body perception only adds another layer of depth to the characters and the overall themes of the story. Destiny sometimes is very personal.

I ended up having to do a quick dive into Wikipedia to learn more about this historical era. This gender-bent, queer retelling adheres fairly closely to the basic outline of the founding of the Ming Dynasty, which spanned an almost 300 year timeline beginning in 1368. The Red Turban rebels fought successfully to bring down the Mongolian ruling class, which I suppose is not really a spoiler since it’s history. I love to think about this period of Chinese conquest and building corresponding to the beginning of European colonialism and the Renaissance. I wish we learned more about it in our schools.

Despite the galloping pace of this fantastical novel, I found myself putting the book down to make the experience last longer. Zhu Chongba’s sheer stubborn belief in a destiny of greatness does not allow for any other outcome, despite severe setbacks. It’s impossible to read the book and not share in that conviction.

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

Home is Where the Library Is: The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

A woman dressed in a bright yellow dress walks while reading through a grand lobby with well-lit doors and windows behind her.

by Cherise T.

I have a favorite photo of my kids where my son is wearing his baseball cap backwards and my daughter is wearing a poncho as a skirt. Today, my son’s visors often still point in reverse and my daughter never misses the opportunity to transform an article of clothing into something original and extraordinary. 

Where, you ask, was this photo taken? In front of the New York Public Library, the revered Fifth Avenue building guarded by two marble lions. A library with an eight-room apartment on the mezzanine.

Having never read a novel by the popular historical fiction author Fiona Davis, I was attracted to the plotline of The Lions of Fifth Avenue, not only because of my love for libraries but because I have entertained the fantasy of enjoying unlimited access to stacks and stacks of books. Deep, dark stacks with first editions and handwritten notes by famous authors. One of my favorite books in the HCLS collection is The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems because I can sink into Dickinson’s creative process and believe, for phrases at a time, that I am sharing a word journey into an otherwise fathomless mind. 

Told through the dual lenses of 1993 and 1913-18, The Lions of Fifth Avenue reads both as historical fiction and mystery. The plot weaves the interconnected stories of a family with a deep multigenerational connection to the New York Public Library. In 1993, Sadie Donovan strives for an ever more significant leadership role as an NYPL librarian and curator. In 1913, Sadie’s grandmother, Laura Lyons, aspires to be a journalist in a society where women’s professional opportunities were limited. Whereas Sadie works at the NYPL, Laura actually lives there in the apartment reserved for the family of the superintendent of the NYPL, who happens to be Laura’s husband, Jack. Laura and Jack live in the apartment with their children, Henry and Pearl. Both Sadie and Laura walk up the same steps and pass the same stone lions, and they face parallel hurdles in their careers and their romantic relationships. They share devotion to family and an insatiable attraction to investigation and knowledge. And Sadie and Laura contend with the theft of treasured library materials, setting them up as witnesses and suspects. 

Although the protagonists of the novel are fictional, the framework has historical roots. At one time, NYPL superintendents resided in the library, and the first superintendent who lived in the Fifth Avenue building raised children there. True as well is the unfortunate fact that rare books have been stolen from the library over the years. Fascinated by NY’s architectural landmarks, Davis writes novels revolving around different city buildings including the Barbizon Hotel, Dakota apartments, Chelsea Holtel, and Grand Central Terminal. Her writing has a real feel for New York City, and the plot twists in The Lions of Fifth Avenue make it a page turner. Climb the stairs between the lions, settle in to live in a library for a bit, and see if you can solve a few mysteries. 

Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks. 

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

A dark haired young woman sits in a coral colored party dress. Her skirts fade into the skyline of Havana's seaside.

by Kristen B.

“Next Year in Havana” is apparently a traditional toast for those of Cuban descent living in the US. It’s also the title of a thought-provoking historical novel that takes place in 1959 and the present.

I have to admit … I know almost nothing about Cuban politics and history beyond the obvious. The ongoing, repressive Castro regime brings communism to our back porch, cars are beautifully well-preserved old models, and Miami is home to exiles/immigrants. The revolution happened before I was born, and these are fleeting impressions left from public school and news programs.

Next Year in Havana added some details to that rough sketch. In the first timeline, Elisa Perez is the wealthy, privileged daughter of a sugar “king,” who supports Batista … or at least has every interest in maintaining the status quo. In the present day, her granddaughter Marisol returns to Havana after Elisa’s death to fulfill her final wishes. Beautiful descriptions of the island, the sea-walk, the old city, and the beaches complete this love story Cleeton has written to the country her family left.

As Castro’s forces are lobbing bombs, Elisa sneaks out one night with her older sisters to a party in a working class neighborhood where a friend of a friend of a boyfriend is throwing a get-together. Here she meets Pablo, a university student who is part of the 26th of July movement. Also, Elisa’s brother has been disowned for being part of the rebellion, but he works with a different faction. It all gets complicated, and it all goes wrong.

In the opening scene, the Perez family flees Havana for Coral Gables, Florida, where they rebuild their fortunes. As she and her sisters become the family matriarchs, Elisa essentially raises Marisol. And so we transition to the present, when Marisol makes arrangements to stay with her grandmother’s best friend and old neighbor, Ana, as she returns her grandmother’s ashes to Havana. Ana’s grandson, a professor of history and underground blogger, picks up Marisol from the airport, and their attraction is immediate and electric. Luis becomes her guide to Cuba, both physically and historically. The addition of a Perez scion in his life attracts the wrong sort of attention from the government, for both of them.

Everyone has to make hard choices entangled by expectations, family dynamics, and politics. Money and power have very little grace for young lovers, either 60 years ago or now. While the stories share certain parallels, the women carry these plots each in their own way. The supporting cast of sisters/aunts and extended family makes it all more believable. These characters truly behave like people grounded in their families, cultures, and belief systems.

This book, however, is not really a romance – despite the couples at the heart of both stories. The soft focus packaging is disingenuous marketing and does this excellent historical novel no favors. This book is a sucker punch of how real world choices can have devastating consequences. I enjoyed this book immensely. It may have helped that I read it during a weekend at the beach, with the sounds of the ocean in the background.

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton is available in print, as an eBook, and as an eAudiobook through OverDrive and CloudLibrary.

Women’s Stories from World War II

The cover is mostly in shades of grey, with a woman's face seen from behind turned to the side, smelling a rose. A plane, in a downward spiral, appears across the top. Spots of red in the smoke from the plane, the rose, and circling the name Verity provide a pop of color.

by Kristen B.

One of the current hot trends in publishing involves telling the previously overlooked stories of women during World War II, from code breakers at Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall to spies who worked with the Resistance. It seems they are everywhere right now. My all-time favorite, and one of the first in this sub-genre, is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (technically YA, but I have no idea why).

Two young British women become bosom friends and compatriots in supplying occupied France with intelligence. Maddie is an amateur mechanic and pilot, who works ferrying planes around the UK to various RAF bases and sometimes across the Channel. She loves flying with an undying passion. I learned more about early aircraft than I wanted, to be honest. Men were needed as combat pilots, so women flew most of the personnel and supply shuttles. Maddie has a heart of gold and a desire to make a difference despite her lack of social standing or eduction. She’s the perfect foil to Queenie (code name Verity), a member of the upper class with a wicked ability with languages and acting, who is recruited directly into intelligence work. Not to put too fine a point on it, our girl is a perfect spy. Her nom de guerre means truth, and the entire book hinges on figuring out which parts of her story are true.

The two become unlikely friends through their brief careers, including one scene where they end up lost on their bikes in the rain because all the road signs have been removed. When Queenie ends up captured behind enemy lines, everyone fears the worst. Verity is the main narrator for the book, and to say she’s unreliable doesn’t even begin to capture the reality. The plot is a breathless dash of misadventure and raw calculation, and you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. Sometimes friendship saves the day, and sometimes a book rips your heart from your chest and leaves you a wreck on the sofa. Maybe I’m saying too much … but really, just read it!

Code Name Verity is also available as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive and as an audiobook on CD.

All in shades of blue, the outline of a castle appears in the foggy background with a hedge in the foreground and a plane high overheard.

Equally fraught if less devastating, The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck gives us an unusual and moving look at German women in the immediate aftermath of the war. Three women and their children find themselves living together in a derelict castle in Bavaria, doing their utmost simply to survive. The property belongs to Marianne von Lingenfels, member of the landed aristocracy and wife of one of Hitler’s detractors. When her husband and other conspirators in the 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler are summarily executed, she tries to fulfill her promise to save as many other wives and children as possible.

She manages to find two: Benita and Ania. Benita, a classic German beauty, flees her family’s impoverished life by marrying Marianne’s best friend from childhood. Ania and her two boys escape from the far eastern regions and trudge through much of the country, dodging Russian soldiers and American GIs, before reaching the safety of the castle. The three women and their six children band together in unlikely friendship to outlast the worst depredations and devastations. In one of the most moving scenes, everyone in the castle and the connected village attends an Advent service in the local ruined church, and the power of the sacred music and a clear, cold night brings a much-needed moment of hope.

As the book progresses, we learn each woman’s history and gain some understanding of how they come to be within the castle. Benita suffers all a beautiful woman at the mercy of an enemy can expect. Marianne, used to privilege and a life filled with intellectual rigor, maintains a moral viewpoint that allows for very few shades of grey – despite being in a time and space that demands them. And Ania, my favorite character by far, lives almost entirely within those grey spaces in the most practical manner possible. Her background of supporting the Nazi agenda until she could no longer ignore the atrocities portrays the “good German” conundrum all too well.

The book catalogs the necessary sacrifices and compromises, from the reality of marauding renegade soldiers to the plight of Displaced Persons. It’s a fascinating portrayal of how people move forward, trying to make it through today, tomorrow, this week, this month, this year. It made me think about how this is not a sexy, heroic story, nor is it a tragic tale of valiant derring-do and winning through at all costs. Shattuck gives us – gifts us – three fairly ordinary German women thrown together in dire circumstances who survive … because what else was there to do?

The Women in the Castle is also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive and as an audiobook on CD.

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.

Author works: Gail Tsukiyama

The book cover depicts the small town of Hilo at the shoreline, with buildings in shades of white and brown against a foreground and backdrop of turquoise sea and sky; in the distance, Mauna Loa is erupting into the sky, with yellow flame and reddish clouds above the silhouette of the mountain.

JOIN US! Author presentation: Thursday, Aug 5 from 7 – 8 pm, online
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By Julie F.

The beloved bestselling author and recipient of the Academy of American Poets Award and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, Gail Tsukiyama returns with The Color of Air. A novelist whose dual Chinese and Japanese background features prominently in her writing, Tsukiyama presents a novel whose prose flows like the lava threatening her characters, with the grace of stringing leis with fragrant jasmine, kukui nuts, and ti leaves. The literal and figurative emblems of Hawai’i leap off the page and into the vision, sounds, taste, and touch of readers as they live alongside the Hilo locals, and hear the voices of the ghosts they cannot let go.

The residents’ stories move through alternating sections from 1935 to the even deeper past — a rich, vibrant, bittersweet chorus which tells the interweaving stories and a lifelong bond to each other and to others in their immigrant community. Even as the eruption of the Mauna Loa volcano threatens their lives and livelihoods, it also unearths long-held secrets that have been simmering just below the surface.

What I love about the book is that there is a subplot for everyone. If you’ve had a relative challenged by dementia or Alzheimer’s, you see how Mama Natua’s family tries to cope with the help of Daniel, the Hilo native and urban Chicago doctor who has returned to the island to work among his people. Daniel himself wrestles with paternal abandonment, maternal loss, and the guilty sting of feeling that he failed a patient on the mainland. His high school sweetheart, Maile, has an abusive relationship in her past and is tentative about finding happiness again. Razor, the best friend of Daniel’s uncle Koji, tries to unionize the immigrant workers who are taken advantage of by the sugar and pineapple plantation owners and overseers. Each person has their secrets and struggles, yet all come together to find solutions. That’s one of the best things about Tsukiyama’s novels: the sense of love, community, and found family that permeates each page, with characters who learn to face and overcome their fears in order to adapt and grow.

Another strength is the remarkable visual and sensual imagery of the island, which is like a living being itself: “just as volatile and unpredictable as anything a big city could offer” (48). The native Hawaiian words interspersed throughout give the reader a sense of the geology, the fruit, the pikake blossoms, the music of the Filipino bands in the town, and the diversity of languages spoken on the island (at one point, she notes that signs on the street were printed in Tagalog, Portuguese, and Japanese). Hawai’i is truly a distinct cultural melding of sounds, sights, and scents, and Tsukiyama’s descriptive language conveys its unique beauty.

In her years aside from writing, Tsukiyama co-founded the nonprofit WaterBridge Outreach: Books + Water. Alongside bestselling authors Ann Patchett, Gillian Flynn, Karen Joy Fowler, Mary Roach, and Lisa See, the foundation’s mission is to give children in developing communities hope for the future through nourishing their minds and bodies with books and water.

Gail Tsukiyama was born in San Francisco, California to a Chinese mother from Hong Kong and a Japanese father from Hawai’i. She is the bestselling author of Women of the Silk (available from HCLS in eAudiobook format from Libby/OverDrive) and The Samurai’s Garden, as well as the more recent A Hundred Flowers (also available as a book on CD and as an eAudiobook from CloudLibrary).

Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch. She loves gardening, birds, books, all kinds of music, and the great outdoors.