Recent Staff Picks
Our staff reads and recommends a diverse world of books. Here are some of our recent favorites - not necessarily new books, but ones that grabbed us. And if there's a certain staff member whose selections dovetail with your interests, you can discover more of our staff's individual favorites here.
For children's and teen picks, click here.
Two thumbs up for this one:
This is an eye-opening account of heroic people who refused to give up as Europe fell to the Nazis. They came to Great Britain, calling it "Last Hope Island," to fight until the bitter end. Polish pilots became the most aggressive pilots in the air. When the leader of a French underground spy ring was captured, his young secretary took over. After giving his estate to the Allies to use as a military hospital, a Scottish lord led the soldiers who defused bombs. A fascinating history full of new personal stories from World War II. - Helen
The contributions of smaller Allied nations (such as Norway) are often overlooked in WWII histories. In the starting days of the war, governments and partisans in exile congregated in London. Lynne Olson (Citizens of London) returns to its setting to detail how refugee communities came to England’s aid (among them, Polish and Czech pilots for a decimated RAF) and England to theirs. All didn’t go swimmingly, but all realized that England indeed was their Last Hope Island against Hitler. - Rosemary
Brian Van Reet is the latest in a growing wave of authors who have rendered their experiences serving in Iraq and Afghanistan into powerful and important literature. Told from the perspective of combatants on both sides of the war in Iraq, Van Reet’s beautifully written debut novel is a thrilling page-turner as well as a reminder that for many who fought in these wars, there were no winners and losers. Only losers. - Tony
I'll refrain from encapsulating these stories by subject matter - it's not so useful a strategy when dealing with stories as taut, sardonic and kinetically cinematic as Eric Puchner delivers here so handily. These slices of life set place and mood perfectly, so simply and easily that I'd like to read a novel based on each. No matter how unlikely the scenario - some are plenty unlikely indeed - the characters are fully represented as flawed humans. It's downright refreshing: more, please! - Matt
In his new novel The Moon and the Other, set in the near future on the moon, John Kessel again demonstrates his visionary and compassionate eye. Through a lens of gender roles as they play out in the political clash of a matriarchy -- The Society of Cousins, and a patriarchy-- Persepolis, and in the lives of several of their citizens, Kessel explores human desire, expectation, emotion and alienation. Pointedly, too, Kessel gives keen insights into how technology and coercion, in one form or another, affect our existence. - Ken
Be forewarned: this book will make you very, very angry. Now we may look at early 20th Century attitudes toward radium with shock (radium toothpaste? Jockstraps?). Corporate America knew the danger, even if consumers didn’t. And no one was more vulnerable than the literally glowing women who painted the in-demand radium dials of watches and instruments. Their years of suffering and legal conflicts led to safer working conditions for others. Think of their legacy when someone cavalierly proposes rolling back worker protections. - Rosemary
A shocking tale of abuse and survival, One of the Boys is a harrowing yet beautiful debut novel. After a bitter divorce, two brothers are spirited away from their mother to start a new life in New Mexico with their father. It quickly becomes clear who is at the center of this dysfunctional whirlwind of a family. Narrated by the younger of the two unnamed boys, the desperation and brutality he describes is tempered by the innocence and hope of a child forced to grow up far too soon. - Tony
Which do you – should you – trust more: intuition or information? The Undoing Project tells the story of two Israeli psychologists whose collaboration revealed myths and truths about the human mind’s decision making process. This is an intriguing story of two men whose curiosity about how we think presented provocative and revolutionary evidence of the influences from within that guide us. The Undoing Project may very well give you pause to re-think the way you think. - Belinda
Amidst all the noise and anger in society, Krista offers a refuge, an oasis where we can learn the value of listening, and learn to respect and appreciate people and the world around us. She offers a message of hope. Tippett, Peabody Award-winning radio host of On Being and a National Humanities Medalist, is a master of what she terms ‘generous listening,’ a strong curiosity, and a ‘willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.' What better model could we ask for? Becoming Wise is ... “Not light reading, but inspiring reading, for those willing to pull up a chair.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune. - Rene
Note: the hardcover is now available. Krista Tippett visits March 3 (offsite event).
The horrific scenes in this book are seared in your memory. Tyson takes you back to 1955 and puts you in the middle of the teenager's murder. Relying on extensive research and the only interview the woman involved has ever given, Tyson recounts the crime, the aftermath and the trial. The saving graces of this story are Till's mother, his uncle, one witness, the judge and the prosecutors. They emerge as heroic. Tyson writes a powerful, unrelenting closing where he blames everyone responsible from President Eisenhower on down. All the way through this book, the image of young Emmett Till – fun loving and helpful to his single mother – hovers over the shocking story. - Helen
Oh, to be 14 again. Well, maybe not. But you can relive those days of sweet geekiness, crushes, flouting the rules, and sometimes not-so-thought-out consequences with The Impossible Fortress. Two teens join up to win a computer game design contest. But there's SO much more in here.
Cue up Hall and Oates and enjoy. Use a punch card as a book mark. You'll even feel the urge to play a game of Pong – but what the kids come up with is way better. - Rosemary
The Thirteenth Tale meets The Da Vinci Code in this thrilling literary mystery!
A serial killer models his victims after famous deaths in Shakespearean plays. Theater director Kate Stanley must beat this crazed murderer at his own game and locate a long-lost Shakespeare manuscript.
A twisting and fun read for the literary and mystery lover! - Amber
Two young men sign on to Commander Peary's final expedition to the North Pole. Then they try to find a vast continent of snowy peaks and valleys that Peary had written about earlier. After three brutal years in the North, they discover that the continent is not what it appeared to be. Peary was not above lying about discoveries in order to fund raise for his next venture. Did he deceive them and everyone that read his books, including Teddy Roosevelt? One of the most amazing adventure stories I've ever read! - Helen
Garrels, former NPR reporter and author of Naked in Baghdad, has spent years in Russia talking with people from all walks of life. She illustrates in a deeply personal way the lives of ordinary citizens caught in a changing political landscape. She explores the support that Putin has in spite of his abuse of power. A timely look at a country that most of us do not understand.
New Jersey native son Springsteen shares the story of the foundations of one of the biggest musical acts in the modern music industry. Despite their successes, things have not always been easy for either Springsteen or the members of the E Street Band. Finding inspiration from their individual and shared lives, these musicians parlayed those experiences into iconic music that has found favor with listeners worldwide.
Written in a disarmingly easy-going style, Springsteen successfully relates to audiences regardless of their exposure to his music. Whatever your starting point, Born to Run makes for an entertaining read. - Bud
“As all of our male voices are gone to war, the village choir is to close. – The Vicar” Thus begins the story of the women of Chilbury, England in the early days of WWII. Follow five of these women through their letters and journal entries through hardship, romance and a bit of a mystery – you will love these women as I did, from the first page. Keep calm and carry on – singing! - Julia
The difficult position of being a new bride as her husband spends the next two years with the Confederate Army haunts the main character--and the reader! Her pregnancy during his absence, and the mysterious death of the child, provides the backbone of this Civil War era novel. Told entirely through letters and diary entries, this book intrigued me from page one. - Julia
This is one of those books that sounds utterly ridiculous when you try to describe it: talking elephants in space! But the author creates such wonderful characters and builds such a unique, dynamic universe, that I totally fell under the spell of Barsk. This beautifully written adventure is full of heart and wonder as well as complex concepts of morality, science, and spirituality. Talking elephants in space: yes! -- Tony
In 1919 Boston, there exist hemopaths: people with powers to create illusions and manipulate memories.
Historical fantasy with strong female leads and racial diversity across a web of intrigue, betrayal, and an oppressive government.
X-Men meets Gangs of New York right before prohibition. - Amber
There is sometimes no more amazing story than history. This one is about murder and greed; about noble men and villains. It is a thriller. It is a page turner!
The Osage Indians were fabulously wealthy because of their oil-rich land. They were also being murdered because of it. Greed, corruption and bigotry ensured that little was done to find the murderers or stop the killings. It wasn't until the fledgling FBI's young director, J. Edgar Hoover, appointed a former Texas Ranger to the investigation that an honest and scientific effort was made to solve the crimes.
Grann (author of Lost City of Z) knows how to tell a story and teach history at the same time. - Rene
The Angels' share is that portion of a barrel of bourbon that evaporates during the aging process. Distillers believe that the Angels trade protection from fire for their share. William McFee is the would-be third generation distiller of Old Sam Bourbon, if his father would re-open the distillery that was shuttered during prohibition. Until then, William is an erstwhile reporter in the small town of Twisted Tree, Kentucky. When William reports about a drifter that has recently been buried in the potter's field near the distillery, and the miracles he seems to have performed, droves of pilgrims come to the field. The publicity that results threatens to expose the past of William's father, and puts his family in danger. I found this tale of faith, redemption, and family relationships in the 1930's to be creative and compelling. - Bill
Two picks: Exit West is one of the most devastating but hopeful books I have ever read. It could not be more relevant for our times. Mohsin Hamid brings us right into his characters’ lives and makes us see that we are much more similar than different. It is a book that everyone should read. - René
Mohsin Hamid will be here Wednesday, March 8. Preorder now.
In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid places us in an unnamed country (as he did in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia), and in doing so makes what happens there a universal metaphor for war-torn countries in the Middle East. Saieed and Nadia are refugees from one such country, navigating not only the landscape but their developing love affair. They have had to leave much behind in their homeland, including Saieed’s beloved father. Reality and the fantastical blend together as they migrate from one place to another. Hamid once again sheds light on the plight of the refugees who inhabit our world. The book is full of discussable material for book clubs. Exit West is the March 2017 selection of our Signed First Editions Club, and Hamid will be at the store on March 13, 2017 at 7 p.m. - Mamie
For lovers of short, dark fiction. Ballingrud writes wonderfully tragic stories that skirt the world of the supernatural and uncanny. The fantastic elements are often subtle, serving to darken but never overwhelm the drama. A criminally under-recognized author and a North Carolina resident to boot!
Winner of the Shirley Jackson Award in 2013 for best collection and shortlisted for the World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Bram Stoker Awards. - Jon
This debut novel from a twenty-six year old woman is a sweeping work that spans 300 years of history in Ghana and the United States. The main characters are half sisters, Effia and Esi, born into different tribes in Ghana. While one is married off to a white man and lives a life of luxury and then tribal upheaval, the other is imprisoned and shipped off to America as a slave. The novel follows their ancestral lines through the present day, describing the memory of captivity. - Sandra
Award-winning author Nicola Yoon steals our hearts, once again, with this poetic and timely love story. When the Universe brings Natasha and Daniel together in the crowded streets of New York City, forces beyond their control have them set on different paths. With just twelve hours before Natasha's family is deported to Jamaica, these teens must fight for a future with each other, defying all odds and putting faith in destiny and love over logic.
In The Sun is Also a Star, Yoon beautifully combines lyric and logic, not only in the words that she chooses, but in the characters that she creates. I can't put into words how much I loved this book. My copy is already well-loved, with many highlighted passages and notes in the margins! - Nancy M
Do not be fooled by the length of this book, it is short but powerful. It brought me right into the world of a young African-American girl and her friends in language that is both compact and lyrical. Publishers Weekly gave Another Brooklyn a well-deserved star review and said: “Woodson…combines grit and beauty in a series of stunning vignettes, painting a vivid mural of what it was like to grow up African-American in Brooklyn during the 1970s…Woodson draws on all the senses to trace the milestones in a woman’s life and how her early experiences shaped her identity.” It is a book that will stay with me for a long time. - Rene
I haven't had this much fun reading a book in a long time! Count Alexander Rostov, one of the great characters in modern fiction, reads like he leaped off the pages of a Tolstoy novel and landed in 1922, where he is placed under house arrest in Moscow's grand Metropol Hotel. The Count is elegant, sophisticated, erudite without being stuffy, wickedly funny, and in love with life. Towles takes you through 32 years of Russian history with a wonderful cast of characters, and a delightfully suspenseful plot. After 480 pages you will still mourn when you reach the end. Even better than his delightful debut, The Rules of Civility. - Sarah
A subtle, yet powerful portrait of an extraordinary character, Miss Jane thrills with some of the most gorgeous prose I have ever encountered. Jane Chisholm is born with a genital defect that, in rural Mississippi in the early 20th century, somewhat limits her prospects for a “normal” life. Populated with lovingly wrought characters, sly humor, and keen observations of the human heart, Watson's novel is a beautiful and rare bird indeed. - Tony
I've always loved Russo's pitch-perfect rendition of small-town life, especially in the upstate NY area I know well. Everybody's Fool now goes to the top 10 of my favorite books – ever. No character is perfect, but when I finished the book, I missed every one of them (well, except Roy. There's no love lost there!) So much happens to the interweaving cast, it was a shock to consider that Fool only covers a couple of days in the life of Bath, NY. You may not want to live there, but you'd want these folks as your neighbors. (Again, except Roy.) - Rosemary
In this fascinating history, big personalities emerge. Benedict Arnold, charismatic, arrogant, and reckless, verges on madness in battle. George Washington, indecisive at first, evolves into a strategic military leader and eventually figures out how to win. You realize that things like the direction of the wind or when a river freezes or who gets promoted determine victory or defeat. This book includes 100 pages of notes and sources, lots of maps, many portraits, and Benedict Arnold's treasonous coded letter! - Helen.
When manager Sarah asked me if I wanted to read Fred Chappell's A Shadow All of Light, I asked her, "Fred Chappell the poet?" She said yes, but explained that this time he had written a fantasy novel. Chappell has created a 17th century-ish, Italian-ish world where a country boy named Falco recounts his apprenticeship to the master shadow thief Maestro Astolfo, and there are many reasons why a person would want to steal, sell, buy, or otherwise deal in shadows. The novel is excellent, and I particularly liked its episodic nature--the story is advanced through a series of stand alone vignettes. From now on I'll ask, "Fred Chappell the fantasy writer?", when I hear his name ... and I'll keep a closer eye on my shadow. - Bill
A fictionalized account of the real-life friendship between the writer, Truman Capote, and the socialite and fashion icon, Babe Paley. Paley and the “Swans” (Pamela Churchill, Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness) were the very definition of elegance, beauty and sophistication. During the 1950s and 1960s they lived a glamorous life at the pinnacle of New York society. This novel is delicious (like champagne in book form!) Gossipy and scandalous, ultimately it is a poignant look at the value of friendship and human connection. (Melanie Benjamin joins us with the book Wednesday, Feb. 17 at 7:00 p.m.) - Abbe
In Chasing the North Star, Robert Morgan, whose novel Gap Creek won multiple awards, shows he continues to be a master of historical narrative. Following Jonah, a house slave on a South Carolina plantation, who escapes toward his dream of freedom in Canada, and Angel, who follows Jonah with her own dream in mind, the novel is a gripping road adventure story, a devastating reminder of the personal, individual experience of slavery, and a love story filled with missteps, determination and humor. Morgan's language is deceptively simple but his tale is confident, complex, gripping, and imbued with a deep knowledge and respect for the natural world. - Sarah
Of all the animals we consider intelligent, octopuses (and related cephalopods) took a different evolutionary branch from the rest. They are the alien intelligence we wish to study, but they are right here. In trying to understand the differences, the author finds he must go back to the very first animals, to figure out why consciousness of any kind arose, and it is fascinating. Unlike us, octopuses have puzzlingly distributed nervous systems, such that a tentacle may somehow operate independently. Are their color displays a form of language? Other aspects of their lives and behaviors, both idiosyncratic and poignant, are unveiled here. - Kent
Villa America is a beautifully crafted, thoroughly entertaining work of historical fiction about Sara and Gerald Murphy, part of the so-called Lost Generation of the 1920s. As ex pats living in the south of France, the Murphys strove to create an idyllic world for themselves and their circle of friends that included Hemingway, Picasso and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. This carefully researched book tells a story of the charmed, extravagant lives of these people who, despite their efforts to escape, found themselves vulnerable to the realities of misfortune and tragedy. Klaussmann is a gifted writer with the ability to give voice to the most fundamental truths of humanity. There were passages I read again and again, marveling at their beauty and insight. - Samantha
Two reviews of a stellar book:
The account of Dr Tweedy's journey through medical school and his experiences with African-American patients is a story we need to hear because many of us cannot imagine the challenges that face African-Americans every day. Dr Tweedy courageously brings us into his world and allows us to see it through his eyes. We can no longer remain in a cocoon of ignorance. Dr. Tweedy puts a compelling face to the issues of health care and race and pleads for better medical treatment and compassion. - René
Damon Tweedy brings us a very personal view of the role race has played for him as a student, a doctor, and even as a patient. He starts with his time as one of only a handful of black students attending Duke University Medical School, where one of his professors asks if he is there to fix the lights. Through his internship and on to psychiatric training and practice, he sheds a light on how easy it is for us to see each other through the lens of race instead of as individuals, and how that leads to bad outcomes for everyone, but especially for black patients. Tweedy has written a thoughtful, provocative, and very readable account, full of engaging stories of real people whose well-being, and even survival, are affected by racial perceptions. - Sarah
Rupert Nacoste teaches a course at NC State University called Interpersonal Relationships and Race. Through moving and powerful excerpts from his students' writings we experience their encounters and struggles to deal with these issues, with lessons for all of us. But Taking on Diversity is about much more than race. It's about neo-diversity, the term Rupert coined for the new reality of America where we regularly come into contact with people who are different from us, whether by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, mental capability, physical capability, or religion, and our anxiety about how to behave. As Timothy Tyson wrote, "Rupert Nacoste is a master teacher who pushes us beyond guilt and finger pointing.... shakes us awake and and surprises us with real hope." - Sarah