Strange Fruit: Billie Holliday and the Power of a Protest Song, by Gary Golio (2017)

Strange Fruit: Billie Holliday and the Power of a Protest Song, by Gary GolioMy undergraduate degree is in history. That’s big, so my focus was on the modernist “movement” which swept across Europe and then North America, roughly 1880-1939, impacting everything from politics to literature and art. Protest songs were key to our studies of American civil rights history, of course, and one of the pieces of music we used was Strange Fruit, recorded by the incredible jazz singer Billie Holliday. I didn’t know the song, and so it was a shock to me to learn that the strange “fruit” are in fact the dead bodies of lynching victims. It is a powerful song, a lament and a call to action in its time. It became known as Billie’s signature song, and this picture book for older children introduces readers to the song and its origins, in a way that is age appropriate. Read more of this post

The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak (2017)

The Impossible Fortress by Jason RekulakFirst up, The Impossible Fortress is an old-school computer game, created on a Commodore 64, in hopes of winning a contest and the coveted top prize of an IBM PS/2. (It features a 16-bit processor!) Remember those? How about the TRS-80, fondly recalled today as the Trash 80? This young adult novel is a delightful romp through the pop culture and early home computing history of the late 1980s, featuring appearances by Bruce Hornsby and Christie Brinkley, dial-up modems and Compuserve electronic mail, video rentals and IBM Selectric. But the most coveted item in the lives of 14-year-olds Billy Marvin and his best friends Alf and Clark is the latest Playboy magazine. They are desperate to get their hands on it. It features Vanna White, and everyone’s talking about her bum and boobs. Read more of this post

Project Apollo: The Early Years, 1961-1967, by Eugen Reichl (2016)

13 to Adult
Project Apollo: The Early Years 1961-1967, by Eugen ReichlHow sadly appropriate that I’m writing this on the day American astronaut and space pioneer John Glenn passed away, Dec. 8. You don’t have to be too much of a space geek to enjoy this introduction to the unmanned Apollo missions that preceded Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s steps on the moon. This is the third book in the America in Space series (after Project Mercury and Project Gemini), all authored by Reichl, an aerospace expert who works for the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company (EADS). The book was originally written and published in German, which surprised me given the topic. Reichl writes in clear, accessible language. He touches on technical topics in enough detail to appeal to enthusiasts but doesn’t lose readers in the process. Read more of this post

Anatomy of a Song, by Marc Myers (2016)

Anatomy of a SongMusic historian Marc Myers has compiled an oral history that examines the back stories of, as the subtitle tells us, “45 Iconic Hits that Changed Rock, R&B, and Pop.” Spanning approximately 40 years of late 20th century music, the collection is bookended with two songs by men in search of love. It opens in 1952 with Lloyd Price’s debut release, the sorrow-filled “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and wraps with the 1991 surprise hit “Losing My Religion” by alternative rock band R.E.M. In between we find Elvis (“Suspicious Minds”), The Kinks (“You Really Got Me), Joni Mitchell (for “Carey”, written in a cave in Crete), and many other familiar names. Read more of this post

Mammoth, by Douglas Perry (2016)

Mammoth, by Douglas PerryA summer morning earthquake in a ski resort town in the California mountains rattles residents. It’s California so they are used to it, but when explosions follow, a sense of disaster causes people to flee, creating a traffic jam that just increases the panic. Even the DJ takes off in the middle of his radio show. No one really knows what’s going on, including the reader. Billy Lane and his two cronies take advantage of the mayhem to knock off the small-town bank. No one was supposed to be hurt, but the bank manager is shot and a teller is left unconscious and bleeding. The crooks take off up a mountain road to hide out, where Billy’s daughter is at a running camp. But when Tori returns from her morning run, the camp is deserted. Read more of this post

The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore (2016)

Historical Fiction
The Last Days of Night, by Graham MooreEdison, Tesla, Westinghouse – we all know the names of the men whose brilliant minds gave of the technological innovations we still use today, from electric light and its distribution system to lasers and x-rays. I was vaguely aware that there were lawsuits over patents, and that the three men were engaged in a business battle between alternating current and direct current, known as the “War of the Currents”. Author Moore draws on all the true events of the late 20th century (roughly 1888 to 1898) but compresses them into two years, reordering events and imagining conversations and meetings, resulting in a fascinating novel that nonetheless frustrated me since I simply didn’t know what was true and what was made up. Read more of this post

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson (2015)

15 to Adult
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LusitaniaOn Friday, May 1, 1915, the luxurious passenger liner Lusitania left Cunard’s New York City pier bound for Liverpool. Late April weather had been stifling in the city but on May Day the skies dawned cool and grey. Few of the passengers who boarded that morning saw the German Embassy’s notice in the newspaper warning that all ships “flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction” in the war-zone waters around the British isles. A few had misgivings but brushed them off, believing the warning was not intended for passenger ships, and besides, as Captain William Thomas Turner assured the few who asked him about the threat of German u-boats, a convoy of warships would protect the liner through the war zone. Read more of this post

The House by the Lake, by Thomas Harding (2015, 2016)

The House by the Lake In 1993, Thomas Harding and his grandmother travelled to Germany to visit the family’s former lakeside home, a cottage by the lake built in the 1920s by his grandfather, a successful Jewish doctor. The house was a haven for the family, an idyllic place to relax and play away from their busy lives in Berlin some 20 kilometres away. The Alexander family lost the property when they fled to England during the Nazi era, and it was subsequently bought for a song by the German music publisher Will Meisel. Meisel lost the property when officials scrutinised his purchase during a “denazification” effort by the post-war leaders in East Germany, and it became the property of local government, which issued permits for tenant residency. Read more of this post

The Versions of Us, by Laura Barnett (2015, 2016)

The Versions of Us by Laura BarnettDebut author Laura Barnett takes the “what if” concept and spins it into a complicated triptych – three versions of the lives of Eva Edelstein and Jim Taylor. The two first cross paths (literally) as 19-year-olds in 1958 in England when a dog dashes toward Eva on her bicycle. In two versions she crashes and Jim helps her up; in one she avoids the collision and while their eyes meet, they don’t. Yet. The three stories slowly play out, with the same events (births, parties, art exhibitions, funerals) occurring at the right time in each version, but with very different plots. The book spans more than 50 years (70 if you include the prologue). In each version they are a couple, but at different points, for different lengths, and with various levels of happiness. Read more of this post

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge (2014, 2016)

The Lie Tree, by Frances HardingeAs embarrassing as it is to admit, I often find myself at odds with the selections for literary awards. I read them because a) everyone asks me if I’ve read it and b) expert readers have judged this a top contribution. But at least half the time, I’m left scratching my head, mystified as to why this book made the list. It’s happened again. Fourteen-year-old Faith is quietly seething under the Victorian constraints imposed by everyone from strangers to her adored father, the Rev. Erasmus Sunderly, who is also a natural scientist. Faith is a brilliant young scholar whose ambitions appear impossible to fulfill. Girls don’t know anything about the moon, her little brother informs her with sober sincerity. Read more of this post

The Passenger, by F. R. Tallis (2016)

The PassengerHow can anyone resist the idea of a haunted German submarine plying the waters of the Atlantic in the winter of 1941/1942? Sigfried Lorenz is the conflicted and flawed commander of U-330, a Nazi vessel battling the British during World War II. Lorenz is fighting a war he doesn’t believe in, longs for the arms of his Parisian lover, and cares deeply about the morale and safety of his crew. When a triple-encoded message orders U-330 to pick up two prisoners from a vessel off the coast of Iceland, the crew responds with speed, curious about the prisoners’ importance. One is a British submarine commander; the other is a Norwegian scholar, an expert in the Norse runes that fascinate Himmler and other Nazi leaders. Read more of this post

The Lake House, by Kate Morton (2015)

The Lake HouseAustralian novelist Kate Morton returns to the Cornish coast as the moody setting for this time-shifting mystery about a toddler apparently kidnapped in 1933. The Lake House has remained empty since the tragedy befell the Edevane family. Seventy years later, Detective constable Sadie Sparrow stumbles across the dilapidated property while visiting her grandfather Bertie, who recently moved there after Sadie’s grandmother Ruth passed away. Sadie is taking a leave while her police department investigates a media leak about her investigation into the disappearance of the mother of another toddler. Sadie resists the case’s conclusion that the mother abandoned her child, struggling with her own long-ago history as a pregnant teen. Read more of this post

A Redbird Christmas, by Fannie Flagg (2004)

A Redbird ChristmasReliable Southern fiction writer Fannie Flagg won me over on the second page as she introduced Oswald T. Campbell, a 52-year-old orphan who visits the doctor to discover he has months to live. In filling out the damn forms the doctor’s receptionist thrusts at him, he comes to a space asking him to list his complaints. He doesn’t hesitate: “The Cubs need a new second baseman.” Instead Oswald is told to abandon Chicago and its wintry weather. The good doc even fishes out a faded brochure for an inexpensive resort in Lost River, Alabama. Turns out the place burned down in 1911, but Oswald is lucky and connects with a helpful resident who picks up the phone at the community centre. She takes his number and as promised, calls back with an offer Oswald can’t refuse – a $50/week room in Betty Kitchen’s home, including meals. Read more of this post

The Land of Dreams, by Vidar Sundstol (2008, 2013)

The Land of DreamsI stumbled across this series when the final book in the trilogy was released to NetGalley members. Intrigued by its description as an award-winning Norwegian crime novel set in the national forest of Minnesota, I found a copy at my local library and delved in. This first title in The Minnesota Trilogy was published in 2008, and translated into English by Tiina Nunnally for the 2013 release in North America. Lance Hansen is a police officer for the U.S. Forest Service, literally a cop in the woods. His normal work involves poachers and litterers. Until the morning a report of illegal camping leads him to discover two men, one dead. Both are naked, covered in blood, and both are Norwegian tourists. Read more of this post

Best to Laugh, by Lorna Landvik (2014)

Genre: Historical
Interest Level: 16-Adult
Best to LaughAfter losing her mother at age six and abandoned by a grief-stricken father, Candy Pekkala turns to comedy and then to pot to ease the pain and loneliness. Her teen years go up in smoke, but she pulls it together in time to complete a university degree. Now she is stuck in neutral, serving pie and coffee in Minnesota, watching Johnny Carson every evening with her grandmother while waiting for life to begin. A phone call from a cousin looking to sublet her Los Angeles apartment takes Candy to Peyton Hall, home to Hollywood hopefuls and survivors. It’s the late 1970s, and Sunset Boulevard is shabby but always entertaining. Her neighbours include a geriatric animator, a female body builder, a substitute teacher who competes on game shows Read more of this post