Andrea Larson

Andrea Larson

 


Andrea Larson left her corporate marketing career to follow her love of books and now has her dream job as a Readers’ Advisor at Cook.  She’s currently enrolled in the Master of Library and Information Science program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  She loves all things Disney and lives in Green Oaks with her husband, two children, two dogs, and a cat.   

 

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Are you a mystery reader? If so, I highly recommend Julia Keller, author of the Bell Elkins mystery series. Her books, A Killing in the Hills (2012) and Bitter River (2013), are atmospheric, literary, and utterly engaging. The series centers around Belfa Elkins, an attorney who returns to Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, the scene of her dark and unhappy childhood, to become the county prosecuting attorney. Confronted by the poverty and the increasing power of the meth trade in this rural area, Bell is determined to make a difference in the war against drugs, but is frustrated by the slow progress of change. Together with Nick Fogelsong, the local sherriff and longtime friend and confidante, Bell doggedly continues to fight for the town and people she loves. On the personal front, Bell has a fractured relationship with her ex-husband, a lobbyist in Washington, DC, and her teenage daughter, Carla. Keller’s characters are flawed and multi-dimensional, which makes them all the more realistic and likable.

Keller, a native of West Virginia, knows her location well, and it shows in her books. The beauty of the mountains is vividly drawn, and the stories have a strong sense of place. The landscape is as much a character in her books as any of the people.  Keller's language is rich and descriptive – no terse sentences here!  Keller's books remind me of Louise Penny and Julia Spencer-Fleming, who also write mysteries set in small towns with characters that leap off the page.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_big-little-lies.jpgLiane Moriarty’s best-selling 2013 novel The Husband’s Secret was a big hit among our library patrons, and I think Big Little Lies will be equally popular -- it's a great read. Moriarty has a gift for addressing big issues with a light touch, and that’s exactly what she does in this new book. At Pirriwee Public, an upper-middle-class elementary school, a melee breaks out at a school fundraiser. The origins of the trouble lie in issues hidden beneath the surface of these apparently ordinary families: domestic violence, bullying, adolescent rebellion, and lots of bad parent behavior. Moriarty teases the reader right at the start with an account of the fight at the fundraising event, then goes back and explains the events of the school year leading up to it. She alternates perspectives between the three main female characters in the book and throws in hilarious quotes from bit players in the novel at the end of each chapter.

Big Little Lies brilliantly skewers suburban life. Although it is set in a beach town in Australia, it could just as easily have been here in Libertyville. She hits on so many aspects of modern parental life: the “mom cliques” in elementary schools (I laughed out loud at her description of the “Blonde Bobs,” the group of women that thinks they run the school); the parental obsession with “gifted and talented” programs; the ongoing conflict and judgment between working and non-working mothers. The characters are both frustrating and endearing. They’re a little bit caricatured, but this only contributes to the satire. And like any good satire, it exposes the worst parts of parenting and marriage in contemporary society.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_madwoman.jpgThis book is hilarious, unnerving, irreverent, honest, and did I mention hilarious? An essayist for The Atlantic magazine and an NPR radio commentator, Tsing Loh has never shied away from addressing very personal stuff, and this book is no exception. She chronicles her experiences going through perimenopause, as her life seems to go up in flames. She has an affair, which destroys her 20-year marriage; she’s raising two preteen daughters; she’s trying to manage the affairs of her highly eccentric 89-year-old father – all while her hormones are raging uncontrollably. Tsing Loh obsesses about her weight, which seems to be increasing no matter how hard she exercises. She creates a “happiness project” for herself. She takes on a 12-year-old bully at her daughter’s school. It’s like any middle-aged mother’s life – only more interesting and way funnier.

Pretty much any woman older than 40 will relate to this book. Its chapters flow just like perimenopausal mood swings: one minute you’re up, the next you’re down. Some of the book is downright silly (her list of diet foods), some is touching (a sweet note from her 11-year-old daughter), and some is educational. Tsing Loh has thoroughly read the literature on menopause and has distilled it down to a couple of useful books and theories, and the tips she shares are realistic and doable. In fact, the book ends on a downright hopeful note. So while I’m ab2ap3_thumbnail_tsing-loh.jpg little scared of menopause after reading this book (I’m sure I’ll go off the deep end too), I also know that if Tsing Loh can survive it, I can too.

For more about Sandra Tsing Loh, here’s a great NY Times article from May 2014: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/fashion/for-sandra-tsing-loh-change-is-good.html?_r=0

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b2ap3_thumbnail_cant-we-talk-about-something-ftr.jpgThis is a graphic memoir by Roz Chast, longtime cartoonist for the New Yorker. With words, photos and illustrations, Chast describes the experience of caring for her aging parents with brutal honesty and plenty of humor. This isn't a pleasant topic, and Chast doesn't sugarcoat anything, sharing with the reader all the emotions she went through: denial, guilt, fear, worry, anger. She begins with the first stages of her parents' gradual decline, then describes the inevitable hospital visits, the move to an assisted living facility, the clearing out of all her parents' accumulated stuff, and finally, the moments of their passing.

While this could be a really depressing tale, in the illustrated format under Chast's practiced hand, it's just wonderful black humor. And it's a story that so many of us can relate to. If you've ever had to care for an elderly relative, this book will resonate for you.  Assuming the role of parent to one's parents is an uncomfortable task, and it's a relief to find a book that can make us laugh at the awkwardness of it all and feel a little bit less alone in the process. This is a bittersweet, poignant book that I'm going to go back and read again and again.

-Andrea Larson, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Elin Hilderbrand came to speak at Aspen Drive last week, and she was so impressive: a strong, inspiring woman who came out to Chicago for her book tour despite a recent cancer diagnosis and mastectomy! Even if she had canceled her visit, though, I would still have written a glowing review of this book. It’s a perfect summer read.

The Matchmaker centers on Dabney Beech, a woman who is at the heart of the Nantucket Island community. On the outside, her life is absolutely perfect: she runs the Chamber of Commerce, is married to a brilliant and famous Harvard professor, and is generally beloved by everyone on the island. And she’s known for her skills as a matchmaker: she has unerring instincts about couples and has successfully matched forty-two of them. Yet things aren’t quite as rosy as they seem. Due to a phobia she acquired in childhood, Dabney refuses to leave the island unless her life literally depends on it. Her daughter Agnes is engaged to a man who, Dabney sees clearly, is not right for her. And the love of Dabney’s life, Agnes’s biological father, has suddenly returned to Nantucket after a twenty-seven year absence. To top it all off, she has not been feeling well recently, but continues to brush off her symptoms as lovesickness. Coping with all these unsettling developments, Dabney finds that her comfortable, settled life is about to change for good.

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First off, it’s because her name is “Rainbow.” How cool is that? How could you ever get mad at someone named “Rainbow?” You’d just end up smiling every time you said her name!b2ap3_thumbnail_RR-1.jpg

Second, her books are outstanding. Along with authors like John Green, she’s leading the trend in young adult fiction away from vampires and dystopian worlds and into realistic fiction, with fully-fleshed, relatable characters. (Thank goodness.) She doesn’t rely on complicated plots or action scenes – she just tells b2ap3_thumbnail_rowell-books.jpgsimple stories that go straight to the heart. Her books Eleanor & Park and Fangirl delve into teen insecurity, broken families, and the betrayal of friends with compassion, wit and heart. They’re young adult books that adults will also relate to and love.

Rowell is publishing her first adult novel in July, called Landline. (Thanks to the publisher for providing our library with an ARC.) Georgie McCool, the main character, is a writer for a TV comedy, and she and her writing partner/best friend, Seth, have just gotten the break of their lives – a network executive wants a pilot for their new series. The problem is that they have to get it done in ten days, right over the Christmas holidays, when Georgie is supposed to visit her husband’s family in Omaha. Her husband takes their daughters and goes to Omaha, while Georgie stays behind in LA for a week that transforms her attitude about her career and her marriage.

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shotgun lovesongsI was drawn to this book because of its rural Wisconsin setting. I grew up in suburbia, so there’s always been something charming and seductive about small-town life for me.  Given our proximity to Wisconsin, it wasn’t hard to imagine the town of Little Wing, the setting of this marvelous book. Shotgun Lovesongs tells the story of four friends who grew up together in Little Wing but went their separate ways: one to ride the rodeo circuit, one to make his fortune on the Chicago commodities exchange, one to become a rock star. Only one man, Henry, stays home and works his father’s farm with his wife Beth, who is loved in different ways by all four friends. The story begins with a wedding that brings them all back together in Little Wing, and what follows is an exploration of the events that have shaped and sometimes broken their relationships. Although all four men are adults, at some level their friendships have not passed beyond adolescence, and it takes some painful lessons to cause each of them to finally and fully grow up.

This book is a beautiful study of love and friendship, but it’s also a love song to small-town America. Butler, who lives in rural Wisconsin, captures the Midwestern landscape, its sensibility, its poverty, with gentleness and respect. I haven’t lived in a small town, but I can tell you this: you will feel for these characters. As each one tells you their story, your heart will go out to them and not come back for a long time. Shotgun Lovesongs is a story that is moving, warm, and heartfelt.

-- Andrea Larson, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Cantankerous bookstore owner A.J. Fikry has lost his wife and has alienated most of the townspeople on the small island where he lives and works. Yet one day a two-year-old girl is abandoned in his store with a note saying, “I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things.” When her mother turns up deceased and since the father is unknown, it’s up to A.J. to care for little Maya. And suddenly – against his better judgment – he finds himself becoming an adoptive father, and he considers it his mission to make her into a smart, discerning reader. “He wants Maya to read literary picture books if such a thing exists. And preferably modern ones. And preferably, preferably feminist ones. Nothing with princesses.” Slowly, fatherhood changes A.J., and he finds himself reconnecting with the world again.gabriellezevin

This might sound like a clichéd plot, but it’s not. A.J.’s unique personality, his love of good fiction, and the quirky cast of supporting characters make this into a book that is an absolute joy to read. Funny, wry, heartbreaking and hopeful, it’s a love letter to books and bookstores, and it’s also a story about how simple human connections can make all the difference in a life.

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In 1943, journalist John Easley travels to the Aleutian Islands to expose the U.S. government’s cover-up of the Japanese invasion there and to somehow come to grips with the loss of his brother, who was killed earlier in World War II. Easley’s plane is shot down over the island of Attu, and for six weeks, he fights cold and starvation in the bleak, brooding landscape of the isolated island with a Japanese camp a short way away. In the meantime, his wife, Helen, is determined to find her missing husband, and finagles her way into a USO troupe heading to Alaska in order to calm her doubts about what has happened to him. Both Helen and John are tested to their limits in their respective quests, and each finds unexpected strength and courage in their love for each other.

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 Chris Pavone, author of last year’s hit book The Expats, has done it again. The Accident is a gripping thriller. From the first chapter, I could hardly put it down.

Isabel Reed, a literary agent, receives an anonymous manuscript at her office, and it turns out to be the book that will define her career and even her life. It’s an expose of a powerful media mogul (I kept imagining Rupert Murdoch) that has explosive and dangerous implications for the media industry, for Isabel, and even for the CIA. Over the course of the next two days, everyone who comes in contact with the manuscript starts ending up dead, so Isabel and her editor, Jeff Fielder, find themselves on the run as they try to protect the manuscript and their lives.

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vienna2The title Vienna Nocturne is very apt for this book, because a nocturne is a night song, defined as a “composition of a dreamy or pensive character.” And in many ways, this lush period novel unfolds like a dream. This is the story of Anna Storace, an opera prodigy who leaves her native London and achieves fame and fortune in continental Europe in the late 18th century. She sings with some of the leading operatic stars of the time and works with Salieri and Mozart, with whom she eventually develops a love affair. The book is Anna’s coming-of-age tale, as she grows from a naïve ingénue to a woman who comes to know rejection and heartbreak. Anna’s life is one of great contrasts: the sweet, charming persona she displays on stage camouflages her painful and difficult personal life. Mozart and his music save her from her eventual breakdown, and their sweet, poignant love affair is delicately and beautifully written.

There’s no actual evidence that Mozart and Storace had an affair, although he did write some of his most beautiful arias for her, including the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro.   The author of this book is a trained opera singer herself, and she demonstrates a strong understanding of operatic technique, as well as repertoire from the period. Her characters, including Mozart, are richly imagined, as is her vision of 18th century Vienna.

This is a beautiful, atmospheric book that will appeal to lovers of historical fiction and classical music fans.   (Note: this book will be released on February 25, but it is available now for patrons to place holds in our catalog.)

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b2ap3_thumbnail_The-Bookstore.jpgWhat happens when a young British PhD student at Columbia University, new to New York with few friends, suddenly discovers she is pregnant – and the baby’s father dumps her? She gets a job in a used bookstore, of course! This is the premise of The Bookstore, a lovely, charming novel filled with beautiful descriptions of the Upper West Side and an eccentric and lovable cast of characters.

Esme, the main character, is obviously but not irreparably flawed, and this makes her someone we can all relate to. She’s intelligent, but naïve, a dreamer. She keeps going back to the father of her baby, though it’s clear that he’s the worst possible man for her. Her loneliness and isolation is broken only by her work at the bookstore and her interactions with the eccentric staff and clientele, which include an organic-food health nut, a struggling musician, several homeless people, and a Nabokov fanatic. Even Esme’s obstetrician is a wacky character.

What I liked most about The Bookstore was the author’s use of language. Meyler’s descriptions of New York, and of the bookstore, are lilting and enchanting. Esme’s love for the city emanates from the page, and she captures all the little details of city life with reverence. There are also lots of references to art and literature, some of which are pretty funny – like when Esme confuses the actor David Niven with the author Cormac McCarthy.

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A woman is transported back in time to an alternate world and falls madly in love with a handsome hero.  That’s the ostensible plot of this book – but believe me, it’s nowhere near being that neat and predictable!  For one thing, the woman is feisty, frustrated graduate student Nora Fischer: smart, self-sufficient, and not a great fit in her new world, where women are treated as second-class citizens.  For another, her whirlwind romance is not what it seems – she’s been bewitched by a group of evil creatures called the Faitoren.  Eventually Nora esacpes the Faitoren with the help of the wizard Aruendiel, and begins to learn some magic of her own.  In the meantime, she must deal with the Faitoren, who still wish to capture her and defeat Aruendiel – while trying to figure out how she can make it back to her home in present-day North Carolina.

Author Emily Croy Barker does a great job of world-building in this book – I was completely transported to her imagined medieval world of Semr.  Nora is a wonderfully relatable character because she’s flawed, and she has to struggle to find her way in her new surroundings.  Her relationship with cranky, brilliant Aruendiel is unconventional and fun.  The plot moves along quickly, with enough action to keep the pages turning. 

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Ah, December – the month when I read nothing but Christmas books!  Life’s too full of stress and difficulty during the other 11 months of the year, so I figure, why not take a month off and focus on what’s good in our world?

Here are the titles I’m reading this year:

Sleigh Bells in the Snow by Sarah Morgan

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When I picked up this book, I was a little skeptical of an actor writing fiction, but Lauren Graham won me over with this funny, charming novel.  Franny Banks is a struggling actress in New York City, taking acting class and waiting tables to get by.  She's given herself three years to "make it," after which, she figures, she'll stop pursuing her acting career if she hasn't had any success.  The book follows Franny through various escapades in acting class, commercial auditions, meetings with agents, even a movie premiere, and follows her ups and downs in her career and her romantic life.  Things don't work out the way Franny expects them to, and yet everything comes together exactly as it should.

The book's chapters are punctuated by handwritten entries in Franny's day planner, complete with doodles, grocery lists, and a mileage log for her daily runs.  These pages embody Franny's quirky, self-deprecating character (not unlike Graham's character on the TV show Gilmore Girls).  Graham has given Franny a wry, humorous voice, and Franny always comes up with snappy one-liners, even if she’s feeling overwhelmed by awkward situations.  She’s an endearing character, someone I’d like to hang out with.  Franny is much more courageous and talented than she’s willing to acknowledge, and I went through the novel cheering her on.  Pick up this book and you probably will too!

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This book is like a punch in the gut: it hits you unexpectedly, and it hurts.  And yet I couldn’t put it down.  I’d been meaning to read it since it was published to huge critical acclaim a year ago, just because I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.  Now I understand.  I listened to the audiobook, and it was outstanding.  The story is told from three points of view – Jess Hall, a nine-year-old boy; Adelaide Lile, an elderly midwife; and Clem Barefield, the town sheriff.   Three different readers performed these roles, and their accents and inflection seemed so authentic that they transported you right back to the “scene of the crime.”

And there was definitely a crime scene in this book.  Christopher, Jess’s mute older brother, dies mysteriously in a healing ritual in his rural North Carolina church.  The publisher calls this book a “literary thriller,” and while it’s clear early on who committed the crime and why, the suspense lies more in how things will resolve themselves.  The murder sets in motion a chain of events that will change the characters’ lives forever.  Will Jess’s father become like his own violent, alcoholic father?   Will Clem Barefield be able to separate these tragic events from those he’s experienced in his past? 

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The troubled 24 year old daughter of enigmatic filmmaker Stanislas Cordova is found dead of an apparent suicide, and former reporter Scott McGrath is drawn into an investigation of her death and the elusive Cordova family. Along the way, he picks up two quirky assistants and together they go deeper and deeper into the underworld of the Cordovites, the cult of followers of Cordova's violent and terrifying body of work. The lines between reality and fiction are never quite clear in this book, until the very end. Cordova's own existence is shrouded in mystery, yet McGrath and his team are clearly being followed by someone because his apartment is broken into and all his research is stolen.

An unusual addition to this book are the research documents about Cordova and his family---faux news articles, pictures and internet posts add another level of realism to this creepy book. Cordova's films explored and made real on film the darkest fears imaginable, and the reader is taken deeper and deeper into the shadow world of his former actors and the Cordovites.

Although I prefer to read books about the more positive side of human nature, this book grabbed me. I started it as an audiobook and listened in my car, but at the end had to finish it in its paper form since I just had to know how it was going to end. Wow---what a wild ride!

This book is not for the faint of heart or for those who prefer short books. But if you like a well-written exploration of the darkest aspects of human nature, this one is for you.
 

Reviewed by Ellen Jennings, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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UNPUTDOWNABLE. I know that's not a word, but that's how I felt about this book. This is the gripping story of the doctors, nurses, family members, and patients trapped in New Orleans' Memorial Hospital for five days during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Retelling the story from the points of view of various people involved, author Sheri Fink made me feel as though I was right there amid the chaos and panic. Trapped without power in 110-degree heat, without working toilets, and with no organized plan of evacuation, these heroic hospital workers struggled to keep their patients alive... until the final hours in the building. When it appeared that some patients would not survive the ordeal, a decision was made to help them along on their path to the next world. Was it euthanasia? Was it ethical? As we like to say at the library, "You couldn't make this stuff up!"

Fink, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a medical doctor, has a gift for breaking down a complex situation into understandable parts. The ethical issues this book confronts are vast, but Fink provides just enough detail to frame the questions without oversimplifying. Despite the large cast of characters, I was never confused, because Fink reminds you who's who as she switches between situations. Her physical descriptions are vivid and evocative, and she paces the action briskly to keep the reader engaged.

This is non-fiction writing at its best: thought-provoking, suspenseful, and clear.  I highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Andrea, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This book provides a startling glimpse into the world of Asia’s super-rich.  I mean scandalously, stupendously rich.  Imagine women dropping $250K on a single couture dress, or a family throwing a $40 million wedding, complete with the Vienna Boys’ Choir imported to Singapore for the ceremony.  Kwan’s story is not just about the jaw-dropping magnitude of the wealth, but the sense of entitlement, the snobbery, and the privileged lifestyle it creates. 

Nick Young, scion of a prominent, moneyed Singapore family, is a professor in New York City and decides to bring his longtime girlfriend, Rachel Chu, back to Singapore to meet his family and to attend his best friend’s “wedding of the century.”  The problem is that Rachel’s family comes from a small town in mainland China.  She has no known noble lineage and no history of wealth.  Predictably, Nick’s family and friends are horrified that he’s brought home this “nobody.”  Poor Rachel has no idea what she’s getting into as she encounters reactions that range from disdain to outright harassment. 

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