Diane Cook’s stories in her debut collection Man v. Nature are similar to Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic book series in that they depict an end of the world in which conflict is more survivor-centric than cataclysm-centric. Cook accomplishes this feat repeatedly throughout her stories, with multiple instances of apocalypse serving as mere backdrops while her characters continue their lives unabated by cordiality. While Kirkman’s tales ooze with gore, Cook’s exude wonderment and danger in dazzling prose.
Premiere in Man v. Nature is “Moving On,” the grim telling of a widow internment center that functions like an adult orphanage. The mood around the grounds is bleak enough that reality becomes overpowered and contorts to make room for places like this to exist as if they’ve been institutionalized. “Meteorologist Dave Santana” pits a woman against her own sexual desires as she tries everything to seduce her neighbor, a homely and less than upstanding weatherman. “The Mast Year” portrays a woman who is chosen by fate to share her good fortune with those in need, no matter the personal cost. She grapples with notions of sacrifice, unable to separate charity from obligation until she no longer recognizes her own life. Lastly, the titular “Man v. Nature” is the account of a man and his two friends who are stranded in a tiny lifeboat adrift on a vast lake. As exposure besets and their bodies atrophy, they reminisce and eventually curse one another for past transgressions until their misdirected anger threatens to become their undoing.
Man v. Nature’s stories are all so convincing in their heavy fictitiousness that the reader never questions the altered existences. Emotions are so poignant that doubt never surfaces; rather, fingers are crossed, eyes are squeezed shut and knees are taken in supplication to will the characters to safety. But in Cook’s worlds, safety may no longer exist, and instead readers are given deliciously unsettling new normalcies.
Debut author Rebecca Scherm has embedded her new psychological suspense thriller Unbecoming with the ambiguous moral cracks of a femme fatale-like character, complicated and difficult to package. Grace keeps her life simple for a reason. The part-time antiques restorer can't return to her Garland, Tennessee, home because too many people know her story. Or do they? There is an art heist gone wrong, but this story is also about the interior journey of a 23-year-old woman whose past and conscience shape her into what she needs to be.
Grace is no longer Grace. Now she's Julie from California, working in the gritty outskirts of Paris. At Zunuso et Filles, she fixes broken old things and is not above switching out gems given to her by an unscrupulous boss. Her only friend is Hanna, a 34-year-old Polish woman, who sits across from her. She, too, has escaped her past. It's been three years since Grace's hometown artist husband Riley and his friend (and Grace's one-time lover) Alls broke into and looted the historic Wynne House Estate at Grace's suggestion. Now both men have been released from prison. Julie can't help but look over her shoulder. Will they come looking for her? What about the missing Dutch painting?
Things are never as they seem and so it is with this story. Scherm, who grew up in the South, was inspired by the Hitchcock movies she watched in her youth. She decidedly mines her protagonist's psyche to see where it falls in a plot that unfolds steadily and mainly in flashback. Rather than focus exclusively on the suspense of the crime, Scherm chooses the continuum of Grace's choices. With plenty of lying and double-crossing and lively, detailed descriptions of objets d'art, readers will find an entertaining read in the distant shades of Gillian Flynn and Patricia Highsmith.
Mobile Library is David Whitehouse’s second novel and a beautifully written and deeply expressive work of fiction. Whitehouse has a way of using unique and well thought out metaphors that seem to catch you off guard with their exquisite accuracy.
The novel follows Bobby as he struggles through life as a socially awkward 12-year-old boy. His father doesn’t seem to care for him, his mother is out of the picture and his peers bully him. Sunny is not only the one person he can call a friend, but is also his bodyguard of sorts. It’s when Sunny moves away that Bobby becomes completely lost and disheartened until the day that he meets Rosa.
Rosa is a girl to whom Bobby feels almost instantly connected to, and when he meets her mother Val he realizes that families aren’t just people who share your blood. Val happens to get paid to clean a mobile library and this is where Bobby, Val and Rosa spend many hours each week learning about life through the books they read.
Bobby’s abuse and neglect, combined with the termination of mobile library services, creates a sense of foreboding in Val that leads her to take drastic measures. She can see no option for keeping the family together other than spiriting them away using the mobile library as their transportation. Though Val’s intentions were honorable, her methods were less than discreet. Will Val be able to keep her eclectic family together?
Pick up a copy of this title to see what happens to these well-developed characters engulfed in vivid imagery. Whitehouse is an award-winning author who created a profound and delightful read in Mobile Library.
Ellen Hawley introduces readers to Abigail in The Divorce Diet. She loves her baby Rosie, her husband Thad and food. She just doesn’t love the newly gained baby weight and is convinced that shedding those pounds will renew her husband’s attention. With the help of an imaginary guru, the author of a
diet lifestyle book, she is ready to achieve her weight-loss goal. But when Thad announces that he’s not sure about this marriage and fatherhood thing, her world crumbles. Even his reassurances that it’s not her, it’s him have little impact when she realizes it’s not her, it’s his new girlfriend.
Abigail moves back to her parents’ house, tries to find a job and raise a daughter all while coping with the notion of Thad’s girlfriend sleeping in her bed. Is it really possible to stick to a diet under such circumstances? As she comes to grips with her situation, she follows the advice of her guru to make an inventory of her skills. Abigail loves eating food, but she also loves preparing food which leads to a promising restaurant job. This is the first step in the reinvention of Abigail as she begins to shape her life into the one she really wanted all along.
Hawley has created a completely recognizable and relatable character in Abigail whose sense of humor sees her through trying times. Abigail shares humorous takes on her daily dietetic meals and exercise ideas which will keep readers laughing out loud throughout the book. Don’t be alarmed that the included recipes contain anything but the most comfortable of comfort foods, including chocolate cake and meatloaf with ham and cheese. This is a snarky take on marriage, motherhood and divorce, but at the same time is a discerning and considerate look at the life of a single mom struggling to do the best for herself and her daughter.
Emmy Rushford is a precocious and civic-minded 6th grader. When her class is assigned to do a community service project, Emmy thinks she has a great idea: Her group will collect food for a local less fortunate family. On the surface, this may sound like a good idea, but Emmy is not telling the whole story to her classmates or her family. In Peg Kehret’s book, Dangerous Deception, Emmy begins innocently enough but she is soon put in harm’s way.
Kehret makes Emmy a rather mature-for-her-years but believable character who wants to do good but naively believes she can handle some very adult issues. The family that Emmy is trying to help is in trouble. However, she cannot turn to her parents or teacher for help without exposing some lies she has told. Kehret sets up a dilemma for her heroine that may seem a bit beyond the abilities of most 6th graders, but she keeps Emmy from becoming a superhero. She is flawed but well-intentioned, and young readers may learn a lesson or two from some of Emmy’s poor decisions.
Unlike Gayle Forman’s previous two-book series (If I Stay/Where She Went and Just One Day/Just One Year,) I Was Here, is a standalone novel. Nevertheless, it feels very much like her previous novels. I Was Here is heartbreaking and beautifully written, with characters that are relatable. The novel begins after the funeral for Cody’s best friend Meg, who partway through her freshman year of college commits suicide. Cody and Meg had been almost inseparable since they became friends in kindergarten, and now Cody, left behind, must figure out how to deal with the loss of her best friend and her guilt at not being able to stop Meg before it was too late.
After graduating from high school, Cody and Meg began to drift apart as Meg left their small Northwestern town to attend college in Tacoma, Washington on a scholarship, and Cody stayed behind to go to community college. Cody felt like their friendship was changing, which only adds to her guilt when she receives Meg’s goodbye email. When Meg’s parents ask Cody to go to her dorm room and bring her things home, Cody sees it as a request she can’t deny. There Cody meets Meg’s former roommates and begins to discover more about her recent life which sets her on a journey to find out why Meg made the decision to end her life.
I Was Here is a heartbreaking story of young adults dealing with friendship, love, loss and guilt. Forman again deals with difficult issues like depression and suicide. Best for older readers, I Was Here is a strong follow-up to Forman’s other novels.
For eight seasons on Saturday Night Live, Phil Hartman’s comedic genius delighted audiences. Known as “The Glue” among his castmates, Hartman’s many impersonations and broad characters revitalized the show after one of its darkest periods. Beyond SNL, Hartman was a beloved voice on The Simpsons as well as the bombastic Bill McNeal on the critically lauded show NewsRadio. Poised to make a superstar breakout in several summer films of 1998, life was great for the comedian.
But in the early morning hours of May 28, 1998, police released the shocking news that Phil Hartman had been killed by his wife, Brynn, in their home while their children slept. For such a funny man to meet such a tragic end seemed unbelievable as fans, friends and costars tried to make sense of the loss to the comedy world at large. In You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, biographer Mike Thomas stresses that what a person thinks of when she or he thinks about Phil Hartman isn’t his death, but the life of a performer whose talent gave laughter to so many.
Chock-full of interviews with family and famous friends, the book delves into Hartman’s childhood — as one of eight children, he often had to “perform” to be noticed. It also highlights his early career as a successful graphic artist (he designed album covers for bands like Poco and America) to his breakthrough with The Groundlings. From helping Paul Reubens hone the character of Pee-Wee Herman to developing his own popular character Chick Hazard, Phil Hartman seemed an enigma: someone committed to performing without really wanting to stick to it for long. He was someone waiting for the next big thing, but only if the next big thing fit in with the lifestyle he wanted.
You Might Remember Me paints a picture of a man searching for an identity: one that he could never quite completely cover with wigs and prosthetic noses. It is a great read for fans of Hartman’s work and for those who enjoy biographies of complicated, delicate genius, both in the moment and ahead of its time.
An absorbing study of a timely subject, Right Color, Wrong Culture is an allegorical tale focusing on the challenges and rewards of cultivating a multiethnic organization. In his thoughtful, carefully composed new work, author Bryan Loritts analyzes the specific kind of leadership needed to make connections and build thriving multicultural organizations.
Loritts’ central theme explores the premise that in each ethnic group there exist three faces of cultural expression: C1s, those who assimilate entirely from one culture or ethnic group into another; C3s, who are culturally inflexible, resisting assimilation of any kind; and in the middle, C2s, who are culturally flexible and adaptable without losing their ethnic identity. Personifying these faces, Loritts cites Carlton Banks, Ice Cube and Denzel Washington, respectively.
Careful to note the ties between culture and ethnicity while recognizing that one is not de facto the other, Loritts proceeds to examine the specific leadership principles vital to the success of a multiethnic, culturally diverse organization. In the case presented, it is an ethnically and culturally homogenous church that the principal characters are striving to transition toward a multicultural identity. Nevertheless, Loritts’ lessons about balanced, intuitive leadership and the practical challenges present in such a transition are applicable to any organization.
One of the most compelling aspects of RCWC is the narrative format Loritts has shrewdly chosen to deliver his message. Though a work of nonfiction, RCWC reads more like a novella. His use of a cast of characters to explore the challenges and viewpoints surrounding the case presented is an effective vehicle for what could otherwise be a polarizing subject. Recommended for readers seeking to promote multiculturalism within their own organizations as well as those readers who are simply interested in engaging in a deeper understanding of multiculturalism overall.
One day during their senior year, Theodore Finch and Violet Markey find each other on the bell tower at their Indiana high school, each contemplating ending their lives. Violet saves Finch or Finch saves Violet (that part is unclear to both them and the reader), but what is important is that they both leave the bell tower alive and now their lives are inextricably linked. Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places tells the story of Finch and Violet’s lives after that fateful day.
Violet’s life has been forever changed since her sister died in a car accident that she survived. Since the accident, she hasn’t been herself — refusing to drive in cars, not writing, disengaging from her friends and ending up at the bell tower with Finch. Finch goes through periods of days or weeks when he shuts down and sleeps, but when he’s awake, life isn’t much better. He’s abused by his father who has left his family for a “better” one, and everyone at school thinks he’s a freak, so he spends his time thinking about death and ways he could commit suicide. But after the bell tower, Finch and Violet begin spending more time together — initially because they’re working on a school project together that has them wandering around Indiana, but eventually because they find they help each other grow.
All the Bright Places is “the story of a boy called Finch and a girl named Violet,” but it’s also a beautifully told story of grief, depression and finding yourself again. Niven has written a powerful, heartbreaking, romantic novel that is difficult to put down. All the Bright Places is set to become a film starring Elle Fanning.
Poet, playwright and novelist Greer Macallister inspires intrigue with The Magician’s Lie. While Macallister’s plays have been performed at the American University and she has been published in periodicals such as the North American Review, this is her debut novel.
The Amazing Arden is one of the few female magicians in the early 1900s, which is controversial enough without her being wanted in question for her husband’s murder. Virgil, a down on his luck police officer, stumbles upon Arden and, though he is able to restrain her, he is unsure of her. As the capture would substantially boost his status, Virgil is conflicted about how to proceed.
After bringing the magician to his office and restraining her with several pairs of handcuffs, he allows her to recount her story before deciding how to move forward. Arden’s story is so captivating that Virgil can’t help but be taken in by her resilience and attention to detail. It’s in the midst of the narrative when Virgil learns that Arden may just have something to offer Virgil that he can’t get elsewhere, leaving him with a tough decision to make.
Macallister is able to use Arden’s story to pull the reader into history and what life was like for a young woman with few options in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With Arden’s success she is able to challenge the traditional gender roles for woman of the time, transforming her character into an inspiration. If after reading this you are looking for another historical fiction novel with a strong female protagonist, look to Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar.