Capital Region

Staffers at Capital Region bookstore offer their literary picks for the holiday season

Employee Lily Bartels shows off her personal picks for holiday gifts at the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady last month.
Employee Lily Bartels shows off her personal picks for holiday gifts at the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady last month.

With cold winter temperatures and a pandemic that persists, a book can provide the perfect gift as we hunker down at home this season.

The staff at three local bookstores have shared with Gazette readers their 2020 top picks in a variety of genres.

Fiction for adults

Lily Bartels, the adult book buyer at the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady, loves the works of Alice Hoffman.

Her recent book, “Magic Lessons,” is a prequel to “Practical Magic” and “The Rules of Magic.”

But Bartels emphasizes that “Magic Lessons” can be a standalone read. It chronicles the saga of family matriarch Maria Owens, from her birth in the 1600s to her journey to Salem, Massachusetts, where she is accused of witchcraft.

“It’s beautifully plotted, elegantly written and really historically evocative,” Bartels said. “In a subtle way, even though it is set in the 17th and 18th century, it speaks a lot to the place of women in any given culture— the power of women and the treatment of women. It’s a great story to get lost in.”

“Dear Edward,” a novel by Ann Napolitano, tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash. Thrust into overnight celebrity, he struggles with how to find a place in the world without his family and figuring out what it means that he alone survived the crash. “It sort of tells how a heart that is so severely broken can learn to not only continue living, but to love again,” Bartels said. The novel is based loosely on the true story of a Dutch boy who was the lone survivor of a plane crash in 2010.

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Bartels considers “Monogamy” by Sue Miller to be Miller’s best work thus far. This novel, centered on a married couple in their 60s, explores the meaning of commitment and faithfulness, as well as how love can remain after grief and betrayal. After her husband Graham’s sudden death, Annie discovers that he had had an impulsive affair before he died.

“Leave the World Behind” by Rumaan Alam is a literary novel that unfolds the story of what happens when a middle-class family treats themselves to a luxurious vacation at a rental home in the Hamptons and things go haywire. “All power goes out and things, on a dime, become very ominous,” Bartels said.

The home’s buyers show up at the house panic-stricken and asking to stay, because all of New York City is in a blackout. “It’s about two families that are strangers to each other, and they are forced into this togetherness situation on this long weekend that has gone terribly wrong,” Bartels said. Even though it was written before the social justice crisis of earlier this year, the novel is timely, she said, as it exposes and grapples with issues of race, class and climate change. “It shows what relationships emerge when people are thrown together in a crisis. I was riveted by it,” she said.

Becky Doherty of Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs enjoyed “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke. In her staff picks review, she wrote, “Piranesi, though that’s not his name, lives in a house with no end, by himself, save for a few fish and birds, and a once-weekly visit from someone he calls ‘the Other.’ The house, with vast white marble rooms, full of statues and columns, goes on for infinity through halls, corridors and courtyards, and exists on three levels. The lower floors are home to an ocean with its unique tidal flow, the upper floors are in the clouds and in the middle is Piranesi’s world. Piranesi is blissfully happy, and perfectly in balance with his world, a master of its internal seasons and its idiosyncrasies, until the day ‘the Oracle’ unexpectedly arrives, and then all he thinks he knows begins to unravel. A work of genius!”

Cassidy Washburn of Northshire Books had “The House in the Cerulean Sea” by T. J. Klune on her list. She wrote, “If you are looking for a light-hearted, standalone fantasy novel, this is the book for you! It is laugh-out-loud funny, magical and unique. I promise you, you will not stop smiling throughout this novel! It also has excellent LGBTQ+ representation in it.”

Another of Washburn’s fantasy picks was “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V. E. Schwab. She wrote, “When Addie makes a bargain to live forever, she does not expect to be forgotten by everyone she meets. Forced to live a lonely life, Addie attempts to leave her mark on a world that does not even know she exists. That is until she walks into a bookstore and hears three simple words, ‘I remember you.’ ‘The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue’ is a profound novel, one that will leave you at a loss for words, but I promise you, Addie will live in your thoughts long after you turn the final page.”

Alex Bell of Northshire Books enjoyed “They Say Sarah” by Pauline Delabroy-Allard. She wrote, “This little gem of a book, written in sparse, impressionistic prose, swept me away into a story that flutters like a heart at the onslaught of emotion reaped by new love. But, it’s the stark second act that leaves you haunted. A gorgeous retelling of one of my favorite tropes, ‘Death and the Maiden.’ I read this in two sittings, one for each section. This allowed me to fully absorb and ruminate over what was just experienced.”

Bell also liked “Luster” by Raven Leilani. She wrote, “I was quite captivated by Leilani’s impulsive debut novel that shifts frequently in tone, from light and joyous to raw and sometimes grotesque as it juggles authentic portraits of race and poverty relations, in ways that speak like sharp steel to the American consciousness. Anyone searching for a contemporary voice in this field best look no further. Leilani’s voice is as sleek as advertised.”

The mystery/thriller “When No One is Watching” made the list of Northshire’s Kirstin Swartz. She wrote, “’When No One is Watching’ is perhaps one of the most thrilling, informative and anxiety-ridden mysteries I’ve read in a long time. We follow Sydney, a young black woman desperately holding onto her mother’s house in a Brooklyn neighborhood as gentrification slowly turns brownstones into condos, and neighbors she grew up with her whole life are either moving or disappearing. She channels her outrage into a walking tour of Gifford Place to dive into the African-American history behind her neighborhood, and finds an unlikely assistant and friend in her new white neighbor Theo, a young man with his own troubling past. What they find in that history, and about what’s happening to their neighborhood now, thrusts them down a rabbit hole of paranoia and claustrophobic terror.”

Staff at Mysteries on Main Street in Johnstown enjoyed Christine Feehan’s “Shadow Flight,” the fifth book in the Shadow Riders series. This thriller/romance centers on Nicoletta Gomez and Chicago crime family member Taviano Ferraro, who is trying to keep Gomez safe.

They also enjoyed “Transcendent Kingdom,” Yaa Gyasi’s follow-up novel to “Homegoing.” This book tells the struggles of a Ghanaian immigrant family in Alabama.

The science-fiction book “Network Effect (Murderbot Diaries #5)” by Martha Wells was also a staff pick for Mysteries on Main. In Wells’ first full-length standalone book, Murderbot, a form of artificial intelligence, sets out to aid his human associates.

The staff also chose the romantic comedy “Tools of Engagement” by Tessa Bailey. In this book, Realtor Bethany Castle ends up on the reality TV show “Flip Off,” pitted against her older brother to be the best house flipper. She finds love with a member of her brother’s construction team along the way.

Nonfiction for adults

“This book is hilarious,” Bartels said of “Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memories of A Neurotic Filmmaker,” by Barry Sonnenfeld. “I almost fell off my couch laughing. I cannot emphasize enough how truly hilarious his writing style is and the ways he tells his story, which incorporates elements of his life that weren’t so funny,” she said. Born in New York City to very eccentric — and not in a good way — parents, Sonnenfeld shares his life and how he became a filmmaker. This memoir also gives readers what Bartels describes as “a real, nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes” look at how films are made.

“Vesper Flights” by Helen Macdonald is a favorite of Becky Doherty of Northshire Books. Wrote Doherty: “Macdonald’s essays in this book are as much like miracles as the subjects she writes about. With writing so beautiful and observations so keen, this is a book to be savored, and I know I’ll be dipping in and out of it for years to come. A true treasure. I cannot wait to recommend this book to all those curious about the natural world.”

“Untamed,” a memoir by Glennon Doyle, is one of Swartz’s picks for this year. She wrote, “Untamed is a brilliant memoir written by speaker and activist Glennon Doyle, and perhaps one of my favorite nonfiction reads of 2020.

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Split into essay collections over her lifetime, Doyle expresses how she found her inner wild and let go of her tamed self through becoming a mother, a writer and marrying the love of her life, Abby. This book felt like a conversation between Glennon’s soul and mine; each chapter somehow knew how to understand me while also giving me a glimpse into her journey finding herself. Glennon proudly allows you not to be caged in the boxes of religion, sexuality and the world’s standards for a woman — she reaches out from the pages and unleashes your inner cheetah, your wild, and says, ‘Go, go and be free!’ ”

Mysteries on Main Street’s staff selected “The Splendid and The Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz” by Erik Larson as its nonfiction pick. This book draws on diaries, archival documents and once-secret intelligence reports to give readers a behind-the-scenes and in-depth look at Winston Churchill during World War II.

For children and teens

“There’s a spectacular Christmas book that I really love — it’s unique,” said Kathleen Kemp, children’s book buyer at the Open Door Bookstore of “Native American Night Before Christmas,” written by Gary Robinson and illustrated by Jesse T. Hummingbird. “It’s a fun retelling of ‘The Night Before Christmas’ with a Native American spin, and the illustrations are just glorious,” she said, noting that she enjoyed learning about different Native American traditions. “I just wanted this book to be in people’s hands,” she said.

“Hair Love,” was published last year, but it was made into a movie that won an Oscar this year for best animated short film. In Matt Cherry’s book, illustrated by Vashti Harrison, Zuri has to let her father do her hair when her mother becomes ill. “She’s not happy with the way he’s doing her hair, but he’s going to do the best he can, and he does,” Bartels said.

Mysteries on Main Street’s staff chose “I Am One: A Book of Action” by Susan Verde. This book, which explores the power of activism, is a companion book to Verde’s “I Am Human,” and “I Am Love!”

They also put picture book “Cozy” by Jan Brett on their list. In this story, with Brett’s classic illustrations, Cozy, the softest musk ox in Alaska, uses his warm fur to shelter a group of animals during a storm. Through the story, Brett explores the themes of sharing, friendship and living in harmony.

A middle-school pick that made Kemp’s list is “The Blackbird Girls,” written by Niskayuna native Anne Blankman.

The story takes place after the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, when two young girls whose fathers worked at the plant are sent to Leningrad to live with the estranged grandmother of one of the girls. One girl is Jewish and the other not, and they were not friends when they were thrown together in the aftermath of the meltdown. One is even anti-Semitic at the start of the book. The grandmother has a secret that dates to World War II. Blankman tells the story of how the girls become friends.

Angela Turon of Northshire Bookstore chose “Bloom (The Overthrow #1)” by Kenneth Oppel as a favorite middle-grade fiction book. She wrote, “When a mysterious rain sprouts deadly, alien plants, a ragtag group of middle-school kids must band together to save the planet in this fantastic alien survival adventure series that is creepy, fast-paced and heart-pounding! This action-thriller novel is unputdownable, and leaves you eager for the next book in the trilogy!”

Mysteries on Main Street’s staff put Suzanne Collins’ “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Hunger Games #0” on its list. In this book, set at the 10th annual Hunger Games, 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow vies to mentor the winning tribute.

“Camper Girl,” a young-adult title, tells the journey of self-discovery for a young woman who inherits a camper from her aunt who died unexpectedly. In an effort to find her way in life, main character Shannon Burke takes a road trip through the Adirondacks, outlined by a map she finds in the camper’s glove box. “She’s trying to find herself,” Bartels said. The book highlights the value of being in nature, and even throws a mystery into the story.

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Turon included “The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep” by Allan Wolf as her young-adult pick. She wrote, “In this carefully crafted historical fiction written in verse, Wolf paints a tragic picture of the harrowing journey of the ill-fated Donner party as they traverse a wild landscape in hopes of a better future in California. Told from the perspectives of the travelers — and hunger — the story peels back the very layers of what makes us human and reveals a hidden beast that exists within all of us: a raw, untamed animal that will do anything to survive when put to the extreme. This novel is not for the faint of heart. It is a devastatingly woven tale of both fiction — and actual history — that will change the way some of us remember the Donner party.”

Bartels also recommends “When Stars Are Scattered,” a graphic-novel-style memoir by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, illustrated by Iman Geddy. It tells the story of Omar and his little brother, Hassan, who grow up without their parents in a refugee camp in Kenya after being forced to flee their native Somalia. “The pictures are beautiful, and I just think it really depicts this life that is very real that I think we forget that around the world, and even in the United States, this is the reality for so many people,” Bartels said. Omar struggles between taking care of his brother, who has an intellectual disability, and taking advantage of his own educational opportunities.

Categories: Celebrate

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