The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear

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393C3BD1-8718-43E5-AA7C-12979BFBC4DCWinspear’s Maisie Dobbs is one of my favorite fictional characters and the series is one I recommend constantly. The American Agent signals the beginning of a new chapter in Maisie’s life, and is every bit as good as previous entries in the series.

Back to driving ambulances and deeply involved in saving lives during Hitler’s Blitz of London, Maisie is also waiting for a hearing to determine whether she can finally adopt Anna, the child refugee who entered her life in In This Grave Hour. Maisie and best chum Priscilla drive into the heart of the bombing every night, and meet intrepid “girl reporter” Catherine Saxon. Maisie senses a kindred spirit in the young woman, and is suitably distressed to discover that Catherine has been killed. Maisie is asked to look into Catherine’s death, given that she was the daughter of a prominent American senator. During her investigation, Maisie renews and intensifies her relationship with the American agent Mark Scott, first encountered in Journey to Munich.

Winspear has done a spectacular job in helping Maisie grow into a confident, brave, intelligent woman who has known tremendous heartbreak but has survived through grit and resilience. If it sounds like Winspear is tying up a number of loose ends here, she is and it is supremely gratifying. The mystery here is secondary to the bigger story of Maisie moving on with her life, although it is handled with the same cleverness and wit we have come to expect from Winspear.

The book itself is shorter than previous entries in the series, which made for a wonderful few hours immersed in 1940s London and Kent. Highly recommended.

March Micro-Reviews


 

miracleThe Miraculous by Jess Redman

Books with a pronounced religious theme, especially if they are written for children, usually turn me off. However, I was attracted to this one because of the focus on miracles. I don’t know the author, and hadn’t heard about the book but the description pulled me in. I was not disappointed.

We meet protagonist Wunder as he and his family are immersed in tremendous grief after the death of his 8-day-old sister. His mother has retreated to her room and sent all the family away, leaving Wunder and his father to attend the funeral alone. Wunder is clearly in the midst of the most difficult time in his life which it seems he has to navigate on his own.

Wunder’s lifelong fascination with miracles is the core of the story, with him rejecting the concept because of his sister’s death. Making this even more heartbreaking is the name Wunder selected for the baby, which leads to him abandoning his lifelong “collecting” of miracles. While he’s trying to keep it together, Wunder meets Faye, a young girl dealing with loss herself, and they both meet a “witch” who helps Wunder rediscover and renew his faith in miracles.

The writing here is lovely and the story both heartbreaking and uplifting.

Recommended.

Publication Date: July 30, 2019
Published By: Farrar, Straus, Giroux
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Grimoire

Grimoire Noir by Vera Greentea

As much as I try, I just cannot love graphic novels. I know that will make some of my readers gasp and I’m sorry for that.  I appreciate the artwork and the story, but put them together and I always feel like I’ve missed most of the story. Unfortunately, I had that experience here. There are the bones of a great story here and gorgeous artwork, but I am left feeling unfulfilled. The characters have so much potential – a Mom who makes it rain when she cries and the clever person who made that happen to aid an escape from some serious magic – I want to know more about this!

I expect that this will definitely appeal to graphic novel fans who gravitate to the paranormal. The artwork is luscious, and as I said above, the story is interesting. This is definitely a “it’s me, not you” situation. Not for for me, but certainly for those who enjoy graphic novels.

Publication Date: July 23, 2019
Published By: First Second Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

singingThe Singing Rock and Other Brand-New Fairy Tales by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer

These new fairy tales are such fun! The stories are clever and witty, and the illustrations bright and joyous. I especially enjoyed the twists on standard tales, notably the clever relationship between the “genie in the lamp” and the frog – very funny and has tremendous potential for storytime activities. All the stories will appeal to the early grade set and can be made into fun and funny storytimes by children’s librarians and teachers. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: June 18, 2019
Published By: First Second Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Revenge of Magic by James Riley


revengeRiley starts a new series here with a big whump – horrible, clawed creatures exploding out of the ground in Washington DC and a young hero-in-the-making witnessing it all and then doing something about it.

Similar in broad description to the Harry Potter & Percy Jackson vein of adventure stories for kids, this one comes with a harder edge and a wildly inventive storyline. In most stories of this kind, the adults are often clueless or deceptive jerks while the kids are brave, clever heroes. The interesting thing here is that both kids and adults are equally clever, brave, and manipulative which creates an interesting dynamic. Each side score points, but each side is culpable for what happens.

There is equal time given to male and female heroes which means an appeal to both boys and girls.

The four (or seven?) branches of magic described here, as well as how they were discovered, provides a new approach to the genre. Sure, there are nods to Camp HalfBlood and Hogwarts, but also veins reminiscent of Stephen King’s Firestarter and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders series, as well as Merlin and Arthur and even a little bit of James Rollins. What pulls the story together, though, are the kid characters – tough, salty, vulnerable, and oh-so-powerful, they save the day and, most likely, the future. This could be the hit of the summer, folks…

Publication Date: March 5, 2019
Published By: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing – Aladdin
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Art of Visual Notetaking by Emily Mills


artVisual notetaking is a skill I have coveted for some time, after watching a couple friends do it superbly. I thought this would be an excellent way to learn more about the process and begin to cultivate the skill myself. I was right!

Mills offers a step-by-step introduction to visual notetaking, covering all the whys, hows, whens and whats. This is definitely a book for beginners who need to learn about tools as well as techniques. She is meticulous in detail, which is wonderful for beginners but a little pedantic for anyone who has even a little bit of experience with drawing and sketching.

However, even though Mills exhorts the reader to read each chapter in order, it’s easy enough to skip the stuff you don’t need. The gold here is the advice and instruction Mills gives on *how* to take notes, especially the emphasis on listening and practicing.

This will be popular with people exploring lettering and bullet journaling, but also with people looking for a new way to record and absorb information.

Publication Date: March 5, 2019
Published By: Walter Foster Publishing – Quarto Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Griffins of Castle Cary


GriffinsThe Griffins of Castle Cary by Heather Shumaker

Middle grade readers will delight in the spooky adventures of the Griffin family as they navigate their way around Castle Cary in Somerset England. Siblings Meg, Wil, and Ariel are delighted to discover there are ghosts (!) around when they stay with their Aunt in her authentically thatched and ancient cottage while their parents are off doing their geology thing.

What starts off as a pleasant, low-key paranormal mystery quickly gains an edge when the resident ghosts take a very strong interest in Ariel. While Meg worries she’s too old to see ghosts and Wil discovers that he hiccups whenever a ghost is near, Ariel finds herself in real danger of possession. Find out how the siblings work together to save Ariel and put the ghosts to rest.

While there is a certain breeziness to the writing, fans of hardcore ghost stories will not be disappointed and will definitely feel the shivers as they read through this story. Recommended!

Publication Date: March 5, 2019
Published By: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger


67ED6962-E081-4A26-ABFC-089CF8128753Sometimes you need a book that soothes spirit – a book that starts slowly and meanders along at a gentle pace, telling a gentle story that leaves you feeling like you’ve been floating down a lazy river in the not-too-hot sunshine. Virgil Wander is that kind of book.

Leif Enger is known for his use of allegory and symbolism, and remains true to form in Virgil. The overarching theme that appears again and again throughout the story is flight and all the things that go along with it – here specifically weightlessness, freedom, and risk-taking.

The story begins with our titular character, Virgil Wander, recovering from an awful accident that had him driving his car off an embankment into Lake Superior. While his car doesn’t make it, Virgil escapes with some bodily damage and a traumatic brain injury. Language is one of the things that Virgil has lost – not the ability to speak, but the use of adjectives – the ability to describe. It leaves Virgil feeling like a stranger in his home, his job, and his life in general.

Into this confusion comes Rune Eliasson, an old man from the Arctic Circle searching for a son he didn’t know was conceived on a long ago trip to Greenstone, Minnesota. He discovers the son mysteriously disappeared a decade before, but stays to find out more about him. Virgil and Rune bond over flying kites and eventually become unlikely roommates.

What commences is the story of how Virgil Wander recovers his adjectives and discovers a new life right on top of the old one. Along the way, Virgil and the multitude of characters living in Greenstone struggle with the vagaries (and predictabilities) of small town life. The story is a common one across the Great Lakes region where towns that boomed with good fortune and wealth for years are now faced with closed factories, declining population, and aging infrastructure.

The big question is why do people stay in these small towns with no future. Enger’s answer, I think, lies in the symbolism here. One of the characters, Shad Pea, is allegedly killed by a monster sturgeon, which his surviving son vows to kill. The fish itself becomes a character here, driving one of the many sub-plots until a blood-pumping scene at the end of the book. The fish is often used as a symbol of rebirth or resurrection, a theme entwined with the lives of the characters and the town. Relationships are born and reborn throughout, further emphasizing the importance of friends, family, and acquaintances in daily life. People in Greenstone care about each other and, more importantly, take care of each other.

The more obvious theme here, though, is flight. For Virgil, his old life has flown away, but he’s finding a new one bit by bit. Rune’s amazing handmade kites are used as the vehicle to bring people together and to provide the sense of power and weightlessness that exists when something leaves the earth to swoop through the air. While you can see the kite and feel it through the string, a wayward breeze or a strong wind can take that kite and fold it up, crash it, or make it soar if only you have the courage and perseverance to keep it in the air. One of my favorite scenes has Rune and Virgil flying a kite in the dark. Virgil never knows which kite he was flying. All he knows is what he can feel through the string and he says it is “a curious privilege…to fly without so much as a glimpse of perception of the wing.” That is a turning point for Virgil when he realizes that his new life will require risk-taking.

Virgil’s budding relationship with Nadine is part of his transformation, and Enger handles it with the gentle matter-of-factness of finding a partner late in life. It just happens. And that is ultimately what Virgil Wander discovers. Life happens, whether you’re ready for it or not. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes you get a raw deal. How you respond to both the good and the bad is what makes your life important.

Virgil Wander is not the most exciting book you will ever read and, indeed, many reviews call it out for being boring. If you’re not a small town kind of person, I expect you would find this odd and a little dull. Anyone who has spent some time living in a small town will recognize the unusual (and usual) characters that show up everywhere, and will enjoy drawing comparisons to real-life examples of the Village Hall staff, the tired sheriff, the local marijuana grower, and the colorful characters who are found everywhere. If you have a couple hours of uninterrupted time where you want to fall into a cozy, friendly reading trance, pick this up and snuggle down. You’ll emerge refreshed.

House of Salt & Sorrow by Erin Craig


cover157025-mediumHouse of Salt & Sorrow by Erin Craig

Folktales have been told and retold for centuries, and I am always up for reading something new. Often, the retellings are interesting but not very original. Erin Craig, though, has produced an imaginative, lovely, wholly original retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses which takes the kernel of the old story and builds a whole new world peopled by fascinating characters and customs.

The “Thaumas Dozen” is as interesting a group as I can remember from my reading. Twelve sisters, all different in their own ways with very different wishes for their futures. Tragedy strikes the family again and again as first their mother then sisters begin to die tragically. The family, it is whispered, is cursed, with the girls being described by hoped-for suitors as “lovely as a bouquet of belladonna.”

Two sisters, Annaleigh and Verity, know something is very wrong and each works towards solving the riddle of their “curse.” Throw in the wicked (is she or isn’t she?) stepmother, an enchanted father, and all the glorious wickedness of Faeryland and you have a tale that will delight and capture your senses.

This will appeal to teens and adults alike, and Erin Craig is on track to take a place next to Marissa Meyer, Naomi Novik, and Sarah Maas.

Publication Date: August 6, 2019
Publisher: Random House/Delacorte
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

February Micro-Reviews


2ED6F538-8B91-493B-9F3B-DEC5DB1984D6The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick – There have been so many books out lately that revolve around things that are lost and found and I didn’t expect a much different story here. Silly me. Phaedra Patrick has given us a story about a middle-aged woman who never says no…until she does. What happens next is one of the most poignant stories I’ve read in a long time.

Martha’s whole life has been shaped by a single incident from her childhood which she knew nothing about, until a mysterious book full of her own childhood stories, with a dedication written by her grandmother, shows up out of the blue at her library. That the stories are her own, written as a child, is one thing, but the dedication is dated three years *after* her grandmother supposedly died. This mystery sets off a string of explosions in Martha’s life, leading her on an unforgettable and sometimes painful journey.

Somewhat reminiscent of a favorite from last year (Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine) this one will leave you with a bunch of crumpled tissues and stuffy nose, but also a soaring spirit. Book clubs, take note. This is a sure hit for your monthly meetings.

Publication Date: March 26, 2019
Publisher: Harlequin
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

13896A93-B0D4-441A-B853-CC6334F53416Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe – Howe’s Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was a favorite of mine in 2009 so I was thrilled to get this ARC, which continues the story of Connie Goodwin and her search for truth in her past. Howe’s writing is wonderful as usual, and the story is as captivating as I’ve come to expect from the author. The primary plot line is somewhat reminiscent of Practical Magic, but Connie’s relationships with both the past and present make this one well worth reading. Howe writes with an engaging style that makes the reader feel as though you know the characters. As I read, I could feel Connie’s rising panic about her child and Sam. Her drive to safeguard her family forces her to reopen old wounds and the scene with her former mentor Manning Chilton was chilling.

I was delighted to see Connie’s mother, Grace, play a larger role here and develop into a very interesting character. The Dane lineage becomes much clearer here, and Grace becomes a more well-rounded figure of power. New character Esperanza is also a welcome addition, bringing yet another strand of “women’s work” to the bigger story of cunning women.

Publication Date: June 25, 2019
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

839B253E-B026-455D-9D02-CC129100BDB2A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna Raybourn – Raybourn has delivered another rollicking good mystery in the Veronica Speedwell series. The flirtatious relationship between Veronica and Stoker continues and moves into serious territory, all the while they are working to solve a clever and villainous mystery in a spooky castle on an island off the Cornish coast, complete with a poison garden and a raft of prevaricating people. Really, all you need for a few hours of fun reading! With the popularity of Victorian era TV shows, I think this one would make an excellent show!

Publication Date: March 12, 2019
Publisher: Berkley Publishing Group
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

89B3A1FD-7C09-4939-BFC5-62D927132855Rough Music by Robin Blake – Coming into a series not previously read can be difficult, but that is not the case here. Like Anne Perry’s mysteries, this one stands alone while featuring characters that have appeared in previous novels. The writing and plot here are what you’d expect for a story set in this time period – it’s rough and sometimes shocking. I admit that the prologue, which featured a husband and wife being publicly humiliated on a “stang ride,” was graphic enough that I put the book away for a few days and debated whether to finish. However, I did go back and finish and found an interesting and clever plot and very appealing main characters. I enjoyed Titus Cragg very much, and would recommend this for libraries in which Blake’s previous Cragg stories have been popular.

Publication Date: April 1, 2019
Publisher: Severn House
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

9EFD418D-AEAE-4D84-ADE4-B8AFF26179FABlack Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James – Overall, not my cup of tea, but I recognize skillful writing and storytelling when I see it. This will be a welcome addition to library collections and will appeal to adults who enjoy a blend of fantasy and mystery with a good dose of mythology. However, it is not for the faint-hearted.

Publication Date: February 5, 2019
Publisher: Penguin Group, Riverhead Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg


palacesA few months ago, sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times called “To Restore Civil Society, Start with the Library” and subsequently published the book Palaces for the People which describes his work around the concept of social infrastructure.

News of both publications immediately started flowing into my email box and social media feeds. The concept of public libraries as social infrastructure captured the attention of many people. As I read Klinenberg’s book, I recognized many of the concepts library leaders have for decades struggled to communicate to funders and stakeholders. Libraries aren’t always thought of as “essential services” when municipalities are facing difficult budget years, so having a different way of describing what libraries do as “infrastructure” is very valuable.

Klinenberg defines social infrastructure as “physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops and whether human relationships and connections are formed.” Simply put, it refers to places or things that bring people together, that help create a community. Libraries are an example. What happens when people gather in these places? People who are very different from each other come together and become part of a community. They very likely have differing political and religious views, support different sports teams, watch different television shows, or read different kinds of book. The *place* brings them together.

In his book, Klinenberg primarily gives examples of how people benefit from the social infrastructure created in certain places. He talks a lot about neighborhoods and opens Palaces for the People with a data story he collected on a deadly heatwave in Chicago. More people died during that event in neighborhoods he describes as “forgotten.” These are neighborhoods where there is little to no interaction among the people who live there and where neighbors don’t know each other because there are no places for them to gather. There were no relationships bolstered by community spaces so no one checked on each other to make sure people were okay during the heatwave.

He writes: “When hard infrastructure fails…it’s the softer social infrastructure that determines our fate.”

Klinenberg singles out public libraries as the ultimate example of social infrastructure that works. He provides example after example of how people connect at libraries. One woman he interviewed described the library as a “place of permission” where you can follow your own interests and not be pushed in a certain direction. Libraries are a place that is judgement free, where you can explore whatever interests you.

Libraries in Monroe County have a long and rich history, and most of our mayors and town supervisors and other entities responsible for funding our libraries understand the role libraries play in community and are committed to keeping our doors open.

Years ago, when I worked at the Ogden Library in Spencerport, I was doing some research for a book. I learned that when the Town of Ogden was founded in 1815, the first three institutions created were a church, a school, and a library.

Imagine that group of pioneers, who had literally cut their way west from Connecticut and Massachusetts through untamed wilderness, arriving in Ogden, building their homes, then setting about creating a community. I think it says a lot about those pioneers that they created a library in the middle of the wilderness. They knew that a library would provide something valuable and necessary in their new community.

Today, public libraries all over the world are providing social infrastructure for their communities. In Monroe County, there are dozens of examples of the library creating and enabling communities to form.

People who live in Rochester’s 19th Ward point to the Arnett Branch as an anchor in their community. The library provides a safe space for children to gather after school where they are supervised, fed, and given homework assistance until picked up by their parents after work is done for the day. Adults can apply for jobs, or participate in a writing group. Teens learn about college and work opportunities. All ages come to play. A local artist, Richmond Futch, has created beautiful murals on the exterior of the library, which only reinforces the role of the library as a community anchor and has made the library a selfie destination.

arnett

The Phillis Wheatley Community Library is located at the corner of Ford Street and Dr. Samuel McCree Way in Rochester. In 2017, a community project called the Storywalk was completed there, where children and families created a story that is told through kiosks alongside the building and enhanced by gorgeous sidewalk murals that were painted by community members. This project brought dozens of people together and gave them ownership of the library. The people who live nearby consider library staff as family and the library as home. Recently, I was present at Wheatley when there was a shooting outside and several bullets hit the windows of the library. The library was locked down by police with no one in or out. Once the doors opened again, I was astonished and deeply moved by the crowd of neighbors who rushed in and enveloped staff members in hugs, making sure they were okay. The library staff and neighbors are like family.

wheatley

The Monroe Branch recently started a new service that relies on the kindness of strangers. They took an empty book cart and put some canned food and couple loaves of bread on it with a sign that reads “Take what you need. Leave what you want.” It is available for anyone who is in need and gives community members an opportunity to give to those who are in need. This is the result of staff noticing an increase in the number of homeless and hungry people taking shelter in the library.

monroe

Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of social infrastructure when it is applied to libraries is that library space requires people to confront radical differences in a shared space. Nowhere is that most evident than at the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County. At Central you are guaranteed to run into to someone who is vastly different from you. A person might be homeless, or of a different ethnicity, or transgender, someone with mental health issues, lawyers, doctors, techies, business people, young mothers, teens, grandparents, and so on.

Everyone is welcome there, and we attempt to provide the right service at the right time to the right person. When Midtown closed in 2008, the Central Library became the only public place downtown with clean restrooms, and where it’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer. That meant we had a great influx of homeless and transient people who no longer had Midtown as a hangout. Instead of viewing these newcomers as a problem, we adapted our services to help them. We created Health Central on the 3rd floor where people who need help can get connected to healthcare, housing, and legal assistance. We have Nurse Barb on duty a couple days a week. She’s a retired nurse who volunteers her time to take vitals and counsel people on their health needs. Central is also now a regular stop for mobile health services providing dental care and mammograms.

I am sometimes confronted with people who resent the inclusiveness at Central and see it as threatening. I have had librarians from suburban libraries say they will never attend another training session at Central because it’s too dangerous. I’ve had an older gentleman tell me he doesn’t understand why we allow “young thugs” in the library, and have had people voice objections about sharing space with the homeless. These reactions are based in fear of the unknown, and sometimes people are willing to learn, sometimes not. The people who are comfortable with the stew of visitors to Central outnumber those who are afraid, as seen in our annual attendance numbers, which top 600,000 visits. More visits than all our sports stadiums, more than Strong Museum, more than the Zoo.

How does all this fit with the concept of social infrastructure?

Libraries are adapting services in response to community needs and activities. We are creating community. Most libraries do that very deliberately, but libraries have also shown up during times of crisis.

When Superstorm Sandy hit the downstate region, the NYC boroughs were devastated. In Queens, many libraries were flooded, and some destroyed. Within days of the storm, Queens librarians had opened libraries and became disaster centers in their neighborhoods, handing out food & clothing, providing electricity for people to charge phones, and doing storytimes in makeshift encampments to entertain weary and bored children.

When riots erupted in Ferguson and Baltimore, libraries stayed open and provided safe spaces for neighbors afraid for their lives. And then those libraries turned around and started discussions on race and healing, providing a safe space for people to have hard conversations.

Libraries provide valuable social infrastructure in a community, not only by the things they provide, but by the experiences offered and the people who offer them. When the Rochester Public Library conducted a study of branch facilities and services last year, the overwhelming response from community members when asked what they liked the most about their library was….STAFF. Our staff are our lifeblood. It is through them that community is created.

Visiting a library will remind you that there are different people with different ideas out there, and that is not a bad thing. Libraries allow communities to form and reform organically. New parents connect at baby storytimes, people looking for work help each other out, kids come together to learn about any number of things. Adults come together to discuss books, for craft classes, or to build with legos and end up forming new friendships that extend outside the library.

There is emerging research on the alienating effect of the internet on human behavior. Anyone who is on any social media platform has probably experienced a “troll” – someone who deliberately says nasty things to elicit a negative response. The relative anonymity of online communication has provided an outlet for the worst in us. It’s easy to say something hurtful when you don’t have to look someone in the eye. I see people looking for alternatives, and they are looking back into their communities for opportunities to connect in real life with other people. What better place to do that than the public library?

Social infrastructure – real community – provides an alternative to that kind of negativity. Klinenberg ends his books with this: “We need smart civil engineering to fix the critical networks that are failing, but we also need to engineer civility in societies that are at risk of breaking apart.” Libraries can provide a conduit for growing that civility.