What happens when author and former Washington Post Best Science Fiction & Fantasy winner Victor LaValle writes a story that combines horror, science fiction and mystery? The result is his latest novella The Ballad of Black Tom.
The Ballad of Black Tom takes place in 1920s New York. Readers quickly enter the world of Charles Thomas Tester, a 20-year-old African American hustler from Harlem. On the streets of New York, Charles goes by the name of Tommy, and Tommy likes to put on a show. He portrays himself as the “dazzling, down-and-out musician” by wearing a gray flannel suit, an aging seal-brown trooper hat and brown leather brogues with nicked toes and completes the look by toting around a guitar case (once in a while there's an actual guitar inside). Although Tommy has no musical talent, it doesn’t stop his hustle. Yes, he'll play the role of a musician, hum a few sour notes and scam people all for the sake of supporting himself and his ailing father. Things take a turn for the worst when Tommy attracts the attention of a wealthy white man named Robert Suydam. A cop and private detective, who are watching Suydam, now have their eyes on Tommy, after witnessing their first encounter. Suydam offers Tommy a couple hundred bucks to play a few tunes at his upcoming party. Astonish that someone actually likes his non-vocal abilities, but not one to turn down money, Tommy accepts. Suydam introduces him to a realm of crime and magic that sets off a chain of dark events that will forever change Tommy's life. Suydam tells Tommy about awakening a Sleeping King that sleeps at the bottom of an ocean. Once this Sleeping King awakes, he’ll create a new world where a select few will be rewarded. Tommy is intrigued. When he immerses himself into this magical world, he becomes a different person, a monster, who no longer goes by the name of Tommy, but "Black Tom."
If you're looking for a quick entertaining read, I recommend The Ballad of Black Tom. This book is a page-turner and would make for a great film. If you’re interested in more books by Victor LaValle, check out Big Machine and The Devil in Silver.
Stephanie Danler’s impressive debut Sweetbitter is that rare literary novel that’s a perfect poolside read. It’s the sticky summer of 2006, and 22-year-old Tess has $166 to her name and the promise of a room to rent in pre-gentrification Brooklyn. Naïve ambition and a need to pay the bills lead her to apply for a job at what her roommate tells her is the best restaurant in New York. Despite her lack of fine dining experience (she has a stint as a barista under her belt) and her utter ignorance when it comes to wine, the restaurant manager sees something in this bright young English major. As a back-waiter, she’ll ferry bottles from the wine cellar, deliver plates to the tables, prepare coffee drinks and support the servers.
Danler immerses Tess (and the reader) in the culture of fine dining, a world in which her coworkers are emotionally and intellectually invested. Everyone has a story, and most never expected they’d stay in the job as long as they have. She’s tutored by career server Simone, smart and driven with a personal life rife with secrets. Tess is immediately drawn to Jake, the enigmatic bartender with impossibly pale blue eyes and bad-boy charisma. But just what is Simone’s connection to Jake? The interpersonal politics at the restaurant are far more complicated than Tess realizes. Long hours at the restaurant are fueled by a passion for excellence, sexual tension and drugs, which stave off exhaustion. The staff works hard, and parties harder. As the story progresses, Tess gains confidence as an integral part of the restaurant team, even as she makes questionable relationship choices.
Readers will revel in the culinary details, from the hearty fare served at preservice family meal to the plates inspired by the seasonal ingredients collected at the Union Square Farmers Market. Tess expands her palate with the delight of a child and the seriousness of a scholar, savoring creamy, briny raw oysters even as she learns to identify myriad varieties by sight. She finds a personal preference for a rare, authentic dry sherry.
Sweetbitter is smart, compelling and compulsively readable. Danler’s characters are memorable and her writing cinematic, with the restaurant, food, wine and New York City itself in supporting roles. Danler’s debut is a succulent coming-of-age novel rich with descriptive prose and plot. Expect to be consumed by Sweetbitter from its opening pages.
Speculating about the possibilities and ethics of new technologies has long been the domain of science fiction. As we stand on the cusp of virtual realities and cloud computing, two new books revisit these contemplations with fresh voices and compelling tales.
Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal is Katya Gould’s vernacular recounting of a mysterious abduction that left her cut off from other people and, more direly, from Internet access for one week. An antiques dealer with a recently acquired typewriter, she was on her way to a client meeting when a chance encounter in a forest disrupts her plans, and the plans of her mysterious abductor. Through Katya’s recounting, Kowal contemplates the pros and cons that come with our gradual externalization of memory through technology. Her future society envisions a culture that values wabi-sabi (a Japanese aesthetic that values the imperfections that come with objects being handmade and well-used) above all else and prizes the authenticity of experiences when its members are unwilling (or unable) to seek them out for themselves. With the thrilling elements of Gillian Flynn and an engaging tone reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, this novella doesn’t lack in substance despite being a mere 85 pages long.
Sometime in the early 21st century, “the Cloud” burst and everyone’s online secrets rained down upon them, ruining relationships and destroying lives. So the Internet was abolished. The police force merged with the press corps, new inventions like dreamcoats and flatex were created so that anyone can look like anything (for the right price) and people’s identities are carefully guarded secrets. It is in this version of the year 2075 that Brian K. Vaughan (of Saga fame) and Marcos Martin stage The Private Eye, a classic noir mystery told first as a webcomic and now in print. A vigilante PI begins a double-blind background check when his client is killed and he is framed as the prime suspect. To prove his innocence, he begins to dig deeper with the assistance of his sassy sidekicks and uncovers a megalomaniac’s sinister plans. Reminiscent of Blade Runner, this graphic novel doesn’t just pose the obvious questions about identity but also critiques how much the Internet has actually helped the modern age.
Logic. Problem-solving. Engineering. Physics. Architects have used these skills to create safe and accessible buildings for centuries. At the same time, burglars have been using these skills to figure out how to break into houses and buildings for an equally long time. A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh is written through the eyes and perspective of history’s most successful burglars. Manaugh writes, teaches and lectures on architecture, but he captures the thoughts, motives and passion of burglars with engaging, narrative prose in his book.
He begins with the story of notorious architect-turned-burglar George Leonidas Leslie, who used his architectural skills to perform hundreds of robberies in New York City in the late 1800s. The city was just beginning its development as a metropolis of wealth and affluence during the Industrial Revolution, and Leslie used this economic development to his advantage as he asked fellow architects about the structure of new buildings in the city. By gaining deeper architectural insight on the buildings he wanted to rob, he could create models and rehearse with his team, what Manaugh calls “the art of burglary.” A good burglar and a good architect both need impeccable attention to detail, and Manaugh writes of Leslie’s fervent planning and scheming with similar perspicacity.
Manaugh moves forward in history with other examples of burglaries to show that while buildings and security systems may change over time, it only inspires deeper and more complex problem-solving from burglars, reaping a bigger thrill and adrenaline rush as the stakes get higher. In addition, he writes of how architects have begun to anticipate crime in their building designs. Casinos are being designed specifically so that security cameras can be installed in ways that maximize their visual field while minimizing their noticeability. In the vast span of burglar history, Manaugh takes the reader deep into both the criminals and setting, showing how they work for and against each other in this entertaining nonfiction read.
Chris Guillebeau makes a living traveling (he visited every country in the world before his 35th birthday), writing (his blog and several New York Times bestselling books) and only pursuing work that is personally meaningful to him. He has definitely hit the career lottery, and in his new book Born for This: How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do, he explains how you can also find the work you were born to do.
Hitting the career lottery is not a far-fetched dream like matching all six Powerball numbers. It’s not a matter of luck but a matter of knowing yourself and engineering the right set of circumstances. Guillebeau points out that this is not a book designed to tell you how to quit your job and become your own boss (he already wrote that book — The $100 Startup). Whether you want to become an entrepreneur or find meaningful work within an established company, Guillebeau will help you identify your own personal intersection of joy, money and flow. Joy is what you love to do, money supports you and flow is the Zen-like state you experience when working on something you are exceptionally good at. The work you were born to do will hit all three targets.
There will be no precise syllabus to follow because the work that you were born to do is a path that only you can chart. However, the book contains exercises to help you identify what you’re best at and what makes you happy, checklists and stories of real people who have found unconventional routes to their dream jobs.
Guillebeau is also the author of The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life and The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want and Change the World.
Wink Poppy Midnight is original and utterly enchanting. April Genevieve Tucholke casts a spell over readers that will hold them in thrall until the last page.
The author reminds the readers that, like soups, all stories start with the same key ingredients. Every cohesive story has a hero, a villain and a secret. In this dark mystery, readers are never really sure who is who. Each chapter is alternately narrated by the three title characters and, as the story progresses, readers are less sure of who to trust.
For far too long, Midnight has been in love with Poppy, the gorgeous girl next door. Though he knows all too well that she is as cruel as she is beautiful, he has never been able to shake her control over him. Now that he and his father have moved to an old house outside of town, perhaps he will truly be able to get over Poppy. Midnight now finds himself living next to the eccentric Bell family. Everyone in town whispers that their mother is a witch because she tells fortunes from tea leaves and reads tarot cards. The kids run wild, and Midnight is drawn to their stories and games. Wink Bell, with her crazy red hair, freckles and overalls is the exact opposite of Poppy, and perhaps that is exactly what Midnight wants after all.
Don’t be tempted to label Wink Poppy Midnight a teen book with a mandatory love triangle. The characters feel variations of love, but it is more of a dark, mysterious fairy tale than a romance. The characters are complex and quirky. The writing is beautiful and smart. Tucholke seems to be spinning us a yarn with a sly smile on her face, trusting that her readers will get it and be delighted in the strangeness of it. Needless to say, I was.
If you were like me as a kid and read a lot of fantasy, you probably had no trouble believing that magic mirrors, wardrobes and tollbooths were everyday objects. That Narnia or Wonderland were one right-wrong turn away at any given moment. But the part of those stories I could never understand was the part where the kids go home at the end. If you really found a door to a world where magic was real why would you ever leave? Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway asks a darker question: What would you do to get back?
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a school for children coping with realness. Children who returned from magical worlds and desperately want to go back again. But their reasons for wanting to go back are more compelling than just wanting to fight dragons or whatever. These worlds offered them acceptance that they couldn’t find at home, a safe place to express their gender, sexuality, their personality. Plus dragons. Who wouldn’t want to go back?
But now someone’s threatening the safety of everyone on campus. Someone who would do anything to return to their world, and everyone’s a suspect.
With this book, McGuire has crafted not just one world but multiple worlds of compelling characters and situations, all nested inside one slim novella. Fans of the novel and TV series The Magicians will appreciate this clever deconstruction and homage to the fantasy genre.
Now that it has finally warmed up, it’s time to get outdoors for a cookout or picnic and take advantage of the farmers markets! Here are some new cookbooks, on different levels of complexity, to inspire you and get you started.
Casual and home cooks will find serviceable recipes in The Love & Lemons Cookbook by Jeanine Donofrio. In this bright and engaging book, Donofrio takes a practical approach to food, contextualizing her meals by what is in season and readily available in the pantry. She is quick to provide advice for those nights when you don’t feel like laboring over a stove after work and includes suggestions for reenergizing leftovers. All of her recipes are vegetarian, and it is easy to pair them with a cut of meat or, in the opposite direction, adapt them to become vegan or gluten-free. If you have signed up for a CSA share this season, Love & Lemons can get you started figuring out what to do with the less common vegetables that might crop up in your share — like kohlrabi and parsnips. Many more recipes are also available on Donofrio’s award-winning blog.
For gourmands looking for a challenge, there is The Field to Table Cookbook by Susan L Ebert, a manifesto that is the culmination of her previous work editing Rodale’s Organic Life (formerly Organic Gardening) and Texas Parks & Wildlife magazines. Ebert has shaped her life around a philosophy that puts the sustainability of her resources as the foremost consideration. She hunts, fishes, forages and farms for as much of her food as she can within the season and has closely researched where her food grows, including population statistics of the wildlife she shoots, chemical analyses of soil composition in her garden and snapshots on the history of American agricultural practices. It may take all day or longer to cook the meals precisely as Ebert does, but, through her writing, she demonstrates how sourcing your own food is not drudgery but an adventure. As much Jack London as Alice Waters, descriptions of tracking her quarry are laced with reminisces of stargazing and sunrises, meditations on the afternoons she spent as a child picking fruit and fishing trips spent with her own children. Those readers who might be squeamish or critical of Ebert’s hunting and fishing will be swayed by her reasoning and find a sympathetic pen from a woman not above crying for a goose she will later eat. It is worth noting that because Ebert’s lifestyle is so closely entwined with the environment and culture of her Texas home some of her meals, like Feral Hog Chile Verde, will be difficult to make here in Baltimore without relying on imports. Nevertheless, there is enough overlap between the Texas and Maryland climates to try out or adapt plenty of the recipes — homages to Chesapeake Bay seafood pop up surprisingly often!