If you have heard of Scheherazade, the woman who stayed alive night after night by telling a murderous king cliffhanger stories, then you may want to check out A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston, a retelling of The Arabian Nights.
She knows her village is next on Lo-Melkhiin's list. Bound by the laws of men, he has to choose a wife from each city district and each village before beginning again. He has taken three hundred wives and all have died in his palace. She fears that her fiery sister will be his next victim and her love for her sister is so strong that she successfully devises a way to make it impossible for Lo-Melkhiin not to choose her instead.
Her goal is to stay calm and to survive the night at the palace. And she does. When she survives the next night and the next, the servants and guards of the palace take notice. There's something different about her and it has to do with her sister's love and fierce will. Although she still lives, her sister prays to her as does her mother and her sister's mother. Soon, all of the women in her village and in the palace pray to her, and the longer she survives the more her story spreads. Praying to a deceased person brings comfort and goodwill to the living; praying to one who still lives translates to power that person can use to combat evil.
She tells Lo-Melkhiin stories about her sister and her family, falls into trances while spinning thread and weaves images into cloth that begin to come true. Her power grows; but the more she uses, the more she weakens. As she unravels the secrets of the palace and of Lo-Melkhiin, she feels she may have just enough power to defeat evil. For her sister. For her village. For all of the unmarried women under Lo-Melkhiin's rule. For herself.
A Thousand Nights is an elegant and descriptive retelling that stands on its own. You do not need to be familiar with The Arabian Nights to enjoy Johnston's version. The only named character is Lo-Melkhiin, which lends an air of mystery and power to the other characters, especially the women and the protagonist. A Thousand Nights starts off at a slow crawl and doesn't pick up much pace for the majority of the book, but if you can look past that you will find the beauty in the descriptions of the desert and its people and the feminist undertones in the quiet strength and cleverness and power of its women. Look out for Johnston's companion novel, Spindle, its publication date to be announced.
In the world of manga there are few titles more renowned — and more confusing — than that of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure by Hirohiko Araki. It’s a story told in multiple arcs that could be read as stand-alone stories, yet are all connected by the characters and events that take place. The origin of the adventure is called Phantom Blood, a story told in volumes 1-3. Phantom Blood is set in a roughly historical timeframe in a location more or less resembling England. We begin the tale by meeting our hero Jonathan Joestar (nicknamed JoJo), a schoolboy living a carefree life with his wealthy and kind-hearted father. Everything turns south for JoJo, however, when young Dio Brando claims rights to his father’s guardianship. Instead of the playmate and friend naïve JoJo had been hoping for, Dio is determined, for no apparent reason, to take away everything good in his life — his father’s love, his faithful dog, and even the first kiss from his sweetheart. Araki’s dialogue rings out strange and memorable even translated from its original Japanese as Dio triumphantly cries “You thought your first kiss would be JoJo, but it was me, Dio!”
Events quickly escalate from childhood squabbles. As they do, an ancient stone mask with a terrible curse to bear finds its way into Dio’s hands, turning his rivalry with JoJo from a man to man duel to a cataclysmic event involving torture chambers, Jack the Ripper, vampires, the zombie apocalypse, dismemberment, ancient sun magic, hair fights (what?) and, of course, exploding boats. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure never once fails to deliver on its titular promise — it is bizarre. Araki’s highly stylized and exaggerated illustration hails from what is now considered old-school manga — Phantom Blood may have been released as English language volumes in 2015, but its original serialization in Japan began in 1987. There’s a certain stiffness and ridiculousness to the overly muscled characters that does not always seem intentionally comedic. At the same time, each event taking place is so over the top it’s nothing but the most fitting style. Once you become acclimated to the universe, there’s an undeniable and surprising tenderness to the story and characters, and JoJo and Dio become almost self-aware in their roles of light and dark against each other.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is for any reader looking to pick up something different, something very, very different. It more than delivers.
Following the devastation wrought by World War I, grieving Europeans and Americans sought the answer to the question: What happens to us after death? Many turned to Spiritualism, the belief that the dead can communicate with the living, and popularized consulting mediums and psychics to contact their dead. But how would you know if the dead were really speaking through the medium, or if you were in the presence of a talented (or sometimes not-so-talented) fraud?
One answer: apply science and logic to test a medium’s abilities. David Jaher’s debut book The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction and Houdini in the Spirit World describes just such a test held in the mid-1920s and the furor that surrounded its most likely candidate. Sponsored by the magazine Scientific American, a large cash prize was offered to the medium who could provide proof of his or her abilities, proof that had to withstand scientific scrutiny by an investigative panel of judges.
What set out to be an objective experiment in psychic research became anything but, dominated by the personalities involved. Jaher’s cast ranges from the champion of Spiritualism and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to one of the judges, the escape artist who actively sought to expose fake psychics, Harry Houdini. Most important of all was the so-called Witch of Lime Street, a Boston woman known as Margery or Mina Crandon, who supposedly could call on her deceased brother to perform various ectoplasmic phenomena.
Jaher provides a deeper understanding for a little-known craze of the Jazz Age. His level of detail is meticulous and illuminating, capturing the complex relationships and beliefs of everyone involved, living or apparition. His objective recounting of the contest and the fallout that followed allows readers to make their own judgment of the people involved. Readers who enjoy learning about the more obscure events in history will definitely enjoy this book. But this book could also be enjoyed by those who have wondered if there is life after death, or who appreciate the complexity of human relationships.
Bestselling author Sarah MacLean brings TMZ to pre-Victorian times in The Rogue Not Taken, the first in her new Scandal & Scoundrel series. Lady Sophie Talbot preferred life as a commoner, but when her father’s success secured him an earldom she was thrust into the highest echelons of London society. Sophie shies from the spotlight until her philandering brother-in-law causes her to create a very public scene and earn the scorn of the aristocracy. Think along the lines of the Beyonce/Jay Z/Solange elevator incident and you’ve got the picture.
Vowing to leave London, she stows away in the carriage of Kingscote, the Marquess of Eversley. King is a charmer with an ill-deserved (but welcome) reputation as a rake. When Sophie is discovered, King is sure that she is trying to trick him into marriage despite her avowal that he is the last man she would ever marry. Sophie asks King to take her to her childhood home claiming a lost love is waiting for her. While he is disbelieving, he agrees to give her a ride.
This will turn out to be the journey of a lifetime for these two who are at odds from the beginning and continue to snipe along the way. Yet when trouble strikes, they have each other’s backs and slowly the bickering turns to flirtatious banter and the sparks begin to fly. This compelling story is enhanced by MacLean’s fast-paced storytelling, clever dialogue and sharp wit. Sophie and King are clearly drawn, engaging characters whose emotional connection is palpable. This intense romantic journey is peppered with comedy and action while also serving as a cutting commentary on pre-Victorian upper class society.
Is David Spade’s memoir Almost Interesting? No way, I say! It's actually extremely interesting. Filled with hilarious childhood stories, Saturday Night Live anecdotes and embarrassing tales of life in Hollywood, it's both entertaining and quick to read. He serves up his life story, warts and all!
Told chronologically, he takes us on wild ride through his childhood in Arizona, to his days as a struggling L.A. comic, followed by his tenure at SNL and ends with his life as a Hollywood celebrity. Uncontrollable laughter will overtake you as you read his account of pledging a fraternity, losing his newly purchased car in Hollywood and being catfished by a model’s parody account. Seriously, that happened, and quite recently, too! Even the story of his crazed assistant Skippy attacking him is hilarious. You'll also enjoy his tales of working on SNL. He candidly offers up both his favorite and least favorite hosts and musical guests. Trust me, he goes there! My favorite is his account of the infamous Sinead O’Connor performance. Finally, you will feel his overwhelming sense of loss when he discusses his best friend, Chris Farley.
If you’re a fan or just like to read about celebrities, I encourage you to get your hands on a copy of Almost Interesting. I’m not kidding. Do it! You can read it in quick bursts or in one long sitting, but since Spade is a comedian be prepared to laugh out loud, and even more so if you listen to the audiobook, since he narrates it. Be forewarned though, at times he is raunchy, but nothing wildly inappropriate. To see Spade in action on SNL, check out the DVD Saturday Night Live: The Best of David Spade. Knowing the backstories makes it much funnier.
In the debut novel The Red Storm by Grant Bywaters, life isn’t easy for William Fletcher, former-boxer-turned-private-detective living in segregated 1930s New Orleans; not many white people are willing to respect, let alone hire, an African American private eye. When his former employer and mob associate, the violent Bill Storm, reappears in Fletcher’s life with a final request – to locate Storm’s daughter – Fletcher figures things couldn’t get worse.
But then, Storm is found shot in the head, and his killer seems to be gunning for his daughter. She hires Fletcher as protection, setting off a chain reaction of escalating violence between the police and different mob factions. Fletcher has to use all of his boxing experience and investigative instincts to survive the coming storm.
The Red Storm is a treat for any hardboiled detective or historical fiction fan and especially so for fans of boxing as the book is rife with references. Bywaters is frank in his depictions of violence, be it a boxing match or a fight between mobsters. He also never lets the reader forget the time period he’s writing in either; not only does he reference specific events and places in New Orleans history but he also doesn’t shy from the slang or the racial issues. Counterpoint to the rampant casual racism and segregation is Fletcher himself, who won’t let anything impede his investigations.
It’s easy to understand why Bywaters won the Best First Private Eye Novel Competition sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) and Minotaur Books, with his professional experience as a licensed private investigator adding authenticity to Fletcher’s fictional investigations. Reminiscent of Walter Mosley and James M. Cain, mystery fans will appreciate this new voice in hardboiled detective fiction.
It’s nighttime, the lights are off in your living room and you see your frightened mother standing there in the darkness peering out the window. Your mom clutches her phone and calls the police because she thinks, no, she knows that the man inside the car parked across the street from your home is the same man who’s been tracking you down for years. He has found the both of you. So, your mom tells you to “Get your things,” because you’re moving for the fifth time. Well, that is exactly what Cameron Weaver, a teenage boy, and his mom experience in Allan Stratton’s psychological thriller teen novel, The Dogs. Oh, and the maniac that is stalking Cameron and his mom, is his dear ol’ Dad.
Cameron’s mom rents a new place that is 800 miles away. They move into a creepy, dilapidated farmhouse way out in the country in a town called Wolf Hollow. On Cameron’s first day at his new school, he hears rumors that his house is haunted. This is not good news for Cameron because he tends to imagine things. Ever since he and his Mom started running away from his Dad, Cameron has become more fearful and prone to having nightmares. The worst part is that his nightmares feel real because he never experiences the waking up part. Cameron’s new environment has a negative effect on him because he begins to hear strange noises, such as dogs howling. He starts to see and converse with a young boy named Jacky McTavish, who lived in the same house decades ago. By the way, Jacky may or may not be dead. No one really knows what happen to him, except maybe the mysterious property owner, Art Sinclair, who used to be Jacky’s best friend. When Cameron learns that a murder occurred at his house back in the early 1960s that involved Jacky, Jacky’s parents and a pack of dogs, he starts his own secret investigation to learn what really happened to Jacky. As Cameron gets deeper into his investigation, he finds himself getting into trouble. Furthermore, he and others start to question his sanity.
For those who are looking for a psychological thriller with a bit of mystery, I definitely recommend that you get your paws on The Dogs. The writing is splendid—Allan Stratton sure knows how to set the tone and lure you into the story.
High school heartthrob Sakamoto is unflappable. In Nami Sano’s new manga series Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, he evades a bevy of traps set by his fellow schoolmates and keeps the flocks of smitten girls in check like a true gentleman, all while aiding his less popular classmates. Throughout the premiere volume, he remains upstanding as he helps his classmates, teachers and even the bullies who target him, with his seemingly endless repertoire of “secret skills.” Sakamoto has an ability for every occasion and deploys them only once he tires of toying with his adversaries.
When a group of jealous dudes rigs a dusty eraser to fall on Sakamoto as he enters the classroom, he catches it without even looking. In the bathroom, the pranksters hurl buckets of water over the walls of the stall Sakamoto occupies, but he already has his fashionable umbrella open. When he gets back to class he discovers his desk is missing, so he makes the best of it by lounging on the windowsill and letting the sun illuminate his alabaster skin and the breeze whisper through his hair.
There’s just no getting to Sakamoto. After witnessing a guy surrendering his lunch money to a group of bullies, Sakamoto becomes his self-appointed mentor and gets them both jobs at a fast food joint. Together, they man the grill and fry stations during busy weeknights, and Sakamoto’s student begins to develop a sense of pride derived from his newfound work ethic.
Handsome, charming, selfless, witty...Sakamoto has so much going for him; so much that it makes readers wonder whether he’s even human. Readers who enjoy shonen manga will enjoy the satire in the first volume of Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, and readers who are more partial to rom-coms will be head over heels for the titular character.
In Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg, the title character is a flawed human being who reaches out to the poor around her yet never gives up on life’s pleasures. Mazie Phillips-Gordon is a self-proclaimed good time girl. Her favorite things in life are cigarettes, alcohol and having fun. Despite her hedonistic ways, Mazie is also a pushover for the vagrants who populate her Lower East Side world during the Great Depression.
Attenberg sets up the story as a documentary on Mazie told in part through her diary and also through the interviews and observations of people who knew her. By using different points of view, Attenberg allows us to see the good in Mazie that she often fails to see. She and her younger sister Jeanie are rescued by their sister Rosie who takes them away from their abusive father and ineffectual mother. However, both girls go through rebellious periods making life difficult for Rosie. In an effort to try and curb Mazie’s life spent in bars and speakeasies, Rosie’s husband has Mazie work in the ticket booth at his movie theater. Feeling confined in the box office – which she refers to as her ‘cage’— Mazie manages to keep her spirits up by helping the homeless people in her neighborhood. Attenberg may refer to Mazie as a saint in the title, but this book recounts the unvarnished world of a woman who lived life to the fullest.
Jen Larsen’s critically acclaimed memoir Stranger Here detailed her own choice to have weight-loss surgery and the unexpected highs and lows that followed losing 180 pounds. In her teen fiction debut, Larsen tackles weight-loss surgery again in Future Perfect.
Ashley Perkins is the type of kid that any parent or grandparent would be shouting about from the rooftops: class valedictorian, AP student, on the volleyball team and now she’s set her sights on getting into Harvard. All of her friends and family know she is a shoo-in for admission. In her grandmother’s eyes, though, the main thing setting Ashley back is her looks: she’s fat.
Every year since her 13th birthday, Ashley’s grandmother presents her with a card: 50 pounds lost equals a trip to Disneyland, 80 pounds lost equals a shopping trip to Paris, 100 pounds lost equals a brand new car. Every year, Ashley has turned down her grandmother’s offer, but when this year’s card offers her Harvard tuition for the cost of having weight-loss surgery, Ashley struggles with the decision more than she ever has. Should she give in to her grandmother’s demands for how her body “should” look to get everything she’s ever dreamed?
Between the Covers recently caught up with Jen to talk about her novel.
Between the Covers: (No spoilers, please!) While you were writing this novel, did you know what choice Ashley was going to make? Did it change for you while developing her character?
Jen Larsen: I did know! Because her final choice is completely central to why I wrote this book. I wanted to write a character who was everything I wanted to be, and as brave as I wish I were, when I was her age. I wanted to write a book that was the book I needed when I was struggling with my own body issue demons, fear, doubt and isolation.
BTC: You documented your own weight loss surgery and its impact on your life in your memoir Stranger Here; what influence did your own weight loss have on this novel?
JL: When I chose to get surgery, I thought it was my only option—that I had no other choice, because it would be impossible for me to be fat and happy and lovable. That idea is dangerous and so incredibly wrong and yet so prevalent. Future Perfect is a counter to it, an argument for the fact that the body image standards that get pushed on us by the media and even by our own well-meaning family are limited, bigoted and cruel. There's no loving yourself "despite" your flaws, because your body isn't flawed. Not looking like a Victoria's Secret model is not some kind of defect.
BTC: Unlike other teen heroines "of size," Ashley never hides behind her body as a suit of "fat armor." She's not separate from her body, she just is. That is so refreshing! In developing Ashley's character, what pitfalls did you want to avoid? How did you reconcile those pitfalls with having to write a teenage character?
JL: It was really, really important that Ashley's voice be authentic. She rejects the idea that fat is a dirty word. She is fiercely, defiantly happy in her body, almost defensively so — because I think when you're a teenager you are very much still in a role where your beliefs and feelings feel challenged by your adults and your peer group. You feel as if you always need to be on guard, fighting back.
But Ashley also has ordinary doubts and fears and worries that nag at her. She compares herself to other girls, she has fleeting moments of self-doubt when she wonders why her boyfriend thinks she's beautiful, she struggles with her family's nagging and comments. When you're a teenager, your family's opinion is both the most important and the opinion you feel like you need to reject or rebel against. And that's part of what fuels her need to push back as hard as she can.
BTC: This novel could've easily translated to an adult trying to decide if this surgery was for her, so why teen? Teen voice can be very hard to capture, and these kids were very realistic. How did you transition your writing style to suit teen, if at all?
JL: Because I believe teen fiction is so, so important. There's this huge number of brilliant, hungry kids out there looking for themselves in the books they read, wanting their worries, interests, hopes, needs understood and validated. I choose teen because I thought this story and idea and message is so important for teens to hear when they're in the throes of their own struggles with the expectations of the adults around them.
BTC: Ashley's group of friends could each have a wonderful novel in and of themselves! In writing these characters, why was it important for you to stress how, in a lot of ways, these friends were her family perhaps more than her family was?
JL: Thank you! I love her friends very much. I wanted to talk about what happens when the family you have isn't the family you need. It's so important to surround yourself with people who give you strength, who love you and support you. It's okay to push back against your family's expectations if they don't understand you, or care for you the way you need, and create your own community to help give you the strength you need and support your sense of identity and self-worth.
BTC: I've seen a lot of people comment that "No loving grandmother would ever do this to a child!" Do you agree? Why is Grandmother so hard on Ashley when she gives others such love and attention (her dad, Jolene, etc.)?
JL: That kind of direct criticism and pressure on kids about their weight and size is incredibly common, from the really subtle stuff I used to get as a kid ("Why don't you just butter one piece of toast and then press it against the other piece?") to flat-out disapproval and condemnation. Parents and caregivers are roped into The War on Obesity by doctors, and forget that study after study shows that shaming and coercion is useless and, in fact, incredibly harmful. It can cause life-long eating issues, disorders, depression and even more weight gain. It is real and it is common and it is horrific.
Ashley's grandmother genuinely believes she's doing right and good—that she is taking care of her granddaughter in the best way she knows how, and actually helping her to achieve her identity. She thinks if Ashley wants to be successful, she can't be fat. That she'll be denied opportunities and struggle in her career. She thinks she's helping Ashley fight back. And in that sense, she's helping Jolene fight back against the people who reject Jolene's sense of self, unaware of the irony in celebrating Jolene's body autonomy while dismissing Ashley's.
BTC: What's next for you and your writing? (Please, please tell me there's a Jolene book somewhere.)
JL: I love Jolene and would love to write a book about her! But currently I'm working on a couple of new teen books—my first fantasy novel ever, a retelling of the "Princess and the Pea" and a book that's incredibly important to me, about two girls in love and San Francisco and social justice.
Thank you so much for such awesome questions!