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
Register via this link or at hclibrary.org > classes & events. Once you register, a Zoom link will be emailed to you.

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.

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The book cover shows a brunette woman with red lips in profile against a blue background, with a frond of peach-colored leaves in the foreground. One of the leaves obscures her eye, which gives her a mysterious appearance.

By Gabriela P.

In 1926, Agatha Christie could have had Hercule Poirot, her own creation, scratching his head. Her 11 day disappearance has no credible explanation to this day, and remains shrouded in conjecture. In her book The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, novelist Marie Benedict gives readers an exhilarating glimpse into what Christie may have been like. It is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction that is truly an empowering tribute to one of the most sensational mystery writers of all time.

The book is set up with alternating chapters between the past and the present, with Agatha giving a heart-rendering account of her life through her early years and marriage to Archie (Col. Archibald). The shackles of social norms and expectations that governed her marriage shape reveal an unexpectedly tragic side to her that not many readers may have imagined. As the story turns to her disappearance and the ensuing search, the book becomes a captivating back and forth between her own reflections and the increasingly loathsome Archie’s. 

I have always admired Agatha Christie. In my youth, I was a faithful fan and read each and every one of her novels.  Not a single one failed to keep me glued to the pages until the very end with their delightful characters. Of course I dreamt of being like Hercule Poirot, with his sense of humor, knowledge of human emotions, and effortless  brilliance. I was often left trying to solve each of the mysteries alongside him as his imagined assistant… but of course my personal theories always ended up missing the mark completely!

With Benedict’s book, I was given the opportunity to imagine a brilliant but naive young Agatha stifled by society. How could someone so intelligent and capable of creating characters that rivaled Sherlock Holmes lose themselves in an impossible journey to be a perfect wife in a perfect marriage? Benedict’s writing led me to feel all of Agatha’s fear, love, and frustration while sharing her journeys that inspired so many of her prided and celebrated characters.

As with her previous novels, Marie Benedict does not disappoint. She is a master in picturing both famous and not-so-famous people in history with wonderfully-researched work and rich storytelling.

Also available to borrow as an eBook.

Gabriela is a customer service specialist at the Miller Branch. She loves long walks, reading with her dog, and a good cup of coffee.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

The book depicts the next of a swan as a winding river, with flowers scattered alongside and the title, "Once Upon a River," superimposed.

By Piyali C.

There are many ancient inns on the bank of the river Thames, providing their patrons with more than just ale and cider. Patrons looking for music go to The Red Lion at Kelmscott; for deep contemplation, they go to the Green Dragon at Inglesham; the Stag at Eaton Hastings is the place for gambling. But if they are looking for stories, they go to The Swan at Radcot, the most ancient inn of them all and only a day’s walk from the source of the Thames. On a dark winter’s night, sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, a seriously injured man enters The Swan with the body of a four-year-old girl in his arms whom he found floating in the river. Before he can give any explanations, he collapses in the arms of the storytellers at the inn. The innkeeper’s son Jonathan catches the body of the girl before the man falls. The child, presumed dead, is kept in a separate room while everyone gets busy looking after the man, who is still breathing, but just barely. Rita Sunday, the resident nurse of the village, is summoned immediately. She first tends to the injuries of the man, who we learn later is a photographer named Daunt, and then goes to look at the little girl’s dead body. Rita checks her pulse and her breathing and, finding none, she holds the hands of the girl and sits with her awhile, lamenting the death of one so young in such mysterious circumstances. In her hand, however, Rita suddenly feels a flutter of life! The girl, who had no pulse, comes alive.

The thread of the story unspools at this point just like the surge of the Thames roaring outside the inn. Like tributaries that feed the powerful river, each of the characters in this tale veers off to run his or her own course, only to come together to enrich the main body of the story. The narrator takes us on the journey of life with each of her characters and explains how their actions and decisions converge to solve the mystery of the little girl. The river, with its myriad turns and crossings and innumerable tributaries, becomes a powerful character in itself within the plot, always present in the background propelling the story forward with its mighty surge. There are so many intriguing questions that the reader wants answered. Who is the mystery girl who came back from the dead? Is she the kidnapped daughter of the wealthy Vaughan family? Is she the granddaughter of the black farmer Robert Armstrong, whose wayward son Robin married a woman and then left her alone with their little daughter, Alice? Or is the four-year-old girl the sister of 44-year-old Mrs. Lily White, as she adamantly claims? How is that possible? Who does she belong to and why won’t she speak?

The storyteller of this tale, which is fortified with folklore, magic, science, and myth, is one of the best, sweeping readers in the turbulent current of her fast-paced, hypnotic plot and then delivering them safely back to their own worlds to attend to their own rivers. “And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, you surely have rivers of your own to attend to?” (460) Before leaving us, though, she makes sure each tangle of the plot is smoothly and expertly untangled, each question satisfactorily answered. Once Upon a River is yet another testament to the power of stories and storytelling that has captivated and transformed lives through centuries. This title is also available as an ebook and eaudiobook from Howard County Library System. In my opinion, this novel is best enjoyed in your cozy reading spot on a cold winter’s night, snuggled in your favorite blanket with a cup of hot chocolate by your side.

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

Book Theater

By Cherise T.

Nature setting in bluish tint. Trees, clouds, horizon.

If you’re like me, you really miss live theater. The Playbills. Waiting for the curtain to rise, the actors to appear. Entering another world. Audiobooks can offer a similar exhilarating trip. Recently, some audiobooks go beyond one or two readers. They offer a whole cast of performers who immerse you in the books’ texts like only a theatrical performance can. Publishers have started to invest in larger ensembles of characters. These audiobooks provide a different experience from the written word. 

Those of you who have listened to the Harry Potter series on audio are already familiar with Jim Dale, the award-winning British actor with the unique ability to create special voices for all of Rowling’s Hogwarts characters. Dale has talked about children recognizing his voice at McDonald’s and asking him to order a burger as Dumbledore. It’s the rare audiobook narrator who can convincingly perform multiple characters on his own, but Dale can. If you haven’t heard Harry on audio, I recommend giving the series a try. 

The largest audio cast to date belongs to the Lincoln in the Bardo recording. In his first novel, George Saunders, an acclaimed speculative short story writer, brings us an otherworldly vision of President Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his 11-year-old son, Willie. We meet Willie’s fellow cemetery spirits who linger between death and rebirth. One of the protagonists is voiced by Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation fame and another by David Sedaris, the bestselling humor essayist. (Sedaris’s audiobooks are wonderful too as he reads his own works.) There are 166 performers in all. Although it’s fun to see how many voices you can recognize – Ben Stiller! Julianne Moore! – I recommend exploring the full cast list to enjoy the complete experience. 

Daisy Jones and the Six is a novel that takes the form of an oral history of a fictional 1970’s rock band. The members of The Six embody sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Author Taylor Jenkins Reid even pens lyrics for the group’s hit songs. Now, what if you could hear the oral history? You can, in the amazing audiobook. Jennifer Beals of Flashdance and The L Word fame is the voice of Daisy, a character loosely inspired by Stevie Nicks. There are 21 cast members on this audiobook, and they bring the chaotic world of recording, tours, and relationships to life. 

If you’ve not explored the joys of audiobooks, give them a try. On free book promotion sites such as Goodreads and Book Riot, you can find reviews specifically of audiobooks. The readers are as unique as the books themselves, so don’t hesitate to give different voices a try. 

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.