Saturday, January 16, 2016

BEST OF 2015: Our Favorite Nonfiction for Adults

Sometimes, choosing the "best" of anything can feel like comparing apples and oranges. This was the case for our 2015 Adult Nonfiction committee. This year, we read books on a variety of topics—from mathematics to social justice to historic disasters to celebrity memoirs. Some were entertaining or made us laugh while others impressed us with beautiful writing or startling insights that left us rethinking our perspective on the world around us. Others were just plain good reads. In the end, we believe the books to make our final list of favorites are all good reads—and some of them just might make you laugh or broaden your perspective on the world as well.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, the author, an award-winning journalist, examines American culture and the social construct of race. Through stories of his own life and other factual events, he explores what it means to be black in modern America, with due attention paid to both the past and the present. In a  small, slim volume of just over 150 pages, Coates's meditation is poetic, candid, and powerful. Winner of the National Book ward for Nonfiction.

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
Part memoir and part writing guide, this laugh-out-loud book from a New Yorker copy veteran is a must-read for serious readers and self-proclaimed grammar geeks. From musings about Moby-Dick (why the hyphen?, she wonders), to anecdotes about famed writers like Philip Roth, to rants about common language and usage errors, Norris never fails to entertain. 

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder
Timothy Snyder's history of the Holocaust implores the reader to see afresh the people, ideas, forces, and ideologies that led to the industrialized slaughter of millions of innocent human beings while much of the world found ways to avoid involvement. Snyder's in-depth research includes records only recently made accessible to the public and his strong perspective—that the Holocaust is relevant to the world and events playing out in the 21st century—is one worth considering, however difficult the subject matter.

The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
Move over Joy of Cooking and Martha Stewart, and say hello to The Food Lab! Five years in the making, this new culinary classic from the Serious Eats "nerd-in-residence" provides recipes for a number of American staples and other fantastic meals. Even better, colorful sidebars explain the science behind the varying techniques in layman's terms and the included test experiments help amateur cooks understand why certain techniques make a difference.

The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle by Lillian Faderman
An exhaustively researched history of the modern era of the LGBT Civil Rights Equality Movement, Lilian Faderman's book will likely become a primer on the topic. One of our committee members suggests that Faderman's history if a must-read for all who "care about the LGBT struggle for dignity and equality under the law."

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Levoy
This absorbing story of social justice (or injustice) centers on the murder investigation of Bryant Tennelle, a young black man shot down on the streets of South Los Angeles in 2007. In a culture where "just another black man down" was a common refrain, solving  homicide cases wasn't a priority for a police department focused on prevention over "reaction," but Tennelle's case was different. First, he was the son of a detective. Second, there were dedicated homicide detectives who thought the department policy of elevating patrol over investigation was "dumb-ass" and were tireless in their pursuit of truth despite a lack of support from the "brass" and the "ghettoside" communities. In simple yet startlingly effective prose, Levoy paints a vivid picture of the ghettoside culture and those who inhabit it. Yet, more than a one-case true crime story, this is an examination of the epidemic of black-on-black murders and (according to the author) the lack of proper police and legal response that helps to create such a vigilante culture. Informative and thought-provoking, Ghettoside brings to light a serious problem that deserves more attention than it gets. 

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
In this absorbing tale of nature and grief, a woman recounts her attempts to train a goshawk predator while struggling with the death of her father.

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann
The author tells her family's history in photographs and words, after sorting through a box of old papers that revealed scandals, alcohol and domestic abuse, affairs, family land ownership, and racial complications.

A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power by Paul Fischer
Before becoming the world's most notorious dictator, Kim Jong-Il ran North Korea's Ministry for Propaganda and its film studios. Conceiving every movie made, he acted as producer and screenwriter. Despite this control, he was underwhelmed by the available talent and took drastic steps, ordering the kidnapping of Choi Eun-Hee (Madam Choi)—South Korea's most famous actress—and her ex-husband Shin Sang-Ok, the country's most famous filmmaker. Fascinating, illuminating about one of the world's most secret places, and undeniably entertaining to boot.

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
In a memoir capturing definitive moments in her career, the feminist activist reflects on events including her time on the campaign trail, interactions with key political leaders, visits to India, and her anecdotal encounters with "civilian" feminists.

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport
Drawing on personal writings and private sources, this book disproves common misperceptions about the sisters, uncovering details of their daily lives and vibrant personalities and revealing their awareness of family turmoil and the approach of the Russian Revolution.

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
Based on correspondence, entries in Rose Kennedy's diaries, and family interviews, describes the plight of a woman who was intellectually disabled and kept hidden by her family after she received a lobotomy at age twenty-three.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
We've all seen it happen -- someone makes a bad decision in the public eye and people pile on in judgment. His interest piqued by a takeover of his own Twitter account, journalist Jon Ronson dove deep into an exploration of human nature, technology, and humiliation via social media. Interviewing both those famous for being shamed and those doing the shaming, Ronson discusses motivations, consequences, and recoveries. -- Description by Shauna Griffin.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery
Octopuses have varied personalities and intelligence they show in myriad ways: endless trickery to escape enclosures and get food; jetting water playfully to bounce objects like balls; and evading caretakers by using a scoop net as a trampoline and running around the floor on eight arms. But with a beak like a parrot, venom like a snake, and a tongue covered with teeth, how can such a being know anything? And what sort of thoughts could it think? The intelligence of dogs, birds, and chimpanzees was only recently accepted by scientists, who now are establishing the intelligence of the octopus, watching them solve problems and deciphering the meaning of their color-changing camouflage techniques.

The Stranger She Loved: A Mormon Doctor, His Beautiful Wife, and an Almost Perfect Murder by Shanna Hogan
Recounts the murder of 50-year-old Michele MacNeill at the hands of her husband, a doctor, lawyer and Mormon bishop who, upon further investigation by his daughters, had multiple marital affairs, a past criminal record and conned his way into medical school.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
Chronicles the dramatic story-behind-the-story about the Wright brothers, sharing insights into the disadvantages that challenged their lives and their mechanical ingenuity.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

BEST OF 2015: Our Favorite Fiction for Adults

Too many books, too little time. 

It's a common complaint among avid readers and always an unfortunate truth for me as we are wrapping up our annual Best of the Year lists. Especially when so many of 2015's notable titles are sooooooo long. For those who thought Fates and Furies—at 400 pages—was long, what about Atkinson's A God in Ruins (480), Franzen's Purity (563), Yanagihara's A Little Life (720), or Hallberg's City on Fire (927)? Honestly, I am still working my way through City on Fire and have yet to get my hands on A Little Life (though I am finally next in line for BCPL's e-book!).

But I digress. For all those (maybe) wonderful 2015 titles I haven't yet read, our 2015 Adult Fiction committee has read numerous noteworthy titles that we just didn't love quite enough to give them a Best of the Year title. Other books greatly enjoyed by committee members (and other library staff) this year include the aforementioned A God in Ruins and Purity, twisty thrillers like In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Luckiest Girl Alive, and the latest books by reliably great authors like Toni Morrison and Harlan Coben. As for those 2015 gems we haven't yet discovered? We'll add them in later. For now, here is our current list of our favorite books of 2015:

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki
In this compelling biographical fiction, Pataki brings to life the 19th Austro-Hungarian empire and the scandalous love story of  Emperor Franz Joseph and "Sisi," the daughter of a Bavarian Duke and younger sister of the Emperor's fianceé.
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer
Nine years ago, terrorists hijacked a plane in Vienna. Somehow, a rescue attempt staged from the inside went terribly wrong and everyone on board was killed. Members of the CIA stationed in Vienna during that time were witness to this terrible tragedy, gathering intel from their sources during those tense hours, assimilating facts from the ground with a series of texts coming from one of their agents inside the plane. So when it all went wrong, the question had to be asked: Had their agent been compromised, and how? Two of those agents, Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison, were lovers at the time, and in fact that was the last night they spent together. Until now. That night Celia decided she'd had enough; she left the agency, married and had children, and is living an ordinary life in the suburbs. Henry is still an analyst, and has traveled to California to see her one more time, to relive the past, maybe, or to put it behind him once and for all. But neither of them can forget that long-ago question: Had their agent been compromised, and how? And each of them also wonders what role tonight's dinner companion might have played in the way things unfolded. All the Old Knives is Olen Steinhauer's most intimate, most cerebral, and most shocking novel to date from the New York Times bestselling author deemed by many to be John le Carrâe's heir apparent. –Provided by publisher

American Meteor by Norman Lock
A scrappy Brooklyn orphan-turned-assassin comes of age, befriends Walt Whitman, apprentices under William Henry Jackson, and stalks General George Custer as railroad construction advances the nation's expansionist goals. 

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: Stories by Stephen King
From a master of the short story, a collection that includes stories never before in print, never published in America, never collected and brand new- with the magnificent bones of interstitial autobiographical comments on when, why and how Stephen King came to write each story. –Provided by publisher

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
I couldn’t stop reading this fascinating portrayal of Beryl Markham, a complex and strong-willed woman who fought to make her way in the world on her terms. McLain paints a captivating portrait of Africa in the 1920s and the life of expats making their home there. Highly, highly recommended. -- Halle Eisenman for LibraryReads.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Fates and Furies is a modern portrait of marriage. Lotto Satterwhite is the center, the hub around which all the characters revolve in the first half of the book. In the second half of the book, the lens turns to Lotto’s wife Mathilde, and her side of the lopsided partnership gives us a totally different view. Groff is a master of language. It’s not a gentle read. But it’s magnificent. –Kelly Currie for LibraryReads.

Fortune Smiles: Stories by Adam Johnson
This short story collection by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Adam Johnson features only six items, but they're full-fledged doozies that demand careful reading. Despite differences in plot and setting (like Silicon Valley and North Korea), what they all have in common are realistic characters enduring tragic events and challenges. Taken together, they give the impression that these stories could very well be about real people (one, "Interesting Facts," has some similarities to Johnson's own life).
–Description by Shauna Griffin 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Rachel is a washed-up thirty-something who creates a fantasy about the seemingly perfect couple she sees during her daily train ride into London. When the woman goes missing, Rachel manages to insert herself into the investigation of the woman’s disappearance. In the vein of Gone Girl, this dark psychological thriller is fast-paced and features some very unreliable narrators. –Andrea Larson for LibraryReads.

Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman
An Afghani orphan loses everything when his village is attacked by militants and must join a U.S.-funded militia to try to save his injured brother, who fell victim to a marketplace bomb. 

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Reunited when the elder's husband is sent to fight in World War II, French sisters Vianne and Isabelle find their bond as well as their respective beliefs tested by a world that changes in horrific ways.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Beautiful, elegant and poignant, this novel is a distilled experience of Haruf’s writing. The story of how two elders attempt to poke at the loneliness and isolation that surrounds them will stick with me for a long time to come. I’m amazed at how Haruf says so much with such spare prose. He will be missed. -- Alison Kastner for LibraryReads

Playing with Fire by Tess Gerritsen
Discovering an old and strikingly unusual musical composition that causes her to black out and has a violently transformative effect on her daughter, Julia Ansdell travels to Venice to find the man behind the music and uncovers a dark secret dating back to the Holocaust.

Pretty Ugly by Kirker Butler
After eight-and-a-half years and three hundred twenty-three pageants, Miranda Miller has become the ultimate stage mother. Her mission in life is to see that her nine-year-old daughter, Bailey, continues to be one of the most successful child pageant contestants in the southern United States. But lately, that mission has become increasingly difficult. Bailey wants to retire and has been secretly binge eating to make herself "unpageantable;" and the reality show Miranda has spent years trying to set up just went to their biggest rival. But Miranda has a plan. She's seven months pregnant with her fourth child, a girl (thank God), and she is going to make damn sure this one is even more successful than Bailey, even if the new girl is a little different.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
Follows the continuing story of the friendship between fiery Lina and bookish Elena, now grown with children and successful in their chosen careers, and both again living in Naples, the city of their birth.

Those Girls by Chevy Stevens
Those Girls follows the lives of the Campbell sisters. After running away from their alcoholic father, they find themselves caught in a worse situation when they are kidnapped. As events spiral out of control, they manage to escape and create new lives. This is a tale that will captivate readers and show just how strong the bond between family members can be. -- Annice Sevett for LibraryReads.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
Learning after a half-century of family life that their house on Detroit's East Side is worth only a fraction of its mortgage, the members of the Turner family gather to reckon with their pasts and decide the house's fate.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

BEST OF 2015: Our Favorite Books for Teens

From gritty, realistic fiction guaranteed to kick you in the gut to vivid fantasies with multi-dimensional characters we can't get enough of to historical tales—both fiction and nonfiction—that bring the past to life, 2015 was another great year for YA literature. And there are still a few promising titles we haven't yet had time to read, such as Nova Ren Suma's literary ghost story The Walls Around Us and Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, a powerhouse debut that seems to have everyone talking. I only recently got a hold of copies, so I'll have to let you know my thoughts on those later.

But my absolute favorite so far? Currently, I am leaning toward Bone Gap, but that may only be because it was the last YA title I finished and because I loved the mythology parallels and the kick-butt ending, which left me grinning like a fool with its perfection. I also loved (loved, loved, loved) The Hired Girl, and I can't wait to read the next Ember in the Ashes book when it releases in August. But this year's list is not just about what I've read and loved. This year, there have been three other committee members reading and evaluating along with me, so I think this is likely our most well-rounded list of annual Best Books for Teens selections yet!


All American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely
When Rashad, an innocent sixteen-year-old, is wrongly accused of stealing, classmate Quinn witnesses his brutal beating at the hands of a police officer who happens to be the older brother of his best friend. This is a gritty, powerful, and thought-provoking book, told through Rashad and Quinn's alternating viewpoints. 

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Finch is in a constant struggle to remain awake, obsessively reinventing himself in attempts to ground himself in reality. Violet is sunk in a deep depression following the death of her older sister. But after each climbs on the ledge of the school bell tower to consider ending it all, they are bonded. Taking a school project above and beyond, they roam rural Indiana, taking in oddball sights and discovering hope in each other and sights they take in. This is a well crafted picture of depression and mental illness as well as an absorbing, unusual love story sure to appeal to fans of The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park.

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein
Having moved to Ethiopia to avoid the prejudices of 1930s America, Emilia Menotti, her black adoptive brother Teo, and their mother Rhoda, a stunt pilot, are devoted to their new country even after war with Italy looms, drawing the teens into the conflict. –NoveList

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
Eighteen-year-old Finn, an outsider in his quiet Midwestern town, is the only witness to the abduction of town favorite Roza, but his inability to distinguish between faces makes it difficult for him to help with the investigation, and subjects him to even more ridicule and bullying. –NoveList

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
It's almost like Caden is living in two worlds simultaneously. There's the "real" life with his family, his friends, and school, but that life seems increasingly dangerous and confusing. He is having a hard time understanding his own thoughts—who he is and why he does what he does. Then there is Caden's voyage on a bizarre ship to the Marianas Trench and his mission to reach the deepest point in the ocean. There is a captain he can't trust, an oddball crew, and a scheming parrot whispering in his ear. But at least Caden feels like himself aboard the strange ship, even if nothing else makes sense there. But as the two worlds begin to bleed into one another, will Caden be able to separate what is real from what is not?

The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes
Sophomore Hallie Calhoun, her former friend Jonah, and new friend Rachel leave a church youth group hike in the Great Smoky Mountains and become lost for five days, struggling to survive as Hallie finally speaks about the incident that made her a social pariah and Jonah admits why it hurt him so much. –NoveList

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy
Sixteen-year-old Willowdean wants to prove to everyone in her small Texas town that she is more than just a fat girl, so, while grappling with her feelings for a co-worker who is clearly attracted to her, Will and some other misfits prepare to compete in the beauty pageant her mother runs. –NoveList

An Ember in the Ashes by Saaba Tahir
Laia is a Scholar living under the iron-fisted rule of the Martial Empire. When her brother is arrested for treason, Laia goes undercover as a slave at the empire's greatest military academy in exchange for assistance from rebel Scholars who claim that they will help to save her brother from execution. –Provided by the publisher

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
The story of a teenage girl who's literally allergic to the outside world. When a new family moves in next door, she begins a complicated romance that challenges everything she's ever known. The narrative unfolds via vignettes, diary entries, texts, charts, lists, illustrations, and more. –Provided by the publisher

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz
Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs chronicles her life in a journal when she leaves her family's farm in Pennsylvania to work as a hired girl in Baltimore in the summer of 1911. –NoveList

The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell
In Japan, teenaged Abe Sora, who is afflicted with "Lou Gehrig's Disease," finds friends online and elicits their help to end his suffering. –NoveList

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
After enduring his father's suicide, his own suicide attempt, broken friendships, and more in the Bronx projects, Aaron Soto, sixteen, is already considering the Leteo Institute's memory-alteration procedure when his new friendship with Thomas turns to unrequited love. –NoveList

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (Graphic novel)
Lord Blackheart, a villain with a vendetta, and his sidekick, Nimona, an impulsive young shapeshifter, must prove to the kingdom that Sir Goldenloin and the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren't the heroes everyone thinks they are. –NoveList

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen
Sydney's charismatic older brother, Peyton, has always been the center of attention in the family but when he is sent to jail, Sydney struggles to find her place at home and the world until she meets the Chathams, including gentle, protective Mac, who makes her feel seen for the first time. –NoveList

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
When the murals painted on the walls of her Brooklyn neighborhood start to change and fade in front of her, Sierra Santiago realizes that something strange is going on--then she discovers her Puerto Rican family are shadowshapers and finds herself in a battle with an evil anthropologist for the lives of her family and friends. –NoveList

Trouble Is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie TromblyAfter her parents' divorce, Zoe Webster moves from Brooklyn to upstate New York where she meets the weirdly compelling misfit, Philip Digby, and soon finds herself in a series of hilarious and dangerous situations as he pulls her into his investigation into the kidnapping of alocal teenage girl which may be related to the disappearance of his kid sister eight years ago. –NoveList

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson
 A young woman who possesses a supernatural ability to sense the presence of gold disguises herself as a boy and seeks safety and romance in California. –NoveList

 The Wrath & the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh
In this reimagining of The Arabian Nights, Shahrzad plans to avenge the death of her dearest friend by volunteering to marry the murderous boy-king of Khorasan but discovers not all is as it seems within the palace. –NoveList

X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon
Follows the childhood of the civil rights leader to his imprisonment at age twenty, where he found the faith that would lead him to his path towards activism and justice. –NoveList


The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip Hoose
 The true story of small group of teenage boys in Denmark who organized a resistance after the Danish government conceded to Nazi occupation. BCPL copies on order.

Chernobyl's Wild Kingdom: Life in the Dead Zone by Rebecca L. Johnson
Looks at the events of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident in the Ukraine, describing how scientists are monitoring the effects of radiation on the wildlife that continue to live there and what this means for the human population surrounding the area. –NoveList

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina's monstrous winds and surging water overwhelmed the protective levees around low-lying New Orleans, Louisiana. Eighty percent of the city flooded, in some places under twenty feet of water. Property damages across the Gulf Coast topped $100 billion. One thousand eight hundred and thirty-three people lost their lives. The tale of this historic storm and the drowning of an American city is one of selflessness, heroism, and courage -- and also of incompetence, racism, and criminality. Don Brown's kinetic art and as-it-happens narrative capture both the tragedy and triumph of one of the worst natural disasters in American history. –NoveList

I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives by Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda with Liz Welch
Heartwarming and inspiring, this is the story how how an unlikely, lifelong friendship developed between a 12-year-old white student in Pennsylvania and a 14-year-old in Zimbabwe. Over the years, Caitlin and Martin's friendship shaped not only their own lives but also profoundly affected the lives of many of their friends and family. BCPL copies on order.

 Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin
A suspenseful and thought-provoking glimpse into the man who was labeled the most dangerous man in America after he released top-secret documents during the Vietnam War, and the events and repercussions of his actions.

 Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakivich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson
An account of the Siege of Leningrad reveals the role played by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and his Leningrad Symphony in rallying and commemorating their fellow citizens. –NoveList

Tommy: The Gun That Changed America by Karen Blumenthal
Examines the origins of America's debate over gun control sparked by a practical gun intended for military use that became a weapon of choice for outlaws before Congress attempted to remove it from the streets. –NoveList

Did we include your favorite teen book of 2015? Have we convinced you to read something you had previously overlooked? Let us know in the comments!
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