Books in the Park

suggestions from the Barbara S. Ponce Public Library at Pinellas Park

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The Clasp, by Sloane Crosley

clasp crosleyEver had a short story that you wish someone had made into a complete novel? Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” is hilariously expanded and modernized in the deft hands of Sloane Crosley. Her witty and insightful personal essay compilations, I Was Told There Would Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number, foretold a well-crafted, literary and fun fiction title if Crosley ever turned her hand to it, and The Clasp delivers.

Three college friends meet up eight years after graduation at a wealthy classmate’s wedding. It’s clear right away that the bright futures they had expected have wilted in the onslaught of adult life and the real world. Victor has been recently fired from his job with an Internet search engine company, Kezia has made a critical misstep in her designer jewelry career, and Nathaniel has dropped his literary pretensions to run into a wall as a TV writer. This love triangle (Victor loves Kezia, who loves Nathaniel), find a common cause in the search for a family heirloom, lost in Normandy in World War II. Much of the comedy and tension comes from the group’s inability to connect with each other and be their most essential selves while on this all-consuming quest.

Crosley’s writing is tight and carries you through both interpersonal drama, personal and societal insights, and references to de Maupassant’s original text with delightful ease. Sharp insights zing throughout the text, such as “The world was not subtle about telling single people what they were missing.” Who hasn’t felt that way in early post-college life?

If you want a book full of excellent snark which will make you laugh out loud, reflect, and wince, while having a good time, “The Clasp is for you.” Sloan is a sharp observer of her generation, and I look forward to essays, fiction or, really, anything she writes, tweets included.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Clasp.

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A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff

vintage affair usLight on romance and heavy on vintage fashion, this engaging novel was just the thing I needed to lift me out of the vapid chick lit rut I’ve been in lately. The dense plot has a lot of story threads, but they all tie up well enough in the end that I felt like I got a few good stories for the price of one.

Pheobe Swift takes a financial gamble when she opens her own vintage clothing store. She loves how the clothes seem to get a second chance at life when they get new owners. She also can’t help but wonder about the clothing’s makers and previous owners. As business begins to trickle in, Pheobe’s social circle grows in inexplicable—and fateful—ways. These new friends and lovers will help her find solace in the tragedy that haunts her.

My favorite thing about this book is the descriptions of the vintage clothing. I don’t have any interest in fashion, but the garments are described so well that I could see them clearly in my mind. The main character, Pheobe, is smart and sophisticated but doesn’t flaunt it; she’s one of the few book characters that I wish were real so that we could be friends. I recommend this book to fashionistas, of course, but also to anyone looking for a women-centric novel with some substance.

Check the PPLC Catalog for A Vintage Affair.

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The Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews

the traveler's gift coverDavid Ponder had come to the end of his rope and couldn’t even find the emotional strength to tie a knot and hang on.  A 46-year-old down-sized executive with a mountain of debt, no prospects, no insurance, and a sick daughter, Ponder takes a hopeless drive to nowhere.  Going way too fast, he hits an icy bridge and spins out of control, all the while screaming, “Why me?!?”  He wakes up, not in a hospital, but in an office in Potsdam, Germany in 1945.  He doesn’t know it yet, but his journey is just beginning.

The central theme of The Traveler’s Gift seems to be that great people rise to great challenges while being refined by great adversity, whereas ordinary people give up and check out.  Andy Andrews could have just written a motivational book with his “seven decisions for success,” thrown in some nice anecdotes, and left it at that.  Instead, he tells the story of David Ponder as he is given the gift of time travel so he can learn these lessons personally from observing the lives of great people.

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Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser

flashman coverIn 1857, Thomas Hughes published Tom Brown’s School Days, a fictional account of his time in the British public school system.  Besides chronicling his education, it also included his dealings with a bully named Flashman who was eventually expelled for drunkenness. Tom Brown’s School Days was very well-received in its day and was a major contribution to the “school” genre that was popular in the 19th century.

However, this is not the book I’m reviewing.  I’m reviewing Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser, which is the first title in The Flashman Papers series.  Fraser, a historian, takes the bully Flashman and greatly expands his character in this fictional memoir.

Flashman is a coward, a cheat, a bully, a drunkard, and a lecher that admits to only two real skills: he is adept with languages, and can ride anything with four legs. Somehow this wastrel, throughout all twelve titles in the series, winds up embroiled in many of Britain’s most notorious historical events: the Sepoy Mutiny, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and in the first novel, the retreat from Kabul and the Siege of Jalalabad.

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The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

the-hundred-foot-journey-book-coverHow does a young boy from Mumbai, India become a world-renown French chef? That is the story of The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais. Hassan Haji was born into a family of restaurateurs.  His grandfather started a small roadside café in Mumbai, which became very popular with the Allied servicemen of World War II.  By the time Hassan was born, Abbas, his father, had taken over the restaurant and it had become quite successful.  While Hassan was still in his teens, tragedy strikes the family and Abbas sells everything and moves the family to Europe.

They live in England for a couple of years before fate steps in and lands them in the small French town of Lumiere.  It is here that Abbas decides to put down roots and open an authentic Indian restaurant.  That would have been all well and good, but the location he chose was right across the street from the elegant restaurant of the famed Madame Mallory, French gourmet chef extraordinaire!  That is when all hell breaks loose.

Reading this book stirred two desires in my heart.  The first was to go and visit the places mentioned in this book.  Lumiere is a town in the French Jura, which is a mountainous region on the border of Switzerland.  Morais paints a picture of lush valleys, stunning vistas, meadows of wildflowers, and clear streams running through a pine forest.  Wow, I wish I was there right now!

The second desire is to create amazing food. Morais so beautifully describes the various dishes created by all the chefs in the book that I also want to be able to prepare cuisine that is delicious and unique.  I don’t think I want to go as far as the snails and octopus, but to make something besides hamburgers would be pretty cool!

So give the The Hundred-Foot Journey a read.  The book is sometimes comical, sometimes dramatic, but ultimately inspiring.  Who knows, maybe it will inspire you to visit France and/or become the next great chef. Or it might just make you really hungry.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The One-Hundred Foot Journey.

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Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman

killing yourself to live“If I knew I was going to die at a specific moment in the future, it would be nice to be able to control what song I was listening to; this is why I always bring my iPod on airplanes.”

Chuck Klosterman, a writer for Spin magazine, goes on a road trip to explore the death locations of famous musicians. This is not simply a chronicle of the circumstances surrounding the suicides or drug overdoses; it’s a cultural discussion on what celebrity means even after death. Klosterman visits Kurt Cobain’s home and the location of Duane Allman’s motorcycle crash, to name a few, and along the way meets strangers that intrigue him, like the Kafka-reading waitress from North Carolina.  Interwoven into the retelling of his road trip, Klosterman discusses the importance of music and lyrics in his own life. Specifically, he writes about four women whom he has loved. “Art and love are the same thing: it’s the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you.” Using these stories he joins the scattered musical trip into a deeply personal story of growth and insight.

Chuck Klosterman has published several non-fiction titles on music and pop culture like Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and Eating the Dinosaur. Killing Yourself to Live is great for fans of rock music, sociology, psychology, and for those that just enjoy a good story.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Killing Yourself to Live.

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Winter in Madrid by C. J. Sansom

* This suggestion is part of our Sweater Weather Reads series. We’ll be posting cool suggestions all winter long on Twitter @BSPLibrary #sweaterweatherreads. Got a better suggestion? We’d love to hear from you. *

Winter-in-MadridWhenever a favorite author of mine deviates from their usual setting or characters, I approach the new work with trepidation. It’s not that I believe the new work won’t be good – the author has already proven their ability in the books I’ve already read. It’s just that I worry that I am more in love with the characters and setting of the writer’s other books than I am with the writer’s style or storytelling.

C. J. Sansom has written an excellent mystery series starring a lawyer in London at the time of Cromwell. He brilliantly captures the sights, sounds, and dangers of London in a time of political upheaval. I highly recommend any of the books in the Matthew Shardlake series. This review is not about those books. Instead, I’d like to introduce one of his other novels, Winter in Madrid.

Winter in Madrid is set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in Madrid, Spain when the country is on the brink of joining Germany’s war effort in WWII. The main character, Harry Brett, is a spy for England sent into Madrid to cozy up to an old public school friend, Sandy Forsyth, who has turned into a shady war profiteer. During the mission, he discovers that another former classmate has been imprisoned and gets involved with his schoolmate’s lover while trying to free him. Harry also falls in love with a Spanish schoolteacher struggling to survive in the post-war chaos.

These stories intertwine and climax just as an unexpected twist changes all the characters’ lives forever.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the juxtaposition between the British pre-war morality and the weary cynicism that came at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Thousands of non-Spaniards, believing that Spain was the battlefield of the struggle against fascism, had fought, died, committed atrocities, and had atrocities perpetrated on them. What had been seen as a glorious, hopeful enterprise against communism and fascism was crushed by the cruel machinery of war and politics. The schoolboy virtues of honor, self-sacrifice for others, and spirit of fair play were no longer needed nor valued.

Sansom does his usual excellent job of putting the reader into the setting, with the constant political peril so palpable that it’s almost a character in the story. I finished this book relieved that one of my favorite authors had once again delivered a thrilling tale I could not put down.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Winter in Madrid.