Staff Recommendations

Why do people work at bookstores? For the same reason others find joy at candy stores. We’re all subjected to a constant stream of temptations, good and bad, and we’re always finding something wonderful we knew nothing about. Here are some of our staff recommendations from the past year for books that, as The New Yorker would say, are of “particular merit.” (Note: unfortunately, being a used bookstores, we can’t guarantee that we’ll have a particular title in the store at all times.  But we do try to stock these titles.)

Recommended by Becky

Bangkok 8, by John Burnett. This is the first in a wonderful detective series featuring a funny, cynical and incorruptible Thai-American monk raised in Bangkok by his mother, who runs a classy house of ill repute. The writing is excellent, the characters beautifully drawn and the explanation of Buddhism extremely helpful to a benighted Westerner.  You’ll want to hop on the next plane to Bangkok.  Highly recommended!

A Brief History of 7 Killings, by Marton James.  An absorbing mystery about Jamaican posses (a.k.a. gangs), the C.I.A, cocaine and crack networks in New York City, and Bob Marley. The book it told from many points of view, many using Jamaican patois, so it’s a bit challenging to read at first.  You’ll soon pick it up, and from there on in the only word to describe it is “mesmerizing.” Interesting to learn, for example, that from 1956 – 1991 our CIA was heavily involved in keeping Jamaica “safe” from communist Cuba – and the rest of the world safe from Jamaican ganja.  Not a pretty picture.This book won the 2015 Booker Prize.

Burden of Desire, by Robert MacNeil.  We’re just about to “celebrate” the July 28 Centennial of the beginning of World War I, which means it’s a perfect time to read this book by former PBS newscaster Robert MacNeil. Set in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917, the war has become brutally real and soldiers returning from the battlefield are suffering from “shell shock,” calling on all the knowledge, skills and plain old gut instincts doctors in the brand new psychiatry specialty can muster.

Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott.  Is it ever OK to lie about devastating news, especially when it’s done out of sheer kindness and concern? And which comes first, acute alcoholism or an “event” that might precipitate it? Charming Billy is a magical book that looks at these questions at the end of the life of the man who was lied to – and who drank anyway.

Eminently readable. The Child in Time, by Ian McEwan.  At its core, this is the story of a child-snatching and how this horrendous event affects the lives – and the marriage – of the little girl’s parents. Given Ian McEwan’s beautiful writing, this fact in itself would make the book exemplary.But there’s more.

The Child in Time is also a story of the Thatcher years, the British bureaucracy and how both led to the same anger and desperation we’re seeing among the “working class” right now in the United States.Read it.  You won’t regret it.

The Daily Drucker, by Peter Drucker.  “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done,” says Peter Drucker.  This is but one example of Peter Drucker’s economic philosophy, and even English majors who wouldn’t know a “convening” from a candy cane will find his words useful and informative, in easy-to-digest daily bits.  No wonder Drucker is the guru of modern management – he actually makes sense!

Dreamers of the Day, by Maria Doria Russell.  When the partition of the Middle East after World War I by the allies was discussed in World History, I must have been asleep.  I can’t even remember if it was on the test.At any rate, Dreamers of the Day caught me up fast.  Although it’s a novel told from the perspective of a 40-year-old spinster from Ohio, almost everyone “real” who had anything to do with this colossal error is here – Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell.  Read it and weep.

Everybody’s Fool, by Richard Russo.  They’re back, and they’re better than ever! Sully, Rub Squeers, Carl Roebuck and a host of other characters return from Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, published in 1993.Russo is laugh-out-loud funny, caring without the slightest hint of sentimentality and full of profound insights on how little most of us change with the passing of time.And although it’s wonderful to catch up with the Nobody’s Fool characters after such a long hiatus, Russo provides enough background that Everybody’s Fool stands beautifully on its own.  Don’t miss it!

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver. After you read this wonderful book, you’ll never look at a butterfly in quite the same way again.  You’ll also love reading about the book’s heroine, Dellahobit Turnbill, and her growing realization that life might offer more than wife- and motherhood.  Highly recommended.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. The days are getting shorter, which means that if you’re lucky, you’ll have even more nighttime hours to finish this book in a sitting. The Girl on the Train has been at the top of the best-seller list for months and, unlike some books that come to mind, it deserves to be there.  It’s compulsively readable and Rachel, the alcoholic cast-off wife, is someone you’ll be pulling for even when you don’t want to.  Try it!

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman.  You don’t have to be a journalist to appreciate this novel – its characters turn up in every office in the world.The Imperfectionists is just about perfect.  And it’s Rachman’s first novel.  Enjoy!P.S.  See his new book, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, in the shelves.

Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff.  This is a sly, funny and touching coming-of-age novel starring three outstanding characters: Jonathan Trefoil, an unhappy ad agency employee; Dante, a brilliant and controlling border collie; and Sissy, a sweet cocker spaniel who licks a lot.There isn’t a syrupy word in this book, which tells how Jonathan adjusts to his excruciatingly boring job, his canine-averse fiancée, and the two dogs, who demand more and give more than he ever imagined. It’s a wonderful, well-written summer read!

The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny.  Penny just keeps getting better and better, and she was superb to begin with.  This is the tenth in Penny’s psychological mystery series featuring Armand Gamache, former Chief Inspector of Homicide with Surete Quebec, one of the smartest and most appealing detectives to pass this way in a long time. It doesn’t get any better for mystery fans than the combination of Penny and Gamache. The Love Affairs of Nathanial P. by Adelle Waldman.  If you’re curious about what goes on in the 21st century’s dating world or just interested in how a 30-something man thinks these days, try this book.  The blurbs inside are right – this book is a comedy of manners, circa 2014.  Or have men always thought like this? Anyway, Adelle Waldman nails it. The Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knolls.   It’s not Crime and Punishment, but it’s not typical chick lit either.  And besides, it’s summer and t he reading is fun.Jessica Knolls is a witty and gifted writer who takes the typical Cinderella story and turns it into a fascinating look at the mores of the upper class and those who aspire to it.  Sometimes, anyway. It’s great!

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. Readers of English-village novels will recognize Major Pettigrew immediately.  He’s a well-to-do, respected, and retired military major, and widowed to boot. Genial but stuffy, he’s the last person you could imagine kicking over the traces and falling in love with a beautiful Pakistani shopkeeper.But he does and it’s a real grown-up affair, as both the major and his beloved cope with the villagers’ varied reactions, including their own families.’  Read this!

A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman. Are you tired of the sturm und drang of so much modern fiction? If you’re looking for a book (for you, your mom or your best friend) that combines excellent writing, believable characters and the best curmudgeon this side of Ebenezer Scrooge, A Man Called Ove will fill the bill.  It’s not a surprise that the book took Europe by storm!

The Red House, by Mark Haddon. This is one of those rare books where I found Publishers Weekly’s so-so review way off.  The book is about an estranged brother and sister in their 50s who, at the much wealthier (and therefore much resented) brother’s invitation, spend a week in the country together with their respective families.  The story shifts from the point of view of each family member, and the technique works wonderfully. It’s a complex on-the-one-hand, simple on-the-other, tale of a family, each member of which assumes he/she speaks for the rest.  Great book!

The Removers, by Andrew Meredith. A 14-year-old becomes disenchanted with his father (nothing new about that) and, a decade later, goes to work with him as a “remover” – someone who transports dead bodies from homes, hospitals, nursing homes and the like to funeral homes.Neither father nor son anticipated their lengthy rift, and they certainly never expected to be in the body-removal business together.  Life happens.This is a beautifully written, poignant memoir about life, not death…about how things go awry and how, almost as unexpectedly, they come together again.  Highly recommended! Rhoda, by Ellen Gilchrist. This is really a novel in stories by one of the VERY best short story writers ever, Ellen Gilchrist.  Rhoda is a total brat as a child with truly inspired cursing, and it takes her awhile to grow up.  But all along the way, she’s funny, perceptive, smart and, best of all, acutely aware of the rest of humankind.  Guaranteed to entertain and enlighten!

So Much for That, by Lionel Shriver.  If there’s only one lesson about life, it’s that change is inevitable – yet we continue to be shocked when our carefully laid plans are torpedoed.  I loved the way Shep Knacker and the rest of Shriver’s characters dealt with shattered dreams and the vagaries of the American healthcare system that led to them.

This is your Life, Harriet Chance!, by Jonathan Evison. Aging isn’t pretty, but there are compensations – including the fact that it’s less and less likely that your world will be turned upside down. But that’s what happens to 78-year-old Harriet Chance when she decides to go solo on a cruise her husband planned before he died.Beautifully written, poignant and funny, this book stays with you long after you’ve closed its cover for the last time.  Highly recommended!

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell. This is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read, about the early Dutch traders’ “discovery” of Japan.  The contrast between 1600s-era Europeans and the Japanese, who appear to have come down from the trees a lot earlier than their Dutch counterparts, is made so clearly and well by David Mitchell. After all, Mitchell could write his way out of a cereal box.  Fabulous!

We Need to Talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver.   Do you have a couple of day’s worth of reading time? That’s the best way to begin We Need to Talk about Kevin, because you’re not going to be able to put the book down anyway.This book, about motherhood, excuses, explanations and yes, buts…defies descriptions.  It is absolutely chilling and absolutely real.  You won’t forget it.

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers.  A first novel, The Yellow Birds won the 2014 National Book Award.  When you read it, you’ll see why.  Not only is it splendidly written, but also it offers insights into and experiences of war that could only be gained by being in one.  I believe this book will be a classic.

Recommended by Don

No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, by Mark Twain. This late masterpiece by Mark Twain presents a darker tone than most of his earlier work, probably influenced by his wife’s death.  Its central European setting may reflect the several years he spent in Vienna.  Fantastic, still written with humor, and thought provoking.

Burmese Days, by George Orwell. This early Orwell novel is loosely based on his experience as a policeman in 1920’s colonial Burma.  This (generally negative) experience led to a transformation of Orwell’s political views and reflects his growing sympathy for underdogs.  Highly recommended.

The Complete Yes Prime Minister, by Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay.  A hilarious satire of the inner workings of the top level of the British government.  But it’s also a bit sad, because it feels too true-to-life.  Based on a PBS series (with its predecessor, Yes, Minister).

Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, by Koli Bird.  The author seems to have been involved in many, if not most, of the historic development of the modern Middle East – from his childhood as a diplomat’s son in East Jerusalem, to his stay in war-torn Beirut on a Western fellowship, to his long journalistic career.  His early sympathy with the displaced Palestinians was later tempered with his exposure to terrorist incidents and acquaintance with his wife’s parents (Holocaust survivors).  A fascinating read throughout.

Edwin Millhouse, by Steve Millhauser. If you were a 10-year-old boy in the American suburbs in the mid-20th century, this book will jog your memories of what life was like.  I was such a boy – but everyone else should read this funny, touching book.  Both a coming-of-age tale and a meditation of the artistic temperament and the art of biography, this book launched the career of novelist and short-story writer Millhauser.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for a later novel but I like this one the best.

The Mayor of Castro Street, by Randy Shilts.  This is an excellent biography of Harvey Milk, an early openly gay politician. The book also provides a compelling view of the early days of AIDs.  It was the source of a film starring Sean Penn.

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, by Taylor Branch.  Before you visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial (or after, or even during your visit) READ this book.  It’s the best coverage of King’s early years in the civil rights movement, through the March on Washington.  If you like it, you should read the other volumes in the trilogy, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge.

 The Quest for Corvo, by A.J.A. Symons.  This is the story of an obscure but fascinating writer of the early 20th century – Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo – by a renowned British author. As well it is a study in the art of writing a biography.  The “quest” may be the most important word in the title.

Recommendations by Kim 

Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey.  This is a truly enjoyable book about a family of 12 children, their parents – one of whom was an efficiency expert – and assorted pets and other characters.Do yourself a favor of just having a fun time reading about the Gilbreth family.By the way, there have been two movies based upon this book, the Steve Martin 2003 version and the Clifton Webb 1950 version.  The 1950 version is the best and brings a lot of stories in the book to life.

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde. The perfect summer read! Well, come to think of it, it’s fun in winter, too.  OK, so here’s what is happening: someone is kidnapping characters from famous works of literature.It’s up to Thursday Next, a Special Operative in the future, t

o discover who, why and how to stop it.  Part science fiction, part mystery and part future mayhem!Fforde writes with a knowing wit and a wink and doesn’t mind letting you in on the joke!

The Kitchen God’s Wife, by Amy Tan.  Amy Tan is wonderful in creating worlds and introducing the people in them.  Before you know it you are completely involved in the lives of her characters, caring about what happens to them.  She has made me gasp and hold my breath many a time – what will happen next? They did WHAT??It’s a perfect book for the holidays.  Find a quiet nook and immerse yourself.

Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Now, don’t get me wrong.  I LOVE Pride and Prejudice. But for true romance, constancy and Jane Austen at her best in poking fun, read Persuasion. Two lovers separated by family and money meet again.  Do they come together? Well, it’s a romance, but it’s how they do it that counts.If Pride and Prejudice is a cocktail, then Persuasion is a satisfying glass of wine at the end of the day.

Recommended by Rachel

As Nature Made Him, by John Colapinto.  A great book, digging into a tragedy that became a case of abuse and misinformation in the medical world, used to justify decades of policy for surgical treatment in infants.  Heartbreaking and important.

Dress Codes, by Noelle Howey.  From the book:  “I was not going to be upset by this.  I had decided not to care about my father years ago. With that resolution firmly in mind, I immediately burst into tears.“So it’s not my fault? That he’s so…like the way he is. He doesn’t hate me?”  I sobbed.

Elegy for Iris, by John Bayley. This is a great love story by the husband of the author and philosopher Iris Murdoch. This book is the source for the excellent 2001 movie Iris, with Kate Winslet as the young Iris and Judi Dench as the older Iris with Alzheimer’s disease.

Firebird by Mercedes Lackey.  A retelling of a Russian fairy tale.  I’m a sucker for fairy tales, and this is one of the best around.  Lackey does a good job of avoiding some of the predictability of fairy tales while till retaining the traditional flavor of the story.  A beautiful book! Floating Dragon by Peter Straub.  A horror tale with two layers.  A chemical leak is causing both physical and mental dissolution to the citizens of the small town of Hampstead.  And a centuries’ old evil is riding the disaster to new power and a new battle against a small group trying to save themselves and their town.  Great!

The Girl Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler. A fascinating look at 1950 – 1986 and what the unavailability of birth control and abortion meant in the changing social structure of the United States after World War II.  Important information regarding the impact of sex education and adoption in our country’s history.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Martin Jester. A classic, one that can be read over and over.  Fantastic for all ages, a clever and exciting read!

So those are some of our recommendations. Comments? And let’s hear about your favorites.

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We are a general stock used bookstore located at 1510 King Street in historic Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. Our website is www.bookbank1.com
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