Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore

The bright blue cover shows the sliced up illustration of white woman with short dark bobbed hair with eyes and mouth wide in suprise. The portrait is only halfway on the right side of the book and the sliced strips are disjointed.

by Kristen B.

Oona Out of Order is a slightly different sort of time travel novel … Oona’s mind jumps randomly from year to year into her chronologically aging body, always on her birthday, which happens to be January 1.

Imagine never being quite sure what year you’re in, although you’re always you. What would your touchstones be? For Oona, it’s her mom and, for later years, her personal assistant.

As the novel begins, Oona enjoys a rocking New Years Eve party with her boyfriend, the band they are in, and most of her friends, and she’s about to turn 19. De rigueur teen drama plays out all around, but there are some real decisions that Oona has to make soon, decisions that set the stage for the rest of the book. She can either skip out on college and go on a European tour with the beloved boyfriend and the band (opening for other, larger acts) or she can do a year abroad in London with her bestie from childhood.

Only when the clock strikes midnight, Oona finds herself completely disoriented at age 51. That turns out to be a quiet year, taking stock and figuring out what’s what. In subsequent years, Oona jumps around from party-hard years in the New York club scene, to a brief foray into married life, to traveling the world.

Montimore was smart about creating the structure of her impressive debut. She never explains or solves the time-traveling issue; it’s just a given. She also sets up Oona as being independently wealthy after some good bets and smart stock trading given her knowledge of future years. Managing her portfolio (literally a set of folders) is her only job, leaving her free to absorb each year as it comes. Being based largely in New York helps a lot, too, as she can always find another facet of life to become immersed in.

There’s also Oona’s mom, who helps her (mostly) to bridge the years and explain what’s going on. In fact, Madeleine may be my favorite character, who is trying her best to live her own life as well as take care of her daughter’s chaos. Not always an easy relationship, it rings true in many ways as it’s the only one that Oona manages to sustain for much of the book. Oona’s love for music provides the other constant in her life, to the point that you might be tempted to listen to some Velvet Underground and Blondie as you read.

Monitmore gives us a fun book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but nonetheless asks questions about what it means to live a good, meaningful life. It does also give some closure to the big questions facing Oona at the beginning of the book – which she gets to answer with a lot more maturity and experience than most 19-year-olds have at their disposal. Don’t you wish you could tell your teenage self a few things?

Oona Out of Order is available as a book, an eBook, and an eAudiobook.

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. 

Another Country

The Penguin Classic cover features red cut-outs of figures layered over a neutral background.
Penguin Classic edition

by Ben H.

“Beneath them Rufus walked, one of the fallen – for the weight of this city was murderous” 

James Baldwin

Another Country is a novel that’s more like a play or a poem. Short descriptions set scenes like flashes of light, and dialogue propels us through the story. James Baldwin is brilliant and empathetic; his depiction of humanity is beautiful. Passages that make you weep are followed immediately by passages that make you laugh. Dark episodes in the cold rain follow erotic passages in warm apartments. Baldwin’s relentless prose attack zigs and zags at the reader, and he never lets up. He pulls the threads of the tangled ball of relationships at the center of the novel tighter and tighter. Another Country is addictive and almost unbearably tense. 

Baldwin explores race, gender, sexuality, religion, art, and life in America in the 1950s through the interactions of a group of memorable characters. First, we meet Rufus Scott, a black jazz drummer, stumbling out of a movie theater in New York, disheveled and desperate. His experience as a black man in America is really the central pillar of the story. His wretched love/hate relationship with Leona, a white woman from the south, ruins both of their lives and sets a grim tone for a serious book. Vivaldo, a white man, is arguably the main character. Vivaldo is a struggling writer and Rufus’ best friend. Vivaldo is everywhere. He felt to me like a stand-in for James Baldwin himself.

France offers the reader a brief respite from the grimness of New York. We first meet Eric and his boyfriend Yves on a French beach. The passages set abroad are lovely and warm, while the scenes in New York are often brutal and freezing or unforgiving and sizzling. Baldwin’s depiction of France juxtaposed with that of America neatly illustrates the way Baldwin, a gay black man, felt in France versus the way he felt in the United States.

The many protagonists provide a narrative richness I really loved. Besides Rufus and Vivaldo, Cass (maybe my favorite character), Ida (Rufus’s sister and an incredible character), and Eric (in his own way the heartbeat of the book) are the other main players in this story of relationships and race. The New York Times compared Another Country to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and I think it’s a great comparison. Baldwin also brings the furious pace of a sax solo to his poetic novel. If you want to know what it’s like to read Another Country, listen to “Countdown” off of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

Another Country really does have a momentous heft to it. Baldwin, like an alchemical wordsmith, achieved something magical with everyday material. On the surface, it’s just the story of a few overlapping relationships during the 50s. But by the time you turn the last page, it feels like you’re holding something vital in your hands. I really do believe that books like this can change the way people view and treat one another.

If you’ve already read Another Country, visit HCLS and see if we have a Baldwin that you haven’t yet read (or if we can recommend something similar). If you haven’t read Another Country, you have money in the bank. You can’t go wrong with Mr. Baldwin.

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).

Jacqueline Woodson: Brown Girl Dreaming and Another Brooklyn

Reviews by Kristen B.

Brown Girl Dreaming may be one of the most beautifully poignant books I’ve ever had the privilege to read. This autobiographical text told in verse relates Woodson’s childhood memories of both Brooklyn, NY and her grandparents’ home in rural South Carolina. I loved the glow of fireflies appearing in the summer dusk, and my heart ached with the understanding that her brother had been lead poisoned by paint in an old tenement. This lovely volume brings us the complete open-hearted bewilderment of a child learning about her world. Dirt driveways and city asphalt combine into a mesmerizing memoir that, while it might be labelled for teens and children, brings truth to all its readers (also available as an eBook and eAudiobook). Woodson received a 2020 MacArthur Fellows Grant.

Woodson continues the coming-of-age theme in her novel, Another Brooklyn. In some ways, I read this as the grown-up version of Brown Girl Dreaming even though its more novel and less memoir. August is returning to Brooklyn for a funeral, and as she travels she can’t help but remember her childhood – the lives of the four fast friends growing up in the 1970s in Brooklyn. The storytelling is still lyrical, if not exactly in verse. The vignettes of the girls’ lives gave me both the feeling of being a young teen again, with all those emotions and upsets, as well as a glimpse of the bigger, national picture that was unfolding around them. Like in the previous book, you get the family nostalgia for an unkind South as well as the hard edges of the northern city. The author does not pull any punches as the girls get older, the problems get thornier, and the solutions ever more doubtful. (also available as an eAudiobook).

These are dreaming books, a little beautiful and a little disturbing, with a haze of remembering to them. But they carry truth, and truth can be hard to hear. Both of these books live on my keeper shelves, and I revisit them periodically. I hope you love them, too.

Kristen B. has worked for HCLS for more than 15 years, and currently hosts the Books on Tap discussion group at Hysteria Brewing Company. She loves reading, Orioles baseball, and baking.