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.
Christopher Scotton's ambitious debut novel The Secret Wisdom of the Earth generated such a torrent of in-house support from the publisher that the novel's first printing was bumped up to 100,000 copies. Scotton, CEO of a software company, took 15 years to write this story of a 14-year-old boy who spends a fateful summer with his grandfather in Kentucky coal country. Widely appealing and whispering of second chances, the coming-of-age tale mines the burden of loss for those living in a poor rural landscape that will never look the same. Recently, Scotton answered questions for Between the Covers.
Between the Covers: You capture so eloquently your characters' voices. What was the process for making them come alive for your readers? Was there anyone from your background who was the inspiration for your protagonist, Kevin?
Christopher Scotton: I create a deep written study for each main character, detailing everything about them and getting to know who they are — their hopes, fears, histories and dreams. Then I just let them combust in the plot. The old English 101 chestnut, show don’t tell, is probably the best single piece of advice about creating great characters. If one describes a character through their actions it’s just a more fulfilling experience for the reader — it allows the reader to better build out the wireframe of the characters in their mind. Kevin is very similar to the kind of kid I was at 14 — insecure, unsure, a bit nerdy. Fortunately, I had none of the grief and guilt that life has layered on him.
BTC: You have multiple stories and themes coursing through the small town of Medgar. How did you prepare yourself for telling the story of this unique local culture since you are not from Appalachia?
CS: I visited the region often in my teens and 20s and again when I was writing the novel. I let the feel of the place seep into my marrow so that, when back in London, I could transport myself there. On my trips I would just listen to the stories folks would tell, listen to the rhythm of their dialect. What I found was that small town Kentucky is not that different from small town Maryland where I grew up.
BTC: The setting for your novel is 1985 Kentucky coal country, where the earth seems to languish as much as your characters. Were you looking to make a statement about the devastation of mountaintop removal?
CS: I was not trying to make a statement so much as present the truth of mountaintop removal — the argument is not as simple as big bad coal vs. the people. The issues are much more nuanced than that. There really are few economic options for the hard working folks in the region so they are left with some very hard choices to make about their future. I’m personally against mountaintop removal, but I hope the novel presents a more balanced approach to the problem.
BTC: Your readers may be encountering a “madstone” for the first time. Why was introducing this folklore important to the story and your characters?
CS: A madstone is an old folk remedy to cure snake bites and fevers. It’s a calcified hairball-like thing from the intestine of a cud-chewing animal. You’re probably thinking, “Cool, where can I get one!” If someone is bitten by a copperhead or a rabid dog, the madstone would be applied to the bite, and the poisons would be drawn out of the bite. Madstones vary in strength and effectiveness — a madstone from a cow is only mildly effective, a madstone from a deer is considered quite powerful. However, the madstone from a white deer is the most powerful of all and unicorn-like in their scarcity. Interestingly, madstones can’t be bought or sold or they’ll lose their power; they must be found or given.
In the novel, the earth becomes a madstone for several of the characters, drawing out the pain and poison from the losses they suffer. The healing properties of the earth — both to heal us, her caretakers, and to heal herself — are a major theme in the novel, and the madstone is an example of that theme.
BTC: You grew up outside of D.C. in an area not too different from your protagonist, Kevin. Can you talk about how your experiences impacted the writing of the novel?
CS: I was born in Washington, D.C., but moved out to the country 30 miles north when I was 9 or 10 — back then it was undeveloped land and a truly magical place to be a kid. Those summers of secret swimming holes, tree forts, mud pits and dammed-up creeks provided a rich influence for Kevin and Buzzy’s back-country adventures. In my early teens, developers bought up much of the land and the endless woods of my youth became tract housing. I tried to bring that same “loss of place” experience to the novel. Being an outsider, as is Kevin, allowed me a bit more freedom to write as an outsider — but ultimately the narrative needed to be authentic, and I hope it is.
BTC: These are exciting times for you. Hachette ordered a 100,000 first printing. Reviews have been favorable. Some have compared your book to To Kill a Mockingbird. Taking a breath now, how has this whole process of publishing felt to you as a new author?
CS: It’s been fascinating, fun and more than just a little surreal. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be in this place. Hachette is taking a huge gamble on me as a complete unknown, with zero writing credentials and no platform. It really does demonstrate their commitment to bringing new voices to the market. The support I’ve gotten within the company, especially from the sales team, has been overwhelming…I’ll start breathing again come summer.
BTC: What’s next for you?
CS: I’m working on my second novel. It’s a completely different time period and a different setting from Secret Wisdom. It takes place in 1875; two 14-year-old Irish twin sisters emigrate to New York to live with their aunt and work as domestics. After a few weeks in America, they disappear without a trace. Their 19-year-old sister comes over to try and find them and she follows their trail from New York, across the country and ultimately out west in an attempt to rescue them and bring them home. It’s a great story and based on an actual series of events that happened in my family in the 1800s.
"Eat it, Nosey," he said again. "Only this time make sure you chew."
Allen Kurzweil is 10 years old, and his roommate at an elite Swiss boarding school is forcing him to eat bread soaked in hot sauce until tears are streaming down his face and then some. This incident, along with several others at the hand of Cesar Augustus Viana, causes Allen to leave the boarding school that summer after his first year. While the view of the Alps may be far behind him, the memory of Cesar, his tormentor, never dies.
Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully documents the adult Kurzweil’s journey to track down Cesar and confront him at last. His quest takes him back to Switzerland to look for the ghost of his past in old dormitories, to an ill-fated beauty school in Manila, through New York City law firms and to a Californian federal prison. As he unearths more of Cesar’s movements and where he might be now, Kurzweil finds himself under the weight of tons of documents convicting Cesar in a bizarre international, multi-million dollar bank fraud case.
Will Allen follow through on his promise to punch Cesar right in the nose if and when at last they meet? Will all of his meticulous research and a lifetime of reliving the horrors at the hands of Cesar be in vain? More importantly, has Allen’s obsession with bringing Cesar to justice and righting past wrongs turned him into what he has feared: Has he become the bully?
Kurzweil’s obsession for all things related to Cesar’s life make this a fascinating read. Biography and memoir fans looking for something a little unconventional will be happy with the level of detail and the thoroughness of the research.
What would have happened if the author of Frankenstein and the world’s first computer programmer met as girls in early 19th century London? Why, they would have joined forces and become private detectives! Follow along as Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace sort through a false confession, eliminate some odd suspects and finally solve the mystery of a stolen necklace in The Case of the Missing Moonstone, book one of The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series by Jordan Stratford.
Brilliant, yet socially inept Ada Bryon is not happy about the departure of her governess and the arrival of her new tutor, Peebs. However, this change does bring to Ada the first true friend she has ever known, the adventurous and kind Mary Godwin. The girls notice the newspaper contains several articles about crime so they decide to form a “private and secret constabulary for the apprehension of clever criminals.” It isn’t long after they run their advertisement for the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency that they accept their first case and begin their adventures.
A host of historical figures, including Charles Dickens and Charles Babbage, make appearances in this fun children’s book. While Stratford has admittedly taken liberties with regards to the timeline (Mary Shelley was actually 18 years older than Ada Lovelace), the setting and character behaviors are historically accurate. A humorous, action-packed story, this book features strong female characters who use math, science and deductive reasoning skills to solve the crime in a vivid, alternative historical setting. I wouldn’t be surprised to find this one on school reading lists this summer.
February has been an excellent month for the short story. Highly anticipated collections from three renowned authors have found their way to library shelves. British writer Neil Gaiman is known for blending reality and fantasy in a way that can be both comforting and unsettling. His often dark, well-crafted prose enticingly draws the reader in, providing just enough familiarity and knowing humor before changing the game entirely. Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances represents the writer’s work at its best. Standout pieces include “The Thing about Cassandra,” in which a thirtysomething young man comes face to face with the young woman whose name he wrote over and over again on the covers of his high school notebooks — his first love. The twist? He made her up in order to deflect questions from his friends and his mother over his lack of a girlfriend. In “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” Gaiman offers a mashup retake on “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” imagining the two stories taking place at the same time. He turns these traditionally passive women into active participants in their own fairy tale lives, with their own agendas. A lengthy preface to the collection provides “trigger warnings” for each piece, explaining a bit about their genesis. Readers who want a spoiler-free experience would do well to treat the preface as an afterward.
Consider Kelly Link, the Massachusetts cousin-once-removed of Neil Gaiman, who Gaiman once referred to as “a national treasure.” Get in Trouble is her first collection for adult readers in a decade. To enter the world of Kelly Link is to suspend all disbelief and any preconceived ideas of what a story might be and where you might end up. Get in the passenger seat, buckle up and let Link drive you into the dark corners of her imagination, where reality and fantasy live intertwined. These are bedtime stories for readers who are still intrigued by the possibilities raised by myths, magic and fairy tales. In the opening story, “The Summer People,” teenager Fran is home sick from school, yet she still has the responsibility of gathering provisions for the incoming vacationers who stay in the houses her father maintains. He’s an alcoholic, and their hardscrabble life isn’t a pleasant one. Fran can’t even dream of getting away; she’s bound by magic to the powerful and creative unseen guests who dwell in one of these abodes. Don’t expect to be done with a Kelly Link story just because you’ve reached the end. Tales like “Light” — replete with a world filled with Chinese-owned “pocket universes” and a Florida overrun with iguanas and invasive mermaids and a protagonist born with two shadows, one that grows into her twin brother — will leave you wondering what hit you.
If you prefer realistic fiction, pick up Charles Baxter’s There’s Something I Want You to Do, a collection of 10 interrelated tales set in his native Minnesota. Baxter is considered a modern master of the contemporary short story, and in these wryly intimate, nuanced pieces he comments on human nature and the complexity of relationships. The protagonist of “Loyalty” finds that the ex-wife who left him and their infant son well over a decade ago has returned. What will he do with this woman, clearly in poor mental health, who looks like “she has gone through a car wash?” It says a lot about Wes that he opens his house to her, and his family helps to set her right. But after all, it was his new wife, one of her best friends, who encouraged her to run off in the first place. In “Gluttony,” an overweight pediatrician is forced to endure a lecture about his morally faulty parenting from the overtly religious parents of his son’s girlfriend. His stress-induced eating leads to a near tragedy. Fans of the work of Raymond Carver and Alice Munro will enjoy the storytelling of Charles Baxter.
Wendy McClure’s newest book, On Track for Treasure, is the second installment in the Wanderville series. She has written several books for adults and children including The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, which in 2011 won the Midwest Bookseller’s Choice Award for adult nonfiction. She is also a senior editor at the children’s book publisher Albert Whitman and Company, producing picture books, young adult novels and the popular Boxcar Children Mysteries. She grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, and now lives in Chicago with her husband. Between the Covers recently caught up with her over the holiday season.
Between the Covers: Wanderville ended on a very tense note! Where will we find Jack, Frances, Harold and Alexander as On Track for Treasure, the next book in the Wanderville series, begins?
Wendy McClure: They’ll be in the middle of an escape! And it won’t be just the four of them — the other kids they rescued at the end of the first book will be with them: 10 kids in all! And when trouble hits, they find it’s hard to find places where they can all hide, so they realize their best option is to hop on a freight train out of town. Then it really gets interesting!
BTC: One of the most compelling relationships in Wanderville is the connection between Frances and her little brother Harold. In researching the real orphan trains for writing the Wanderville series, did you find that siblings often stuck together? What was your inspiration for Frances’ determination to keep her brother close?
WM: When I was researching kids in the tenements of New York City, I came across a photograph showing two or three girls out on the sidewalk holding their baby siblings on their hips. The caption read “Little Mothers,” a term that described girls who had to take care of their younger brothers or sisters all day because their mothers had to work. When I saw that I knew I wanted that to be the backstory of Frances and Harold before they were in the orphanage. Frances would have pretty much raised Harold. As for the orphan trains, I imagine the circumstances of the train journeys would have compelled siblings to stick together as much as they could. But the sad reality is that they were usually encouraged to forget their old lives, including family ties. And then when the placement process began, siblings were often separated, since it was hard to find a home that could take in more than one child. Some siblings were lucky enough to be placed out together, or to at least wind up in homes in the same town, but many more were forced to be apart. In Wanderville, Frances soon realizes the danger that she and Harold are in, and that helps motivate her to escape.
BTC: In your book The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, you connect deeply to the books you loved as a child and demonstrated how that love of reading can influence one's future. What do you hope the children who read Wanderville take away from this series?
WM: I hope that for kids I can capture the exhilaration of being independent — of having adventures without adults around, of creating and building things on their own. That’s a very basic but important thing. I also hope the books can nurture a curiosity about the past — not just history, but a richer sense of this different world that came before ours. That was certainly one of the things that I loved most about the Little House books.
BTC: What challenges do you find writing a series rather than just a stand-alone novel? What about writing children's books versus books for adults?
WM: Writing a series is sort of an odd way to write a long story. It’s like painting a huge mural by starting at one end and then having to paint in only one direction without going back to change or adjust anything. Book one was already published by the time I wrote the third book. It’s fun trying to make everything work, though. As for writing for kids versus adults—it’s hard to say, because the Wanderville books are the first long-form fiction I’ve ever written, whereas my adult stuff is all nonfiction. I remember when I first started working on the books I felt this giddy sense of freedom because I got to make things up. But at the same time, having that freedom can be terrifying.
BTC: What are you working on next?
WM: I’m just finishing up the third Wanderville book, Escape to the World’s Fair, which comes out later this year. And now I’ve been going through old family photos from the early 1900s. They might help me with another Wanderville book if I get an idea for a fourth book, or I might use them in a new story. Or else I could write an essay about them. I know I’m going to write about them, but I just don’t know how yet!
Author Wes Moore, not yet 40, is already quite accomplished. A graduate of Johns Hopkins and a Rhodes Scholar, an army officer with combat tours in Afghanistan, a Wall Street banker, a White House fellow and author of a bestselling memoir, Moore surely exceeds any standard measure of success. Moore’s newest book, The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters, reflects upon his varied experiences which have impressed upon him the importance of work which one believes to be meaningful.
Baltimore readers may already be familiar with his first book The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, which Moore was motivated to write after reading a newspaper article about a young Baltimore man who grew up a few blocks from Moore’s childhood home, imprisoned for his part in the shooting death of a security officer. That man’s name, too, is Wes Moore, and author Moore struggled to understand the difference in the life journeys of the two men. In The Work, Moore acknowledges his lifelong fascination with “fate and meaning…success and failure.” He goes on to highlight what he views as lessons learned from his myriad workplaces and shares stories about people who’ve inspired him and are also practitioners of work, paid or otherwise, aimed at serving others.
John Galina and Dale Beatty are the founders of Purple Heart Homes, which aims to provide disabled veterans with affordable and accessible housing. Liberty Elementary School in Baltimore City, where nearly all the students live below the poverty line, is led by Principal Joe Manko who cut the administrative budget in favor of bringing in technology and resources directly benefiting his classrooms. The Aley siblings formed American MoJo, a for-profit manufacturing company meant to employ struggling single moms. Moore also finds role models in every day folks who may not be as visible but exemplify passion and service, such as his grandfather or a NYC office cleaner. The Work includes an appendix of questions which, though introspective, could be used for triggering a book club discussion.
In an English village, a son awaits the undertaker after the death of his beloved mother. In a Serbian town, the murder of an archduke sends turbulence throughout Europe. Little does Inspector Ian Rutledge know how profoundly these deaths will affect his life.
Charles Todd’s A Fine Summer’s Day carries us back to 1914, before the war forever damaged a young inspector and an entire European generation. Resented by his superior for his upper class credentials, Rutledge must convince the obtuse, results-driven Chief Superintendent Bowles there is a pattern in seemingly unconnected murders. On the face of it, they all committed suicide. No one would drink that much laudanum unless they intended to end their life. But too many men of property are dying for no reason. Despite instructions, Rutledge resolves to unearth the common denominator before more innocent people lose their lives. While doing so, he must convince his fiancé that his profession is a true calling, not simply a whim easily discarded.
Rutledge, destined for a brilliant career at the Yard, is in love with Jean Gordon. He is determined to marry her despite advice against it. The daughter of a career Army officer who believes there is no greater glory than to serve King and Country, Jean urges Rutledge to claim that glory quickly, before the war ends. After all, it will all be over by Christmas.
This is the 17th entry in the Inspector Rutledge series by mother and son writing team David Todd Watjen and Carolyn L.T. Watjen. If you are new to the series, it’s the perfect introduction to one of the best characters in historical fiction today. For current readers, it’s deeply poignant to see Ian as he was before the war; idealistic, insightful, confident, composed. The Watjen’s have won the Barry Award and were finalists for the Anthony, Edgar, Dilys, Macavity, Agatha and Nero awards. As we honor the memories of those who served 100 years ago, this outstanding historical fiction truly brings a lost generation to life.