Leave it to Joyce Carol Oates to pull together several unusual elements, well-known historical figures, a dash of the paranormal and tremendous historical detail. In her new novel, The Accursed, we meet the Slade family, who seem to be suffering the effects of a terrible curse. The daughter Annabel falls under the spell of a smooth-talking Southern gentleman named Axson Mayte, who may be more than he appears to be. Annabel’s brother Josiah will go to great lengths to protect his sister from harm. Wilhelmina Burr, their cousin, is plagued by visions of serpents while away at school. While the Slade family suffers, Woodrow Wilson, the current president of Princeton University, struggles to keep his post from a keen usurper bent on knocking him from his pedestal. But there are other figures lurking around Princeton as well. Grover Cleveland, suffering terribly from the death of his child, sees visions of her in dark hallways. Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, is convinced that the shadowy figure he spies leaving in a carriage with a man is his wife. Murder and mysterious deaths are plaguing New Jersey. There is talk of the legend of the “Jersey Devil,” but most residents remain convinced it is only a story to frighten children. But as 1905 becomes 1906 and the strange events continue, more questions are raised as to the validity of the curse.
Joyce Carol Oates is a literary writer with a tremendous love for language, so The Accursed is not a quick read. The plot often meanders and you discover much about the characters living in the area. Many of the historical figures are not looked upon kindly and readers will see an unfavorable side to many of them. Oates creates a sinister atmospheric tone that runs through the novel, and her very detailed text offers footnotes as the narrator/historian weaves the tale. The use of diary entries and letters help to round out the novel and make it a very thoughtful read.
The veil has lifted on the young woman dubbed “Foxy Knoxy” by the media. In Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir, Amanda Knox recounts how her promising start as an American exchange student in Italy quickly spiraled into a nightmare and kept her abroad much longer than anticipated. Barely two months into her study abroad program in the city of Perugia, Knox found herself at the center of an international media frenzy when her roommate, British exchange student Meredith Kercher, was found murdered. Within days, she was ensnared in the Italian police and justice systems, having little understanding of the language, much less their laws and politics. She and two others were convicted of murder in 2009. Her conviction and that of her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, was overturned on appeal in 2011. The Italian courts are currently reviewing the case.
Knox is studying creative writing, and did pen the entire book. Although it can be burdened at times with staged-sounding conversations and details that fall into the “TMI” category, it is an honest reflection of a young woman who grew up very quickly during the four years she was imprisoned. Knox has recently given several high- profile interviews in conjunction with the release of this book, including with ABC’s Diane Sawyer. Other sources which provide insightful perspective about the case are Nina Burleigh’s The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox and John Follain’s A Death in Italy: The Definitive Account of the Amanda Knox Case, previously written about here. However, for anyone following the case, the perspective you don’t want to miss is from the person at the center of it all. Finally, Knox herself has her say.
How far would you go to get out of debt? Would you sell your car? Move out of your house? Take a minimum wage job scrubbing toilets in Alaska? Ken Ilgunas, author of Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom, was willing to do almost anything to free himself from the burden of his student loans. Living as frugally as possible, he worked as an Alaskan janitor, hitchhiked his way across the country, and lived in a van to pursue his dream of a debt-free life. With the ideals of Thoreau and the heart of Kerouac, Ilgunas’ journey from loan-ridden student to financially-independent ascetic is in turns humorous, touching, and inspiring.
Ilgunas started his college career similar to many millennials in the mid-2000s, largely oblivious to the quiet specter of loan debt that would slowly accrue over the course of his degree. Purposeless and skill-less, he graduated with a liberal arts degree, no job prospects, and a burning desire to pay off his debt as quickly as possible. But unlike other students who begin a traditional career, Ilgunas set out on a haphazard, occasionally reckless, and strangely successful quest to live as cheaply as possible while earning money in low-wage jobs in very odd circumstances. After working himself out of debt, Ilgunas vowed to remain debt-free forever while also trying to go to graduate school, a feat that seems impossible until he stumbles on the idea of eliminating housing expenses by living secretly out of his “creepy red van.”
Part social experiment, part return to the wild, part ultimate road trip, Walden on Wheels blends idealism and practicality into a remarkably effective solution to the increasingly pervasive problem of coping with a suffocating amount of debt. Millennials, parents of millennials, and those longing for financial freedom will rally around this account of a unique approach to a very common dilemma.
Famed collaborators David Almond and Dave McKean once again unite their respective authorial and illustrative talents to bring to life a haunting and subtle creation fable in Mouse Bird Snake Wolf. Harry, Sue and Little Ben live in a wonderful world, much like our own. It is filled with the most marvelous places and creations that the gods could imagine. There are forests, rivers and mountains, elephants and camels, and yet stranger creatures like the zowet and the brant. It is a safe world and a calm one and the gods who fashioned it are well pleased with everything in it. In fact, the gods are so pleased with their creations that they have stopped making anything else. Instead now they alternately nap, have tea and cake and admire all that they have made.
As a result, this is also a world of curious gaps; empty spaces and unfinished endings that interrupt the landscape. Such gaps are all too easily filled by the imagination of curious children. Little Ben is the first to imagine something out of the nothing when he brings into the world a strange new creature: the mouse. Sue and Harry swiftly follow, creating yet more peculiar creatures. Soon it seems that the children’s beautiful creations might rival the gods’...except some of them are also becoming a little, well, scary....
Gently, the story alternately examines both the children’s and the gods’ actions, hinting at the dangers of overconfident ambition and the foolishness of leaving work half-done. With undertones of myth and traditional just-so storytelling, Mouse Bird Snake Wolf will easily appeal to readers who enjoy children’s fables. The sublime illustrations offer a thoroughly modern visual foil for the storyline, thereby rendering this a likely choice for graphic novels enthusiasts as well.
Michaela MacColl’s Nobody’s Secret, based on Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I’m nobody! Who are you?” creates a fictional story as background for the poem. In doing so, MacColl tells an intriguing story that is part historical fiction, part mystery, and filled with allusions to Dickinson’s poetry.
In 1846 when Nobody’s Secret begins, Emily is laying in a field trying to get a bee to land on her nose when she is approached by a man she’s never seen. The two have a brief conversation discussing the best ways to get a bee to land on Emily’s nose, after which he departs. They never exchange names, only referring to themselves as Mr. and Miss Nobody. The two run into each other the next day, and Emily’s fascination with the enigmatic stranger grows. They discuss their families without revealing too many details. She even confesses her deepest secret—that she writes poetry. The real mystery begins when Mr. Nobody turns up dead in the Dickinson’s pond the following day, just two days after he and Emily first met. Having never exchanged names, Emily is determined to find out his identity so he can have a proper funeral. During her investigation, she realizes that his death was no accident, and then she sets out to find the killer.
MacColl’s fictionalized Emily Dickinson is a fascinating character, whose determination is admirable. Readers are quickly charmed by Mr. Nobody’s relationship with Emily, leaving them rooting for her to figure out who he was, and why he was murdered. Nobody’s Secret is a great pick for teens interested in historical fiction and mysteries, while those who enjoy poetry will enjoy the bits of Emily Dickinson’s poems interspersed throughout the novel.
The literary world has never lacked for crime-solving heroines who cleverly and genteelly solve all manner of conundrum. There is, however, a new breed of women in town and they are also cracking cases but in a decidedly angry, messy, and bloody way. Meet Vanessa Michael Munroe in The Doll by Taylor Stevens, and Frieda Klein in Tuesday’s Gone by Nicci French.
Raised in Africa by her American missionary parents, Munroe is tough. She likes to go on missions disguised as a man, has an amazing facility for languages, relishes physical combat, and harbors a rage which drives her to tackle the seamy international underworld of human trafficking. In The Doll, she is working for the independent security firm Capstone when she is abducted by minions of the creepy Doll Man. She must match wits with him in order to save herself and the next “doll.” Author Stevens was raised in the Children of God cult, infamous for its alleged sexual practices involving the children in the group’s care. This is her third book in the fast-paced Munroe series.
British psychotherapist Frieda Klein finds herself working with the police once again in Tuesday’s Gone. Called in to analyze both a bizarre crime scene and the nearly catatonic probable perpetrator of the murder, Klein believes the solution isn’t as easy and obvious as the chief of police would like it to be and is drawn into the investigation. French (actually a husband/wife writing duo) is skilled at creating complex psychological thrillers, and as Klein works to untangle the clues and prove one suspect innocent, she can’t shake the feeling that she is being watched and manipulated. Look for Klein to make repeat appearances in this days-of-the-week series which began with Blue Monday.
The Smart One by Jennifer Close deals with grown children moving home with their parents after college, an occurrence becoming more common lately. The Coffey family encounters this when all three of their grown children move back home. Close’s novel is sure to hit close to home for twenty-somethings and their parents.
Claire, the middle Coffey child, is happily living in New York City with her fiancé until their engagement falls apart. After racking up mounds of credit card debt, she is unable to afford her apartment anymore and begrudgingly moves back to Pennsylvania with her family. Once there, she takes a job with a temp agency while she reconnects with friends from high school. The oldest daughter, Martha’s anxieties get the better of her, pushing her to give up her dream of being a nurse just months into her first nursing job. Instead, she moves back home and takes a job at J. Crew folding sweaters, seeming content to give up her ambitions and live in her childhood bedroom for the rest of her life. Max, the youngest of the three siblings, is still in college and has a wonderful girlfriend. Everything seems to be going well in his life until one of life’s surprises brings him home too.
Meanwhile, Wheezy, the Coffey matriarch, tries to keep peace amongst the family while she secretly continues to plan Claire’s cancelled wedding. Her husband, Will, stays wrapped up in his job, doing his best to avoid the increasing familial mess. As the family learns to live with each other as adults, readers become engrossed in this quirky family’s many dramas. The Smart One is a great follow-up to Close’s 2011 novel, Girls in White Dresses, and is perfect for readers who enjoy family stories.
John Grisham’s fans were surprised and delighted by the recent announcement that Sycamore Row, his next novel for adults, will be a sequel to his debut novel A Time to Kill. When it was first published in 1989, A Time to Kill was not successful. The novel was re-released after The Firm and The Pelican Brief became bestsellers, and it became a bestseller in its own right. It has long been the favorite of many Grisham fans, and Grisham also admits that it’s his favorite of his novels. The book was later made into a movie starring Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sandra Bullock.
A Time to Kill is the story of a young lawyer named Jake Brigance who defends a man on trial for taking the law into his own hands and killing the men who raped his young daughter. As the trial progresses, the small town of Clanton, Mississippi, is torn apart by the conflict. In Sycamore Row, Jake Brigance will again fight for justice in Clanton, Mississippi. Last year, Grisham teased audiences in a Today interview with Matt Lauer when he said that he had never considered writing a sequel to one of his novels until recently. He said that over the years he had waited for the next great trial for Jake Brigance to tackle. Grisham said that he finally had the story in mind. Sycamore Row will be published in October.
Sheri Booker brings her unique story to readers in her new memoir Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home. Booker began working evenings at Albert P. Wylie Funeral Home on Gilmor Street in West Baltimore when she was 15. Over the nine years that she worked there, she saw families in the most difficult times of their lives as they mourned the loss of loved ones to old age, suicide, disease, and, all too often, street violence. Booker writes that she eventually had to let go of her own feelings to continue to work with their grief-stricken customers every day. In Nine Years Under, she brings their stories to life along with her own.
Readers see the behind-the-scenes world of the funeral home, shedding a new light on a business that is largely unknown to most of us. Although death and grief are constantly present, Booker also brings humor to her story. Some of the stories from her job are too bizarre for most of us to imagine—like the day that she hit a pole at a McDonald’s drive-through while she was transporting a body in the funeral home’s van. Booker’s dark sense of humor and distinctive voice make this memoir one that you won’t want miss.
Riding in a beat-up bus among bald hills and scrub on his way to Namibia, Paul Theroux wondered what was compelling him to take yet another arduous trip. At 72, here he was again: in a parched climate, traveling alone, crossing more borders. In his latest book, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, the prolific and highly regarded American writer of travel literature packs his bags for one final journey to Africa and up the little known western coast, where he seeks harmony not just with the continent he has come to love but also himself.
Theroux is no stranger to "the greenest continent." He spent his happiest years in Africa as a young Peace Corps worker almost 50 years ago and has returned several times, writing insightfully along the way. Suggesting this 2011 trip is his last, he dives into the gut of this complicated place. From the slum tourism of Cape Town to the Tsumkwe village crossroads of one of the world's oldest cultures, to being stranded in the Angolan bush, Theroux observes countries slowly sliding into one another. He transports readers smack into the middle of a vividly wrought landscape with his richly detailed, elegant prose, adding his characteristic wry, at times dark, commentary. He is at his best telling stories of the local people he meets while showing no patience for meddling foreigners, like the "trophy hunting for dummies" set or those simply "busybodying.''
With over 40 books behind him, including the classic The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, Theroux seems to be signaling that this is the end of the line. His aptly titled last chapter is in the form of a question, "What am I Doing Here?" Yes, the Africa he leaves has a plethora of problems, but for fans of this acclaimed literary nomad the answer is simple—bringing us his world.