Few collectives of the 20th century grabbed as much attention or gathered as much talent as the prolific Bloomsbury Group. Made up of luminaries of the art, literary and academic world, their indelible stamp on the thoughts and trends of the turn of the century still resonate with fans today. Much has been written and dissected of the Group’s offerings, particularly the writing of E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. While Virginia’s remarkable career and personal struggles may consume most of the spotlight, author Priya Parmar has delved into the mind of Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, in her novel Vanessa and Her Sister.
Told through a series of fictional diary entries, letters and telegrams, Vanessa attempts to carve out her painting career amidst the chaos of falling in love, having children, grieving and dealing with Virginia’s violent and troubling moods. Vanessa often feels on the outside of the literary world she is forced to inhabit. While her friends are off having love affairs and traveling the world at large, she wonders if she is meant to fall behind because of her family obligations. Her creative mind will not allow her to give up on her art. As it becomes clear that Virginia’s jealousy extends beyond Vanessa’s artistic talents and moves to her family life, she grapples with the knowledge of how devious and manipulative the very people she loves most can be.
Rich in characterization and detail, fans of the Bloomsbury Group and of novels like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours will find this sumptuous novel a treat for the brain.
Krassi Zourkova’s debut novel Wildalone will leave readers eagerly awaiting her next literary venture. A novel filled with Greek mythology, Bulgarian legends and romance, Wildalone is a stunning debut. Thea Slavin, a Bulgarian student, has just begun her freshman year at Princeton University. She immediately wows the Princeton community with her piano skills, giving a Chopin concert shortly after she arrives at school. As Thea is thrust into the spotlight, she must balance her musical ambitions with her school work, campus job, social life, mysterious family history and enigmatic love interest.
Before Thea begins her education at Princeton, she finds out that she had a much older sister, Elza, who attended Princeton years before and mysteriously died there. This doesn’t stop Thea from attending the illustrious school. Rather, she decides to investigate her sister’s death in between classes, concerts and dates. Meanwhile, she becomes enraptured with Rhys, an older, captivating man who reveals little about himself, keeping Thea in the dark throughout much of the book. Zourkova weaves in stories from Greek mythology and Bulgarian legends, and as the reader reaches the climax of the novel, the story ties in with the legends seamlessly.
Wildalone is a bewitching story that leaves readers enraptured with Thea, as well as the more minor characters. Fans of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy series will enjoy this new novel and debut author. Reader beware, Wildalone ends on a cliffhanger!
Jason Reynolds, author of 2014's When I Was the Greatest, returns with a new teen novel, The Boy in the Black Suit. Reynolds, a graduate of the University of Maryland at College Park, moved to Brooklyn after college, which is where both his novels are set. The Boy in the Black Suit follows Matthew Miller, a 17-year-old Brooklyn native whose mother dies shortly before the book begins.
Up until his mother’s death, Matt has lead a fairly happy life; despite some violence in his neighborhood, his family life has always been happy, until his mother’s death. As he grieves, Matt tries to deal with how differently his friends, classmates and teachers treat him. Meanwhile, his home life falls apart as his father turns to alcohol to numb the pain of losing his wife. However, when Mr. Ray, the owner of the local funeral home, offers Matt an after-school job, things begin to turn around. Matt can’t explain it, but he likes working at the funeral home — he can identify with the grief-stricken loved ones who stream in and out. That is until Lovey comes to the funeral home. Matt can’t understand her reaction to the loss of her grandmother, and he is fascinated by her. As the two spend more and more time together, Matt learns more about his grief and the grief of others.
The Boy in the Black Suit puts readers into the head of a teenager who is facing a truly difficult situation. Matt’s story is one that readers will find relatable, while secondary characters like Lovey and Mr. Ray are equally interesting and add another layer to the novel.
Puff the Magic Dragon conjures up a saccharine image, kind of like a winged Barney. A dragon named Melted Face with hide like Kevlar is more a feature of nightmares. Unfortunately for herpetologist CJ Cameron, Melted Face and his cronies have her in their sights in the rip-roaring action thriller The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly.
CJ is flying to China. The Chinese government is sparing no expense to bring her, along with influential politicians and reporters, to premiere their nation’s newest attraction: a phenomenal zoo designed to make the Disney’s amusement empire look rinky-dink. As they arrive at the park, located in a remote no-fly zone, CJ is stunned to see Greyhound bus-sized mythical creatures soaring through the sky. The official announcement? “Welcome to Great Dragon Zoo of China.”
Like a surreal Sea World, the visit starts with the equivalent of a dolphin show. A cute handler prompts dragons through tricks, explains they were were hatched from ancient eggs buried miles beneath the earth’s crust and ends by saddling up a sweet yellow dragon and flying into the clouds. CJ, however, sees both grim intelligence and simmering resentment in the lizards’ eyes, and this public relations visit quickly turns into a blood-soaked battle for survival as hordes of angry dragons turn their captors into prey. Furiously paced and laced with reptilian scientific factoids, The Great Zoo of China is an adrenaline-charged adventure of a tale.
Every DIYer out there has a story or two about a project that ended up going awry. Heather Mann compiles hysterical craft disasters in CraftFail: When Homemade Goes Horribly Wrong. Spanning the worlds of food, home décor, fashion and kids, Mann’s entertaining collection will amuse non-crafters and comfort those dedicated crafters who have all experienced hiccups despite the best laid plans.
Mann, creator of the popular blog CraftFail.com takes a look at what happens to those of us who aren’t Martha Stewart. The effort and good intentions are definitely there but, sadly, the end result doesn’t match. Photographs of craft failures, including new ones not seen on the blog, include glitter shoes that look like a puddle of sparkling slop and spaghetti-stuffed garlic bread which is anything but appetizing. These projects all sounded cool and seemed attainable, but the outcomes were decidedly dreadful.
Mann’s funny look at crafting gone wrong also serves as a celebration of the creative process. Failure is always a possibility, but that shouldn’t be a barrier to inspiration and imagination. The photographs and sharp writing all combine to create a humorous homage to the internal HGTV designer inside each of us who perseveres and keeps on crafting. This charming collection also highlights two important imperatives all crafters should adopt as a mantra when starting any project — follow directions and don’t substitute!
Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini take you on a journey as twisted and complex as the streets and alleys of San Francisco’s Chinatown in their latest work The Body Snatchers Affair. John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter, former Pinkerton detectives now operating an independent detective agency, have seemingly unrelated cases. John is searching the back alleys for illicit opium dens in the hope of finding a prominent attorney who has gone off the rails. Sabina is trying to retrieve a corpse snatched from the vault of a recently bereaved wealthy family and foil the blackmailers’ ghoulish scheme. Operating in Chinatown under the imminent threat of a tong war, John and Sabina must negotiate the corruption in both the police department and the city’s underworld. They are also negotiating their increasingly complicated relationship as Sabina is wooed by a prominent gold engineer and John deals with his jealousy. Lurking in the shadows is a crackbrain character claiming to be Sherlock Holmes.
Rich with the atmosphere of late 1890s San Francisco, the author’s passion for the city’s culture and history shines through every page. They are the only living married couple to be named Grand Masters by the Mystery Writers of America. Marcia Muller is considered to be the mother of the female hardboiled detective genre, introducing Sharon McCone in Edwin of the Iron Shoes in 1977. Bill Pronzini is known for his Nameless detective series set in San Francisco. The Body Snatchers Affair is the third entry in this series, but is an excellent read even without reading the previous titles. Fans of Shirley Tallman, Victoria Thompson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will enjoy the period, while fans of Agatha Christie will enjoy the plot twists and turns.
Amy McCulloch is an editorial director for a children’s publisher, so while this is her debut as a novelist, she is no stranger to the writing process. It’s clear from this novel that she carefully constructed a young adult series that weaves together mysticism, intrigue and suspense.
The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is the first in McCulloch’s The Knots Duology. This introductory novel is set in a fantasy world where a person’s oath is their soul and the consequences of going back on your word have a devastating effect. It’s the very foundation of the world’s structure and is infused in every decision each character makes.
Raim, the protagonist, is from a nomadic tribe of goat herders and has been raised as a warrior apprentice since he was 7. He was just a baby when he was given an oath that he wears as a knot around his wrist — a reminder of a promise he cannot remember. It’s this oath, made long before his memories start, which holds a mystery that could unravel his well-planned future or be the answer that saves a kingdom.
This historical fantasy is a fast-paced whirlwind of a ride that will leave you eager for more. Its sequel The Shadow’s Curse, though already published in Canada and the UK, does not yet have a publication date for the US. After The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, you won’t be able to wait for its release.
M. O. Walsh’s heartbreaking novel My Sunshine Away follows a man looking back at tragic events that formed him into the adult he became. It was 1989 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a teenage girl is raped in a middle class neighborhood, throwing suspicion on several of the people that live there. One of the suspects is a teenage boy who has become obsessed with the victim, and his obsession leads him on a quest to discover the truth, even when the victim herself just wants to leave the past behind her. While he ruminates over the event that will ultimately change him, life continues to move forward, throwing more tragedy and grief his way. He must find a way to come to terms with where he has been in order to become who he is meant to be.
My Sunshine Away is beautifully written but is not an easy read. It deals with the darker corners of the human heart, and the sense of loss and longing is palpable. M. O. Walsh is a gifted writer, and, even if you don’t genuinely like the narrator at times, the reader will be captured by his story and his need to press forward. The author uses events in American history to further capture the sense of place and time, and his descriptions of Baton Rouge bring the city to life. Ultimately, it is a coming-of-age tale, told from the male perspective. The author does an amazing job getting inside the narrators head, slowly revealing things needed to be said. Truly a discussable novel, My Sunshine Away would be a perfect fit for book groups. After this, you may want to try The Little Friend by Donna Tartt or Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.
According to Chinese astrology, time passes in a 12-year cycle with each year associated with an animal. On February 19, it will be time to welcome in the Year of the Sheep (or Goat). Those born in the year of the sheep are believed to be cooperative, kind-hearted and creative. These aspects can be seen in the main character, Sydney, in The Year of the Sheep: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac by Oliver Chin.
The sheep family welcomes a new year and a new baby, Sydney, into their herd. The shepherd’s daughter, Zhi, and Sydney become great friends, and Zhi teaches Sydney how the people and the sheep take care of each other. Most of the sheep would stay together when going out to pasture, as there is safety in numbers. However, Sydney wants to explore and has a tendency to stray off the beaten path. Luckily, Zhi and her dog Dao come to her rescue as her curiosity results in Sydney getting stuck in a tree and later falling down a chimney. When a storm comes, it causes the land to become a mess. The pasture withers and the river no longer flows with water. Can Sydney discover what has caused this devastation and rally the animals of the zodiac to help Zhi bring the water back to the riverbed?
With themes that include cooperation, friendship, creativity and even a dose of engineering, this delightful picture book is an excellent choice to share with young children. The soft watercolor illustrations by Alina Chau are a perfect fit for the story. My favorite picture is towards the end of the story where the tiger is taking a “well-deserved rest” and is counting sheep with numbers written on their wool in Chinese.
Age and ability share a unique relation in fiction. Sometimes authors choose to write prodigious characters who display impressive physical prowess and struggle with complicated emotions earlier in life. In his debut novel If I Fall, If I Die, author Michael Christie pits 11-year-old protagonist Will against the sprawled, dilapidated Canadian port town of Thunder Bay.
Will’s childhood has been squandered within the confines of his home, due to his mother’s plethora of phobias. A former artist, Will’s mother is so afraid of what exists beyond her front door that she cloisters herself and her son within their dwelling. Will stews in his room painting abstract art while nursing a burgeoning curiosity of the Outside, about which everything he knows is cobbled from brief interactions with delivery men on the porch. One such meeting with a boy named Marcus opens Will’s eyes to the omnipotent wonders of the woods beyond his yard, and leaves him yearning for adventure into town. Exceptionally wily thanks to his mother’s unique homeschooling methods, Will finds every opportunity to venture further into the world with his only friend Jonah, resorting to his recently acquired and rapidly evolving sense of perspective as a heading.
Readers will delight in Christie’s frequent and masterful use of similes throughout If I Fall, If I Die as they color Will’s Wizard of Oz-esque quest for humanity. A debut that reads as beautifully as it echoes, If I Fall, If I Die is for readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories or tales of adventure. Readers who enjoyed Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian will see shades of Junior in Will, and will definitely like his story too.