All posts by Laurie C

I'm a public librarian in Massachusetts who loves to give reading suggestions, whether asked-for or not, a specialty known in library jargon as "reader's advisory". I read a lot -- mostly literary, genre, and young adult fiction, but also short stories and memoirs -- and listen to a lot of audiobooks. Newer favorites include Patry Francis, Donna Tartt, Meg Wolitzer, Lev Grossman, Jennifer Egan, Laurie R. King, Lionel Shriver, Carolyn Parkhurst, Penny Vincenzi, Michael Connelly, Alexander McCall Smith, Orson Scott Card, Patrick Rothfuss, Martha Southgate, Jennifer Haigh, Zadie Smith, and Louise Penny. Some older favorites are Lorrie Moore, Anne Tyler, Ian McEwan, Susan Howatch, and Connie Willis.

Monkeewrench Is Back: Off the Grid by P.J. Tracy

Cover image of Off the GridThe mother-daughter team writing under the name P.J. Tracy have done it again, reuniting the loyal Monkeewrench gang of computer geeks with Minneapolis police detective partners Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth in a suspenseful, wide-ranging story with a plot line that puts many innocent lives at stake and requires the members of Monkeewrench, a small but lethal gaming software company, to use all its skills – shooting, hacking, and secrecy – to help the Minneapolis police solve this crime in the days leading up to Halloween.

I got so excited when I saw my hold on Off the Grid had come in at the library that a volunteer who was working in the back asked what it was, because she was looking for something good to read. She took home the first two books in the Monkeewrench series (Monkeewrench and Live Bait) and in just over a week had also polished off Dead Run, Snow Blind, and Shoot to Thrill, and was waiting for her own copy of Off the Grid to come in.

Although the Monkeewrench computer geniuses are all way above average in intelligence, the novels don’t get into the details of computer hacking, and you don’t have to know anything about computer gaming to enjoy them. They are suspenseful enough to be called page-turners, but have crackling dialogue, a crisp writing style, and a sense of humor that you don’t usually find in the average serial-killer thriller. Each novel in the sequence has a self-contained plot with a beginning and end, but more of the characters’ backgrounds and personalities are revealed in each one, so they are definitely better read in order.

I’m not going to describe the plot because I don’t want to give anything away, but you can read an excerpt from the beginning of the book here to see what you think. The Monkeewrench books aren’t cozies. There is quite a lot of violence in them and there is often a serial killer involved, but they don’t creep you out by making you muck around inside the killers’ heads too much. There aren’t long, drawn-out descriptions of the pleasure a killer takes in killing that linger over the details making me feel, as a reader, as if I’ve just vicariously murdered somebody. I don’t want to experience or imagine that, thank you!

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Getting Literary at the Boston Book Festival #BBF2012

Before Hurricane Sandy, there was the Boston Book Festival.

Boston Book Festival in Copley Square

On Saturday, October 29, I attended my very first Boston Book Festival. It was the fourth year of this annual celebration of literature with an emphasis on Massachusetts authors and Massachusetts themes, but this year I finally got smart and requested the day off from work.

First thing was to meet up with Care from Care’s Online Book Club and her friend Holly in the line outside Trinity Short Story Panel Discussion-Bad photo, you're not missing much if you can't see it.Church for  the Short Story panel discussion with Jennifer Haigh, Junot Díaz, and Edith Pearlman, moderated by Christina Thompson, editor of The Harvard Review. I didn’t take notes but the writers all gave thoughtful answers to the questions and a few little volleys of discussion got going. At the end, a couple of long-winded questioners didn’t allow everyone who wanted to ask a question to get a turn, but the writers were very gracious with their answers. It seemed strange to have the gigantic screen in the sanctuary of the beautiful Trinity Church, especially as it didn’t get used at all in this session, but the audience did seem pretty worshipful of Junot Díaz, so maybe it was appropriate, after all.

Photo of Boston Public LibraryThen it was across Copley Square to the Boston Public Library for lunch in its Map Room Cafe. I’m glad I don’t work at the BPL, because I would gain a lot of weight eating a delicious lunch in the cafe everyday. Plus, you gaze at the dessert case while you wait to place your order. Photo of dessertsBut the courtyard dining area with a fountain is better than the staff break rooms at most libraries!Boston Public Library courtyard dining area

 After lunch, we split up and I hurried down the street to find the Heaven Knows panel discussion at the Church of the Covenant on the corner of Newbury and Berkeley. Another beautiful church with soaring ceilings and stained glass windows. (I was way in the back this time because I didn’t stand in line.) Novelists Tom Perrotta (The Leftovers), Alan Lightman (Mr g), and Ben Marcus (Flame Alphabet) talked religion, belief, and the unknown with Elisa New, a professor of English at Harvard. I would have enjoyed the discussion more if I had read all three novels already, and not just The Leftovers, but I did buy a copy of Flame Alphabet after the discussion because the idea of Jewish children’s language causing their parents to sicken and die sounded so intriguing. (I already have a copy of Mr g that I won through First Lit, which I need to read soon.)

Photo of Mass. Libraries BoothBrowsing the booths in the afternoon, got to say hi to Dawn (@toofondofbooks) of Too Fond of Books at the Women’s National Book Association booth and, of course, the people at the Massachusetts Libraries booth, including Sharon from the Massachusetts Center for the Book. A big display of the new Massachusetts Book Award winners was up, and kids could make their own sand dollar bookmarks/necklaces to take home. The Mass. Library Association is looking for stories of why libraries matter to share in the FY2014 Legislative Agenda. You can post your own photo/quote about your Masschusetts library at masslibraries.tumblr.com!

I also picked up a free copy of Reading Group Choices –2013 to use at the library. Check the suggestions out online at ReadingGroupChoices.com, on the blog (On the Bookcase), on Facebook (Reading Group Choices Fan Page), on Twitter (@ReadingGChoices) and on the dreaded Pinterest (ReadingGChoices).

I dropped in on the last part of the Flash Fiction Open Mic where about 60 brave people stood up and read their short short stories (had to take under 3 minutes to read) and heard some good and bad stories, but none terrible, so it wasn’t like early days in a new American Idol season or anything.

Then it was back to the Church of the Covenant, where I’m pretty sure I was the oldest person there for a YA-themed program called The Future Is Now, with M.T. Anderson moderating a discussion of futuristic/dystopian young adult fiction with Rachel Cohn, Cory Doctorow, and Gabrielle Zevin.

Resolutions for next year’s Boston Book Festival:

  1. Stand in line for good seats for the panel discussions.
  2. Volunteer for a shift at the Massachusetts Libraries booth.
  3. Take photos at book blogger meet-up! (See Care’s pic here.)

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Life Among the 1%: What the Nanny Saw by Fiona Neill

Cover image for What the Nanny SawWhat the Nanny Saw by Fiona Neill is a nanny’s-eye view of the greedy excesses of bank executives, stock market traders, and others in London’s financial sector during the two years leading up to the global economic collapse in 2008, but the bestselling author of Slummy Mummy doesn’t quite succeed in merging several intriguing scandals and story lines into a single compelling novel.

Taking a year off from the University of East Anglia and becoming a nanny for a year to earn enough money to finish her college degree strikes 22-year-old Ali Sparrow as a reasonable idea in August of 2006. Especially as her only viable alternative seems to be joining her friend Rosa in the Sugar Daddies, an escort-with-benefits service.

High-powered executives in their respective fields of finance and public relations, Nick and Bryony Skinner need more than just their live-in Filipina housekeeper for all the daily chauffeuring, chaperoning, coaching, and coaxing duties involved in raising four children. Ali (representing the 99%) lands the job as nanny to Nick and Bryony Skinner’s four above-average children: Jake (age 18, underachieving and hot), Izzy (age 15, rebellious with a borderline eating disorder), and identical twins Hector and Alfie (age 5, and inseparable.) Wealthy strivers and social climbers, Nick and Bryony – though not yet in the tip-top of the 1% themselves – can see it from their impressive Holland Park Crescent home.

Fiona Neill’s first novel, Slummy Mummy, was an hilarious send-up of competitive motherhood. While still funny, What the Nanny Saw suffers from comparison with Slummy Mummy‘s sizzle and snark. The author is great at composing humorous scenarios and dialogue, and finds plenty of material in Ali’s navigation of her newly intersecting worlds, including:

1.) the Eastern European “nanny mafia” (as Bryony calls it) gathering in cafes with children in tow to gossip about their rich employers and compare notes on treatment of the household help;

2.) Nick and Bryony’s social and professional circle (“millionaires complaining about billionaires,” as Bryony’s father, self-made salmon industry magnate, observes at a party);

3.) Jake and Izzy’s privileged bubble of adolescence, so different from Ali’s teenage years;

4.) Ali’s own struggling family, back home in Cromber, an economically depressed seaside town.

Here’s a sample from early on in What the Nanny Saw. Ali is interviewing in the Skinners’ elegantly appointed dining room with Bryony (a model of efficient parenting) and Nick, (friendlier, more laid-back, distracted by his Blackberry):

“Apart from babysitting, do you have any experience with children?” Bryony asked.

Ali started to explain how, as part of a program to reduce teenage pregnancy, girls at her school had all been given a fake baby to look after for a day. The doll was programmed to cry if it wasn’t fed or its nappy wasn’t regularly changed. She had proven to be totally responsible.

“What about the other girls in your class?” asked Nick.

“One of them dropped the doll off the end of the pier by mistake, and another was already pregnant and it made her lactate,” said Ali, pleased to find a verb that was suitably scientific.

Nick and Bryony stared at her in silence for a moment. “We’re not familiar with this program,” Nick said finally, and smiled. Bryony looked nonplussed.

A popular London Times columnist, Fiona Neill airs ethical/moral dilemmas and exposes stereotypes of people in different social classes in a humorous way. Unfortunately, the humor in What the Nanny Saw gets weighed down by the burdensome message that corporate greed and economic inequality are bad. I’ll still keep an eye out for her next novel, though.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program in September after the book was already published.

What the Nanny Saw
Neill, Fiona
Riverhead Books
August 2012
978-1-59448-716-3
$26.95 U.S., $28.50 CAN