In Second House from the Corner, Sadeqa Johnson introduces us to Felicia Lyons, a stay-at-home mom with three kids under 6 and a hard-working but somewhat imperious husband. While she loves her family, there are moments when the relentless drudgery of keeping house and dealing with screaming children are overwhelming, and Felicia wonders what life would be like without the responsibilities of kids and the demands on her time.
But be careful what you wish for! One night Felicia receives a phone call that turns her world upside down. The phone call is from Martin, the significantly older man who seduced her as a teenager and left her emotionally battered. When her husband learns of her illicit past, he is devastated and feels completely betrayed. Felicia is at sea, concerned for the future of her marriage and family, but also intrigued by Martin’s call and the reignited feelings she thought were doused so long ago. She returns to her childhood home in Philadelphia to face her past in an effort to secure her family’s future. But one bad decision leads to another, and everything she has worked so hard for is in peril.
Felicia is a strong, relatable woman with a compelling history. Part chick lit, part domestic drama, Johnson utilizes short chapters to quicken the pace of the narrative and keep the reader riveted. Felicia is not a perfect woman, which makes her all the more likeable in spite of her flaws and questionable choices. Johnson does not tiptoe around challenging topics giving a raw, realistic edge to Felicia’s life-changing journey.
Pax, a new book by award-winning author Sara Pennypacker, will linger with readers long after they finish the final page. The story is told alternately by a young orphaned fox named Pax, and Peter, the boy who saved him. Peter found Pax shortly after his own mother died, and his father grudgingly let him keep the fox “for now.”
“For now” turned into five years. Pax becomes Peter’s family since his father is usually gone and is emotionally distant even when he is home. Now war threatens their home, and Peter’s father announces he is leaving to join the fight. Peter must stay with his formidable grandfather, a man who doesn’t approve of tame foxes. Peter is forced to abandon the now-domesticated Pax who lives off kibble, in the wilderness. The moment the boy leaves his fox behind, he knows he has made a terrible mistake.
While stories about lost pets are familiar to us, this one is unique. The journey that Pax and Peter take in order to find each other tests both, and they meet new characters who change them and us forever. As they come to understand difficult truths about the world, so do readers.
Pennypacker doesn’t offer a specific setting, just a land being destroyed by war. The conflict, which is never really clearly explained to readers either, affects not only the people, but also the land and the creatures. The story isn’t a simple protest against war, but a plea for people to be honest about the real price of conflict.
Pennypacker’s writing is beautiful. With clarity and compassion one doesn’t often find in children’s books, she addresses complicated themes like loneliness, love and the cost of war.
The art for this book is created by Caldecott award-winning illustrator Jon Klassen and perfectly matches the story in its simple, poignant style.
Pax is great for readers who enjoyed Sheila Burnford’s classic The Incredible Journey. Fans of these great animal stories will also enjoy Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt.
Soloman and Jimmy are half-brothers and have been friends with Aleks since childhood. Having grown up imprisoned by a land made of asphalt and cement, the three men struggle and support one another in a vanguard against the inertia of suburban life. Each one is on a quest: Soloman seeks a purpose after his basketball career is destroyed by an injury, Jimmy tries to find someone to love and Aleks strives to give his family as much as he can. They are guided by music, “b-boy” (hip-hop) idols and graffiti. Here Come the Dogs is the first novel by Omar Musa, an award-winning Australian poet and rapper.
Musa has filled his book with mischievous wordsmithing, alternating between narrative poetry and lyrical prose. Heavily immersed in the Australian hip-hop scene, Musa references musicians on almost every page but readers do not need to be familiar with Australian rap to be moved by the passion with which Musa describes it. The stories within will appeal to anyone who enjoys dramatic fiction contextualized with larger themes, including fans of The Wire and Breaking Bad.
One focus in Musa's writing is the diverse makeup of Australian neighborhoods. He has written characters that are both within and outside of their society. Aleks, Jimmy and Soloman all have the ability to cross cultural borders, but each faces unique struggles that prevent them from ever feeling wholly integrated in their communities. While Australia's recipe for a melting pot varies from that of the U.S., the struggles of a post-colonial society are far from alien, and the undercurrent of race riots flowing throughout the novel is particularly significant here in the Baltimore area.
In T.R. Richmond’s latest novel What She Left, speculation runs rampant when reporter Alice Salmon’s body washes up on the riverbank by a London university. Murder, suicide or an accident? Any explanation seems plausible to the multitudes of computer-chair sleuths competing for attention over Facebook, newspaper forums and Twitter. Delving into every word written about Alice is Dr. Jeremy Cooke, an anthropology professor who is making it his business to write a book about her life and death.
Told through a series of letters, texts, emails and social media posts, Cooke’s obsession with his former student Alice is detailed in his letters to his longtime friend Larry. He puts together a single hypothesis: whereas in the past, a person left behind a birth certificate, a death certificate and perhaps a few photos and letters, at no other time in human history does a person leave such a substantial and overwhelming media footprint. In the deluge of information, he seeks to put together a full picture of her short life and, in doing so, solve her death.
But Cooke’s research leads to some resistance, both from Alice’s family and friends, and from an unnamed, dangerously aggressive source who wants no part of the story to be unearthed. As the mystery of Alice Salmon’s death unfolds, both in real life and on the Internet, many suspects emerge as culpable, even Alice herself.
Part fascinating social experiment into what makes our 21st century existence exciting and part mystery, this new novel will keep readers engaged until the very last letter. Those who enjoyed Donna Tartt’s debut The Secret History or, more recently, Black Chalk by Christopher Yates, will find this twisting narrative a great read.
A ramshackle building in the heart of London houses the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a division of the London police force established during World War II to solve crimes that could have a detrimental impact on public morale. Author Christopher Fowler proves there is no shortage of peculiar crimes in his latest mystery Bryant & May and the Burning Man.
It takes unusual detectives to delve into the minds of unique killers, and none are more unusual than this pair. Bryant is brilliant, unconventional and possesses a biting sense humor. May is erudite, refined and equally gifted. This pair has been together since the war, cultivating a reputation for unconventional means and defying police procedure. They are just as likely to consult a clairvoyant as a forensic pathologist.
In the wake of an insider-trading scandal, thousands of rioters have turned London’s financial district into a war zone. A vengeful pyromaniac decides to cleanse the world of greedy graspers who prey on the working stiffs. Under the cover of the chaos, he stalks the victims, using their personal habits to exact revenge. Bryant insists the murders are linked to the financial scandal, but he is unable to convince the brass, who are convinced that Bryant has finally gone ‘round the bend.
Fowler brilliantly intersperses the history of the city throughout his work, providing the background for Guy Fawkes Day while simultaneously heightening the tension. The humor is smart, incisive and wry. While this is the 12th Bryant & May entry, these books are not designed to be read in order. Each book is a standalone delight. The relationship between the two detectives is poignant without being maudlin. We are left hoping that someday, like Bryant and May, we will not go gently into that good night.
Simon Thorn is dreading the beginning of school. Each passing year, his enemies grow in number while his friends and fellow outcasts shrink from a few, to one, to finally zero. His loving uncle supports him as much as he can while he’s home, but outside of their little New York City apartment he feels alone and exposed.
You see, Simon, the titular character of Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den by Aimée Carter, can talk to animals, and they can talk to him. Birds, mostly, although he’s on good terms with many of the neighborhood rats, raccoons, squirrels and Felix, a mouse that lives in his bedroom. His habit of talking to nonhuman species has separated him from his peers until he has none left. On the first day back at school, attempting to face the new challenges awaiting him, he meets a strangely high number of new faces, starting with a gold eagle outside his window that insists catastrophe is around the corner, to a new classmate, Winter Rivera, who is more than she seems. Before Simon can even begin to deal with the difficulty of school itself and just being a kid under pressure, his mother suddenly returns, and secrets that have been kept from him his whole life start to unravel — a secret society of animal shapeshifters that have existed since the dawn of humanity, an academy of the animals hidden beneath the Central Park Zoo and the untold depths of his own family history and future.
Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den is a delight for animal and fantasy lovers alike, something for the young reader who can’t get enough of classic fantasy. Be sure to supplement your reading with research into the animal kingdoms and the multitudes of species explored in the book!
Memoirs are a popular form of bibliotherapy, not only for the authors who find therapy in sharing their thoughts and words, but also for the readers who are lucky enough to come across the right one at just the right time. This is the case for Reasons to Stay Alive, a kind of hybrid self-help/memoir by British novelist Matt Haig. Even if you’ve never experienced clinical depression, it’s certain that someone in your life is struggling with it right now.
Haig’s warm confessional tone and conversational prose makes this an easy book to pick up, despite its heavy subject matter. The author recalls a moment at age 24 when a thought led to a strange, tingling sensation in his head that was followed by an immediate, suffocating state of depression — anxiety and anguish so horrific that the only way he felt he could deal with it was to end his life. Haig lays out what it’s like to fight battle upon battle in your own mind, barely making it from one day to the next. He also shares the things that saved him, his own “reasons to stay alive,” which included his family and the dedicated girlfriend who eventually became his wife. Haig allows that while he has come a long way from this lowest point, he hasn’t completely gotten over depression, and never will. He shares his coping mechanisms, but is forthright in telling readers that depression is not the same for everyone, as minds are unique.
He informs readers that depression is one of the most deadly diseases on the planet, and that suicide accounts for over one in every hundred fatalities in the U.S. and the U.K. He speaks from personal experience when he says that, despite this statistic, “people still don’t think that depression really is that bad.” This accounts for various unhelpful directives he’s been given along the way, like “Chin up!” and “Mind over matter!”. These fall under a chapter entitled “Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations.”
Reasons to Stay Alive takes on its delicate subject matter with heart and humor, giving readers a sure-fire gambit for starting conversations about what it means to battle depression. Matt Haig’s honesty and candor are a welcome gift.
In The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin delivers dazzling characters based on the real women who ran New York’s high society in the 1950s and 1960s. Babe Paley, the wife of CBS President William S. Paley, is at the center of this glamorous group of elite women who include Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill Harriman and Marella Agnelli. Enter Truman Capote, a lover of lavish lifestyles and good gossip. As he becomes a fixture in their world, all of the women are captivated with his wit and he in turn gains unrestricted entry to this influential coterie.
On the surface, Capote seems an unlikely candidate to serve as these women’s confidante. But he is a kindred spirit who exudes trustworthiness, prompting these lonely and insecure women to break down emotional barriers. Strong bonds are formed between these ladies who lunch and the lively writer, none stronger than that between Truman and Babe, who trusts her "True Heart" enough to reveal shocking secrets. But when Capote’s literary success stalls, he is desperate to climb back to the top. This despair leads Capote to betray his beautiful swans by publishing an article which reveals their hidden secrets. This selfish act destroys friendships and the repercussions from this article reverberate for years.
Benjamin’s breezy narrative captures the tone of the time and the historical details add interest to the stories of this cast of distinctly drawn characters. The juicy scandals and extravagant lifestyles are balanced by the real struggles of these women and the constrictions upon them due to their position in society. While readers may envy (or despise) their over-the-top lifestyle, Benjamin adroitly demands sympathy for each of these compelling women whose appearance of perfection is a carefully drawn façade. Readers who enjoyed Rules of Civility or The Perfume Collector will relish the historical ambience created by Benjamin. For more on the real swans, check out Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan.
Imagine urban fantasy. Now, remove the skyscrapers and the taxicabs and the cell phones. Replace them with clapboard buildings, dirt tracks and 10-gallon hats. Add a generous pinch of scary stuff. You might come up with a terrible episode of Gunsmoke — or you might get some idea of Holly Messinger’s first novel The Curse of Jacob Tracy.
Jacob Tracy is a novel, but its chapters are grouped into sections that read like short stories that are knit together by an overall plot arc, much like the setup of a TV series. Trace, himself, is a fascinating individual and an extraordinarily engaging and original character. He is a former seminary student and former Confederate soldier. His best friend/traveling companion, Boz, is an illiterate former slave. Though an odder couple is hard to imagine, both have each other’s best interests at heart as they travel the American western frontier, working as trail guides for city folk who are trying new adventures on for size.
Why Trace and Boz refuse to settle down for long is teased out over the several episodes in this book (hint: Trace sees dead people), but their loyalty to each other is never in question…until Trace meets Miss Fairweather, a recluse, who tricks him into performing a “simple task” during the lull season in trail guiding in order to earn much-needed room and board money. Taking Boz with him, because you never leave a friend behind, Trace is forced to start facing the demons of his past when he crashes into the middle of a long-running battle between the forces of the sane and the forces of the mad. The question is: When his visions start to overwhelm him, and he begins to realize Miss Fairweather might have set him up, who can he trust?
Come for the ghosts and not-so-urban legends. Stay for the pragmatic, yin and yang, stronger-than-family friendship of Boz and Trace.
This is Messinger’s first novel, but fans of the Harry Dresden novels or fans of online zine Beneath Ceaseless Skies (wherein Messinger has published short stories) will certainly approve of this story.