Tag Archives: hillary jordan

The 50th Blog Post: Or Here’s What You Might Want to Check Out for Book Club or Summer Reading

11 Apr

(Fanfare!   Cheers from the crowd!  Huge rounds of applause!)

This is it!  What you’ve been waiting for!  The Hoboken Library’s 50th  post to the Staff Picks Blog.

You may wonder how I earned the great honor of writing this post.  It was competitive, you know.  Ultimately, however, I was the only one who had time, this week, to come up with an entry.

In honor of this occasion, I will NOT share with you a topical list of books on potty training, the death of pets, or any other book topics normally associated with the Children’s Department.  Instead, I will tell you about adult books I occasionally read in what I laughingly refer to as “my spare time,” and when my dog isn’t stepping on my Kindle to prevent me from reading.  These are all works of popular and current fiction (with one notable exception that I’ve been touting as a “must read,” for the past five years).  They reflect my tastes and sensibilities but, honestly, I’ve seldom had anyone tell me that they didn’t like a book I’ve recommended.  As I tell my staff often, the one thing I know how to do is pick good books.   Happy (summer) reading and discussing:

Fallen Women, by Sandra Dallas.


Having lived in Denver for thirty years, I have a particular love for Sandra Dallas’ books that recall the city’s somewhat wild and wooly past.  And wild it was as the nouveau riche try to hide their sometimes less than sterling pasts with new money made in the mines.  In 1885, Beret Osmundsen, a New York social worker, comes to Denver to claim the body of her younger sister, Lillie, who has been murdered while working as a “soiled dove” on Denver’s infamous Halliday Street.  Beret and Lillie were estranged because Lillie seduced Beret’s easily seducible husband. While staying with her aspirational aunt and uncle, Beret seeks out a detective, Mick McCauley, to help her investigate Lillie’s death and finds that Lillie’s downfall lies dangerously close to home.  Most of Dallas’ books are strictly historical novels, but this one adds an element of suspense that makes the history lesson go down easily.  Read this book if you are a fan of Alice Hoffman or Diana Mott Davidson.

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, by Fannie Flagg.


Most people associate this author with the book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.  However, Fannie Flagg has had a memorable career both as a writer and as a performer, having come to New York, originally, as the winner of a Celeste Holm look-alike contest.  (I’m sorry.  If you don’t know the name Celeste Holm, search IMDB and then immediately find the film Gentleman’s Agreement to see what a Best Supporting Actress really looks like).   In this book, Ms. Flagg again refers to her native Alabama where we meet Mrs. Sookie Poole who is having a partial nervous breakdown from marrying off the last of her three daughters and dealing with her contentious and more than a bit eccentric mother, Lenore Simmons Krackenberry.  While researching family history, Sookie discovers that her mother does not come from the rich Southern background she has represented, but descends from a mid-western Polish family with a gaggle of beautiful daughters who ran a women’s filling station during World War II, and also served the country as women pilots.  Sookie finds an unexpected connection to Fritzi Jurdabralinski, a feisty aviatrix with a fascinating family story to tell.  Read if you liked The Help or Where the Heart Is.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman.*


Coralie Sardie lives and works in a Coney Island freak show.  Born with Syndactyly, a condition that causes her to have webbing between her fingers, her father, a sinister figure, keeps her a virtual prisoner as he displays her as The Mermaid Girl is a giant fish tank in his boardwalk show.  Coralie bonds with other performers in the show and they become a pseudo family, supporting each other in the face of her father’s cruelty.  Then, one night while swimming in the Hudson, Coralie chances on Eddie Cohen, a photographer seeking a new life away from his Orthodox Jewish roots on the Lower East Side. More than just a photographer, Eddie is a sort of “seeker of lost persons,” and becomes embroiled in a search for a missing woman after the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  With Coralie’s help, Eddie solves the mystery of Hannah, the shirtwaist girl, and also reveals his relationship to the Triangle Fire and the family who owned the factory.  As with all of Alice Hoffman’s books, there is a darkness to this story but also incredible detail and authenticity in the descriptions of early 20th century New York.  The tragedy of the lives of people who can earn a living only by being “freaks” is extremely sad but also inspiring in the way that they support and love one another. Read if you like Neil Gaiman or Isabel Allende.

When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan.


To me, this is the most thought-provoking book of the last five years.  In a re-imagination of The Scarlet Letter, Jordan tells the story of Hannah Payne, a religiously raised teenager who finds herself pregnant by the powerful head of her fundamentalist church.  In this dystopian world, much of the population has been wiped out by plague, and many more of the females have been rendered sterile.  Abortion is illegal and considered murder so, when Hannah has an abortion and is caught, she is branded a criminal and her skin is genetically altered red so that her crime is obvious to everyone.  Sent to a halfway house for fallen girls, Hannah is abused by her caretakers and leaves with the goal of hooking up with an underground network dedicated to getting “chromes” into Canada.  Along the way, Hannah reunites with her lover and finds that he has feet of clay.  Obviously, the center of this tale is political and feminist and will engender strong feelings on both sides of the issue.  The book also addresses LGBT rights and many other provocative issues that are present in every day’s headlines.  Prepare yourself for a heated discussion, but one of the most engrossing stories, if you choose this book.  Read if you liked The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin.


This is a Valentine of a book.  A.J. Fikry is the most unexpected of romantic heroes.  He is a curmudgeonly widower living on an isolated New England island and running a bookstore that no one patronizes.  His late wife was the magnet that drew people into the store.  A.J. was merely the man in the back room. However, her death causes him to assume a more active role in the operation of the store and it’s not going well.  Then, one day, a customer leaves A.J. a “package,” a small, bi-racial child who, the mother says, should be raised in a bookstore.  At first, A.J. does everything he can to divest himself of Maya.  However, slowly he is drawn into fatherhood and, by association, into the life of the island town.  He also has an encounter with a sales rep, Amelia, who comes to the island only once a year, but finds herself falling in love with the older, evolving owner of the remote bookstore.  This book will leave you with a warm and mellow feeling about the transformative power of love, family, and community.  Read this book if you like the novels of Elizabeth Berg or enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Some of these titles may provoke your reading group to have heated discussions, while others may cause more heart-felt consensus about characters, themes, plots, historical accuracy and current events.  Whichever books you choose, I hope you’ll visit the library and ask our staff for further recommendations to expand your reading horizons.  Also, don’t forget that we now have an adult Summer Reading Program, as well as programs to encourage children and young adults to stay in touch with books when school is on recess.  The Hoboken Library is a reading oasis for all of our valued patrons.

-Written by Lois Rubin Gross, Senior Children’s Librarian

*Ed. note: This is the second time a staff member recommended this particular book. That means it must be good. 🙂


5 Mar

You might say that no one should ever rewrite a classic book, but then we’d miss some marvelous reworked titles entirely worthy of the reader’s attention.  Among Young Adult and Children’s books, there are endless retellings of fairy and folk tales in contemporary settings or with feminist themes or with wolves being cast as the victims of onerous pigs.  However, the following books, appropriate for adults or mature teen readers, retell their tales with an entirely new approach and some somewhat different outcomes.

When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan.


This was my favorite book of several years ago, and is an excellent selection for book groups to discuss. If anything, this reworking of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, becomes more real and frightening with each passing political season.  It is the near future.  The New Depression has ended and the latest Scourge is controlled, but people have returned to fundamentalist values with a vengeance.  In Plano, Texas, young Hannah Payne’s movements are carefully controlled by her mother and her church, a mega cathedral run by the charismatic Aiden Dale. Aiden has his sights set on a political career.  However, he also has his personal sights set on Hannah.  After he seduces her and she finds herself pregnant, she sees no alternative but an illegal abortion. Her transgression is found out and, as she won’t name the father of her child, she bears the responsibility herself and is dyed red as a visual symbol of her sin.  Cast out by her mother, she is sent to a facility that is a cross between a reprogramming center and a nunnery.  There, she and her sister sinners are abused and punished until Hannah leaves and casts her fate with a feminist group notorious for their civil disobedience and her one way to leave the restraints of the United States for the freedom of Canada. This compelling tale will make you think how stranger than fiction our current truths are, and will bring to mind in its literacy and storytelling Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire.


You will be most familiar with the book from its metamorphosis into a long running (although not Tony winning for Best Musical – that went to Avenue Q) Broadway show.  Winnie Holtzman, who wrote the book for the show, used Gregory Maguire’s fantasy merely as a jumping off point for her play.  The book itself is complex, detailed, darkly satirical, and very political.  As the first of a series of books told from the different viewpoints of characters in Wicked, the stories become progressively murkier and much more political, making clear the author’s feelings on everything from the Bush presidency to gay rights and unwanted, overlong wars. However, in the first book, Maguire focuses on the relationship between two young witches-in-training, Elphaba Thropp and Galinda Upland who meet at Shiz University.  Elphaba bears the green coloring of her mother’s adultery.  Her mother, wife of a provincial governor, cheated with a traveling salesman who gave her a draught that did not prevent pregnancy, but instead turned her child green.  Later, a milkweed elixir crippled a future child, Nessarose. Now, both girls are at Shiz where it is revealed that Elphaba, in particular, has great talent for magic. Elphaba also has great talent for trouble as she becomes actively involved in underground activities on behalf of talking Animals whose rights are being taken away. Another student, a handsome Winky prince named Fiyero seems fated for the bubbly Galinda, but is instead attracted to Elphaba and her lost causes. The book ends with an open-ended question of Elphaba’s survival and the possibility that she has left behind a half-Winky offspring who will carry on the family tradition of trouble and magic.  Honestly, you will either love or hate this book and its subsequent episodes. I found it magical in every sense of the word.

Love in the Time of Global Warming, by Francesca Lia Block.


Everything old is new again as acclaimed author, Francesca Lia Block, takes the classic story of Homer’s The Odyssey and presents it as a post-apocalyptic tale that is a brilliant, contemporary dystopian novel.   The heroic story receives a “girlist” twist by making the lead character a teenage girl named Penelope.  When the great Earth Shaker hits her Los Angeles area home, Penelope doesn’t know the scope of the destruction, whether it is limited to the coastline or a worldwide catastrophe. What Penelope does know is that her family has vanished, leaving her surrounded by roiling seas in an island-bound pink house that was once her home. A heretofore unknown home invader, who is revealed to have familial ties to Penelope, gives the girl a battered VW van in which she travels through newly created wastelands and picks up a posse of young men who help her search for her family who, she believes, are still alive in Las Vegas. The group follows butterfly spirit guides that Penelope pursues, and is enticed but reimagined characters from the myth: sirens, a Medusa-like soap opera star, denizens of a lotus den, and a visionary witch. Penelope also confronts and vanquishes a giant Cyclops, one of a race of genetic aberrations created by a mad scientist whose experiments may have ended the world. As with Block’s other books, this one is LGBTQ friendly because Penelope is questioning her sexuality; her new love, Hex, is transgender; and Ez and Ash, the two other young men who complete their band, are gay. Block’s writing is pure poetry in its flow and symbolism. So many dystopian novels seem to be written by the pound, but Block is economical in her language without sacrificing storytelling or the mythological references.  This should be a companion piece for students who are reading the original myth for the first time. Yet it has the potential to be that hard-to-achieve crossover book for adults because the language and imagery is both lyrical and alarming in its descriptions of Armageddon and its sepia recollection of the world before.  This is the first in a series about Penelope’s quests.

Snow in August, by Pete Hamill.


This is a very old book, in 2014, but I count it among my favorite coming-of-age novels.  It is based, very loosely, on an old Jewish folktale about a mud monster created by a Czech rabbi to save his people from pogroms. Built from clay, the monster is brought to life with the secret name of G-d and can only be killed when a prayer scroll is removed from his head.  Pete Hamill, an old JFK colleague and former swain of Jackie Kennedy, brings the story forward to post-war Brooklyn where Rabbi Judah Hirsch has come as a survivor of the Holocaust and settled in a primarily Catholic neighborhood.  The neighborhood is not a safe place because it is ruled by a thuggish gang of teens who have murdered a Jewish shopkeeper, an act that was witnessed by young Michael Devlin.  Michael saves his own neck by promising not to “squeal” despite repeated questioning by local police nicknamed “Abbott and Costello.”  However, Michael’s life becomes more complicated when Rabbi Hirsch asks him to do work that Jews are not permitted to do on the Sabbath, and the two develop a close relationship as Michael teaches the rabbi English and the ins and outs and baseball, and the Rabbi teaches Michael to speak Yiddish and the legend of the golem.  When Michael and the Rabbi run afoul of the gang, again, Michael takes it upon himself to create a golem who bears more than a passing resemblance to a comic book superhero (which was, not incidentally, created by Jewish artists in the World War II period).  With the golem’s arrival, Brooklyn becomes a magical place where the evildoers are brought to justice, the dead of the Holocaust return to life, and it can even snow in the middle of a sultry August night.

All four of these books combine social commentary with excellent storytelling and timeliness with themes that readers will know from the past.

-Written by Lois Rubin Gross, Senior Children’s Librarian

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