Librarian Recommendations

As part of my year of reading recommendations, I asked the wonderfully helpful and well-read community of New Hampshire librarians to offer up recommended titles for the Third Monday book group I lead at the Minot-Sleeper Library. The responses I received – more than I could have hoped for! – were terrific suggestions. This is unsurprising, of course, based on how eager just about any librarian is to provide an excellent recommendation when asked for one.

It is a special thing to talk about a book with someone else who was struck by it. For that reason, the librarians whose recommendations will be read by our Third Monday group have been invited to our discussions this year. I am thrilled to have other librarians take part. We’ll kick this off on February 22 with Diane Lynch from the Pease Public Library in Plymouth when we talk about “Once Upon A River” by Diane Setterfield. Diane from Pease wrote to me a few months ago when she first recommended the book, sharing, “This book had exactly the right blend of gothic and mystery for me (and hopefully you, too) I loved the language and tone. And after I was done I listened to the audio and the narrator was EXACTLY as I hoped she’d be. How rare is that? I don’t read too much fiction these days, but I when I do I want it all to be of this caliber.”

Below are the books recommended by librarians, except for a few titles that were recommended by group members. Interested in discussing one or all of the books? This group is open to everyone – come once, come every month – we would love to have you participate in the discussion(s), which for now are held online using Zoom. To join, email me at librarian@townofbristolnh.org.

February 22, 2021
“Once Upon A River” by Diane Setterfield

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.

Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.

Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.

“This book had exactly the right blend of gothic and mystery for me (and hopefully you, too) I loved the language and tone. And after I was done I listened to the audio and the narrator was EXACTLY as I hoped she’d be. How rare is that? I don’t read too much fiction these days, but I when I do I want it all to be of this caliber.” -Diane Lynch, Pease Public Library (Plymouth)

March 15, 2021
“All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

Recommended by Maria Schroeder, Nesmith Library (Windham)

April 19, 2021
“The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” by Kim Michele Richardson

In 1936, tucked deep into the woods of Troublesome Creek, KY, lives blue-skinned 19-year-old Cussy Carter, the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry.

The lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian, riding across slippery creek beds and up treacherous mountains on her faithful mule to deliver books and other reading material to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky.

Along her dangerous route, Cussy, known to the mountain folk as Bluet, confronts those suspicious of her damselfly-blue skin and the government’s new book program. She befriends hardscrabble and complex fellow Kentuckians, and is fiercely determined to bring comfort and joy, instill literacy, and give to those who have nothing, a bookly respite, a fleeting retreat to faraway lands.

Inspired by the true and historical blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the brave and dedicated Kentucky Pack Horse library service, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek showcases a bold and unique tale of the Packhorse Librarians in literary novels—a story of fierce strength and one woman’s belief that books can carry us anywhere—even back home.

Recommended by Karen Dixon, Hopkinton Town Library and Sue LeClair, Elkins Library (Canterbury)

May 17, 2021
“Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks

When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna’s eyes we follow the story of the fateful year of 1666, as she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition. As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community and the lure of illicit love. As she struggles to survive and grow, a year of catastrophe becomes instead annus mirabilis, a “year of wonders.”

Inspired by the true story of Eyam, a village in the rugged hill country of England, Year of Wonders is a richly detailed evocation of a singular moment in history.

June 21, 2021
“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

An unforgettable true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to end mass incarceration in America — from one of the most inspiring lawyers of our time.

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law office in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated to defending the poor, the incarcerated, and the wrongly condemned.

Just Mercy tells the story of EJI, from the early days with a small staff facing the nation’s highest death sentencing and execution rates, through a successful campaign to challenge the cruel practice of sentencing children to die in prison, to revolutionary projects designed to confront Americans with our history of racial injustice.

One of EJI’s first clients was Walter McMillian, a young Black man who was sentenced to die for the murder of a young white woman that he didn’t commit. The case exemplifies how the death penalty in America is a direct descendant of lynching — a system that treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent.

July 19, 2021
“The Island of Sea Women” by Lisa See

Set on the Korean island of Jeju, The Island of Sea Women follows Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls from very different backgrounds, as they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective. Over many decades—through the Japanese colonialism of the 1930s and 1940s, World War II, the Korean War, and the era of cellphones and wet suits for the women divers—Mi-ja and Young-sook develop the closest of bonds. Nevertheless, their differences are impossible to ignore: Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, forever marking her, and Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers. After hundreds of dives and years of friendship, forces outside their control will push their relationship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a unique and unforgettable culture, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them–The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.

“[One of] the two … best discussions [we had].” -Amy Bain, Baker Free Library (Bow)

August 16, 2021
“The Girl With The Louding Voice” by Abi Dare

A powerful, emotional debut novel told in the unforgettable voice of a young Nigerian woman who is trapped in a life of servitude but determined to fight for her dreams and choose her own future.

Adunni is a fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl who knows what she wants: an education. This, her mother has told her, is the only way to get a “louding voice”—the ability to speak for herself and decide her own future. But instead, Adunni’s father sells her to be the third wife of a local man who is eager for her to bear him a son and heir.

When Adunni runs away to the city, hoping to make a better life, she finds that the only other option before her is servitude to a wealthy family. As a yielding daughter, a subservient wife, and a powerless slave, Adunni is told, by words and deeds, that she is nothing.

But while misfortunes might muffle her voice for a time, they cannot mute it. And when she realizes that she must stand up not only for herself, but for other girls, for the ones who came before her and were lost, and for the next girls, who will inevitably follow; she finds the resolve to speak, however she can—in a whisper, in song, in broken English—until she is heard.

“It’s an amazing story of finding your voice against seemingly unsurmountable odds.” -Beth Crooker, Mansfield Library (Temple)

September 20, 2021
“The Lady and The Unicorn” by Tracy Chevalier

A tour de force of history and imagination, The Lady and the Unicorn is Tracy Chevalier’s answer to the mystery behind one of the art world’s great masterpieces—a set of bewitching medieval tapestries that hangs today in the Cluny Museum in Paris. They appear to portray the seduction of a unicorn, but the story behind their making is unknown—until now.

Paris, 1490. A shrewd French nobleman commissions six lavish tapestries celebrating his rising status at Court. He hires the charismatic, arrogant, sublimely talented Nicolas des Innocents to design them. Nicolas creates havoc among the women in the house—mother and daughter, servant, and lady-in-waiting—before taking his designs north to the Brussels workshop where the tapestries are to be woven. There, master weaver Georges de la Chapelle risks everything he has to finish the tapestries—his finest, most intricate work—on time for his exacting French client. The results change all their lives—lives that have been captured in the tapestries, for those who know where to look.

In The Lady and the Unicorn, Tracy Chevalier weaves fact and fiction into a beautiful, timeless, and intriguing literary tapestry—an extraordinary story exquisitely told.

Recommended by Sue LeClair, Elkins Library (Canterbury)

October 18, 2021
“Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming birth, injury, and infectious disease from harrowing to manageable. But in the inevitable condition of aging and death, the goals of medicine seem too frequently to run counter to the interest of the human spirit. Nursing homes, preoccupied with safety, pin patients into railed beds and wheelchairs. Hospitals isolate the dying, checking for vital signs long after the goals of cure have become moot. Doctors, committed to extending life, continue to carry out devastating procedures that in the end extend suffering.

Gawande, a practicing surgeon, addresses his profession’s ultimate limitation, arguing that quality of life is the desired goal for patients and families. Gawande offers examples of freer, more socially fulfilling models for assisting the infirm and dependent elderly, and he explores the varieties of hospice care to demonstrate that a person’s last weeks or months may be rich and dignified.

“It is a great book on all sorts of issues related to end of life. It is good for older patrons, and for patrons who have aging parents. I’ve discussed this book several times, and it is always a hit! There is a RTG kit for it.” -Laura Clerkin, Bethlehem Library

November 15, 2021
“The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish

Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history. 

As the novel opens, Helen has been summoned by a former student to view a cache of seventeenth-century Jewish documents newly discovered in his home during a renovation. Enlisting the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and in a race with another fast-moving team of historians, Helen embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents’ scribe, the elusive “Aleph.”

Electrifying and ambitious, sweeping in scope and intimate in tone, The Weight of Ink is a sophisticated work of historical fiction about women separated by centuries, and the choices and sacrifices they must make in order reconcile the life of the heart and mind.

“My book group really loved The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish. It’s long read, over 500 pages (we took 2 months to read it,) but it’s a wonderful history lesson and so well written.” -Maria Schroeder, Nesmith Library (Windham)

December 20, 2021
“The Giver of Stars” by Jojo Moyes

Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them–and to the men they love–becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.

Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope and epic in its storytelling. Funny, heartbreaking, enthralling, it is destined to become a modern classic–a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.

Recommended by Donna Swett, Goodwin Library (Farmington)

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