For Standish Treadwell, being one of the few remaining imperfect people in a society mandating perfection is beyond stressful. Survival means staying under the radar and following all of the Motherland’s rules—which is difficult when you can’t read. Echoes of Nazi Germany clash with the Space Race of the 1960’s in Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner.
Part dystopian fiction and part science fiction, the action takes place in an unnamed society. Standish is nearly fifteen, and he is getting tired of the violence that surrounds him every day. People keep disappearing, including his own parents, and no one will talk about it. The enemy, known only as the Greenflies, has pressured the President to send men from the Motherland to the moon as a show of superiority to the rest of the world. Anyone not necessary to achieve this goal is expendable. When his best and only friend goes missing, Standish decides it is time to stop hiding and plans to find him. He knows where he has to look—beyond the wall that towers over the last remaining houses in the city. As he makes his plan, he discovers a truth that could lead to freedom from the oppression. Can one person’s small rebellion be the spark that ignites a revolution?
The action in Maggot Moon plays out in extremely short chapters. These are snapshots of Standish’s thoughts, full of the muddled spellings that mirror his dyslexic brain. Author Gardner is dyslexic and is a strong advocate for educational assistance for children with dyslexia. Slightly disturbing pencil sketches on the page edges tell a simpler version of the same story as the text, and they beg to be flipped like an early moving picture book. While the extreme bravery from this 15-year-old boy veers slightly near the edge of believability, Standish is a likeable and honorable character who you want to root for.
Across the border it is a different world. Cruelty is not harnessed. A man’s limit is not tested. The line between life and death is not drawn in black and white. For medical student Isaac Muthethe, the brutality of apartheid is never so evident as when he escapes from its grasp in Eleanor Morse’s observant and beautifully crafted new novel, White Dog Fell from the Sky.
Forced to leave his family, Isaac is smuggled into Botswana after witnessing the brutal murder of a friend in South Africa. His only chance of survival was to flee the secret police. In the Naledi shantytown where he finds himself, Isaac encounters a mysterious white dog. The dog’s refusal to abandon him comes to symbolize hope amidst grief and suffering. While walking house to house in search of a job Isaac meets Alice Mendelssohn. The well-educated American woman, whose husband works for the government, does not care that Isaac is black and she is white. Isaac becomes her gardener. As their lives entangle, each travels a path toward their own heartbreak. For Alice, it is her crumbling marriage and regret at not fulfilling her own dreams. For Isaac, it is the knowledge that with each step he is shedding his old life and the family he left behind. When Isaac meets and briefly stays with an old classmate who works for a violent anti-apartheid group, it is an association that will nearly destroy him and changes the lives of Alice and Isaac forever.
Morse, who lived in Botswana for several years in the 1970s, juxtaposes the political and racial turmoil of the period with an African landscape that is as alluring as it is austere. Teeming with evocative observations about the country’s conservation practices, people and culture, Morse's multi-themed narrative leaves readers to ponder the price of betrayal and the capacity for friendship. Readers of Abraham Verghese, Edwidge Danticat, and Khaled Hosseini may find much to like here.
British writer Jojo Moyes’s latest novel, Me Before You, is a beautifully crafted story about a 26 year-old woman who leads a monotonous life in a small town in England. After losing the job she’s had for six years, Louisa Clark, better known as Lou, begins the difficult task of looking for employment. Not knowing what she wants to do with the rest of her life and frustrated with her job prospects, Lou eventually applies for a position as a caregiver. Despite her lack of experience, she is offered the job because of her upbeat and quirky personality.
Enter Will Traynor, a former high-powered executive, who became a quadriplegic following a severe accident. Will has been forced to give up his adventurous lifestyle, and to rely completely on others, which has sent him into a deep depression. His mother hires Lou in hopes that she can make him reverse the decision that his life is no longer worth living. Their relationship begins shakily; however, as they grow to know each other better, Lou finds ways to reach out to Will and to help him find some things to enjoy in his world as it is. Meanwhile, Will teaches Lou to live her life more fully, and to try new things.
Moyes draws readers in with the novel’s sense of intimacy, as most of the book is told from Lou’s unique perspective as Will’s caregiver. However, scenes with the extended cast of characters, Lou’s family for example, offer levity. Me Before You raises many philosophical issues, while also being a funny, heartbreaking, and unconventional love story.
Grab your afghan, a cup of tea, and A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy for a delightfully cozy transport to the west coast of the Emerald Isle. Binchy, the grand storyteller of Éire, returns with another fabulous cast of characters. Hailing from far and wide, their paths cross at the Stone House, a hotel in a remote town on the coast of Ireland. Chicky Starr was raised in Stoneybridge, but left for America to follow the man of her dreams. Her family was disappointed and predicted disaster, so even though the romance quickly fizzled, Chicky pretended the two had married and were living the good life. When her niece wants to visit New York, Chicky has to think fast and sadly tells her family that her “husband” was killed in an accident and she is returning to her home town. Chicky decides to take a decaying cliffside mansion, Stone House, and turn it into a holiday hotel offering weekly vacations. Although the residents think she’s crazy, she finds help for this project in her childhood friend’s troubled son, Rigger and her niece Orla. Their hard work pays off as the building is returned its former grandeur and the first week’s guests arrive, including an aging American movie star, a psychic librarian, and a Swedish accountant who yearns to be a musician.
Chicky, her staff, and all of the guests are dealing with varying degrees of disappointment, doubt, and unhappiness. After a week of bracing sea walks and newfound relationships however, nearly all have found peace and rejuvenation. In her final novel, the beloved Binchy again provides a beautiful tale of rediscovery, friendship, and love peppered with characters from past novels in a sparkling setting.
Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-nominated film Lincoln has created renewed interest in our 16th President, and author Daniel Stashower’s The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln before the Civil War brings to light a little-known episode from Lincoln’s life. In 1861, President-elect Lincoln made the 13-day journey from Illinois to his inauguration in Washington, D.C., by train, stopping to make appearances along the way. The nation was on the brink of civil war, and emotions ran high. Lincoln, a symbol for the Union, was an obvious target. Famed detective Allan Pinkerton was asked to help ensure Lincoln’s safety on the journey. A credible plot to assassinate Lincoln, led by an outspoken Italian barber in Baltimore named Cypriano Ferrandini, came to light. They planned to kill Lincoln when his train made its stop at the Calvert Street Station. As the train drew closer to Baltimore, Pinkerton and several of his agents raced to save Lincoln, and the assassination conspiracy, which is now known as The Baltimore Plot, was foiled.
Stashower, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland, skillfully weaves elements of true crime and history together in a story that author Harlan Coben calls “history that reads like a race-against-the-clock thriller.” The political turmoil of that time is palpable, and Stashower makes historical figures come alive in this character-driven story. Readers who enjoy narrative nonfiction like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America or Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President will want to read The Hour of Peril.
There are few things more pleasing to a librarian - or to a parent - than spotting a kid giggling over a book. Imagine how satisfying it would be to see a kid laughing and engrossed in a nonfiction book about the Revolutionary War. No exaggeration: children have walked into walls while reading Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales, a series of historical graphic novels.
Nathan Hale (1755-1776) was this country's first spy, traveling behind enemy lines to find information about British troop strength prior to the invasion of Manhattan. He was not a very good spy, and so One Dead Spy: The Life, Times, and Last Words of Nathan Hale, America’s Most Famous Spy begins as he is about to be hanged. Like Scheherazade, he manages to delay his appointment with the noose by telling the story of the war to his executioners, a goofy hangman and a supercilious British officer.
Nathan Hale (1976- ) is best known as the acclaimed illustrator of the graphic novels Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack. Here he takes writing credit as well. His art is lively and meticulous, rigorously researched and clearly drawn. Sieges, daring raids, and night crossings may seem like perfect material for the graphic novel treatment, but Hale manages to make even panels describing troop movements exciting. One Dead Spy is the first book in the series, and Big Bad Ironclad!: A Civil War Steamship Showdown, chronicling history of the Monitor and Merrimac, is also available. Look for two new Hazardous Tales to be published this summer.
For most people, identity is tied closely to place, often a birthplace or childhood home. How much does where we come from affect who we are? Ruta Sepetys asks this question in her newest novel Out of the Easy, introducing us to that dichotomy of charming beauty and sinister vulgarity that is 1950’s New Orleans.
Harkening to another famous literary Jo, namely Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March, Josie Moraine is an intelligent young woman trapped by time and place. The daughter of a prostitute, she is smart enough to get herself away from her neglectful and often abusive mother. Josie lives and works in a bookstore, saving money in the hopes of attending college far away from New Orleans. Self-sufficient since the age of seven, Josie creates a family out of necessity, including the Madam who becomes a surrogate mother (albeit a harsh and criminal one) and the bookseller and his son. But when her mother’s bad judgment pulls Josie back in to the criminal underbelly of the city, will she be able to rise above it yet again for a chance at her dreams?
Sepetys is no stranger to difficult subjects, and Out of the Easy explores the mature themes of violence, prostitution, and crime. As in her first novel for teens, Between Shades of Gray, the sense of place is paramount to the story. Indeed, many characters are named for places (Cincinnati, Charlotte, Forrest) and the city of New Orleans is a character in itself. This expertly-drawn portrait of a girl struggling to rise above her circumstances is highly recommended for mature teen and adult readers alike.
Two new collections of thrilling and even horrific tales are waiting to send shivers down the spine. Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa is a twisted series of interlocking short stories which tighten as you delve deeper into its pages. A beauty sorting dirty lab coats, a curator of a torture museum whose collection consists solely of used items, a reporter covering a dolphin-themed resort--the unlikely connections between these and other seemingly isolated characters are dexterously exposed in escalating tension.
Each desperate life has an unrelenting passion, from the man skilled in the art of designing specialty bags who receives an unusual request from a lounge singer, to the woman patiently waiting for a pair of perfect strawberry cupcakes in an unattended bakery. Although each tale is an enthralling standalone, it also subtly reveals the indirect truths of its companion stories. Throughout the book, aggrieved lives gradually become both the architect and the victim of emotions like jealousy, grief, and infatuation. Eerie scenes such as a garden of carrots shaped like hands, a street covered with ripe tomatoes, and an abandoned post office filled with kiwis create a world that is both familiar and foreign at the same time. Stephen Snyder’s exquisite new translation of Ogawa’s 1998 Japanese work, Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai, is fragile yet cuts like a knife.
Another mesmerizing collection comes from British novelist Sarah Hall with The Beautiful Indifference: Stories, which explores the grace and the agony of the modern woman. In “Butcher’s Perfume”, a young English girl befriends the schoolyard bully, Mary Slessors, and becomes enthralled with her mysterious family of horse trainers. In the “Agency”, a woman is referred by an acquaintance to an unusual business that provides a tempting yet undefinable service. These stories are engrossing and sensual, investigating the rich complexities of the female psyche in a way that only Hall can.
In the novel The Child’s Child, Ruth Rendell (writing as Barbara Vine) creates a novel within a novel that looks at two very different issues. In the present day we meet Andrew and Grace Easton, brother and sister, who are sharing a London home they call Dinmont house. Grace is working on her doctoral thesis, writing about the plight of single mothers throughout history. She has recently acquired the manuscript of a lost novel written in 1951, The Child’s Child, chronicling the story of a brother and sister in the 1920’s. In this manuscript, John is a closeted homosexual hiding an illegal relationship with a man and living in constant fear of the law. His sister Maud is fifteen and finds herself with child, only to be cast out of her home when the truth is revealed. These details coincide with many in Grace’s own life. Her brother Andrew is also homosexual and has found love with a rather handsome young man. When one of Andrew’s friends is murdered outside a London nightclub, his boyfriend begins to fall apart. What follows is an event that will change Grace’s life forever.
Most of The Child’s Child consists of this novel within a novel and really encapsulates life in the 1920’s for two types of minorities. A three-time Edgar Award winner, Barbara Vine is known for psychological thrillers, and her latest falls into this category. It is not an easy read, as John and Maud had a difficult life and the novel highlights some of the difficulties that people in their situations may have faced. The addition of Grace and Andrew in the present day adds a nice comparison, and there are some thrilling moments housed within their story as well. Barbara Vine continues to create memorable characters in this readable and suspenseful story.
Her husband left her for a newer model and now he’s lost his job, which means no more child support. This leaves Molly Hagan up a financial creek and emotionally still at sea in Vanity Fare: a Novel of Lattes, Literature and Love, a debut from Megan Caldwell, a regular blogger for the popular romance site Heroes and Heartbreakers. When an old friend offers her a freelance project writing marketing materials for a new bakery headed up by British celeb pastry chef Simon, Molly jumps at the chance. Thus begins the familiar balancing act between work, her son, Aidan – a six year old still dealing with the fallout from his parents’ split, and her financially strapped mother who has moved in with her.
Out of the workforce since Aidan was born, her lack of experience increases her self-doubt as she tackles this creative assignment. But her fears are assuaged as she comes up with a unique idea playing on the proximity of the main branch of the New York Public Library to the new storefront. She creates stories tying each scintillating treat to a great work of literature and even comes up with the bakery’s name – Vanity Fare. Her self-confidence is further boosted when the sexy Simon shines his romantic spotlight on her. Unfortunately, she must deal with his business partner, Nick, who is suspicious of Molly’s abilities, but does show a softer side when Aidan is around.
The clever marketing copy opens each chapter and readers will find themselves longing for "A Room of One’s Scone" or a "Tart of Darkness". For the more adventurous, the epilogue includes select recipes to bake at home. While the mouth-watering descriptions create a framework for this story, it is ultimately the realistic, yet still humorous, story of one young mother trying to start over again professionally and find lasting love.