One day during their senior year, Theodore Finch and Violet Markey find each other on the bell tower at their Indiana high school, each contemplating ending their lives. Violet saves Finch or Finch saves Violet (that part is unclear to both them and the reader), but what is important is that they both leave the bell tower alive and now their lives are inextricably linked. Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places tells the story of Finch and Violet’s lives after that fateful day.
Violet’s life has been forever changed since her sister died in a car accident that she survived. Since the accident, she hasn’t been herself — refusing to drive in cars, not writing, disengaging from her friends and ending up at the bell tower with Finch. Finch goes through periods of days or weeks when he shuts down and sleeps, but when he’s awake, life isn’t much better. He’s abused by his father who has left his family for a “better” one, and everyone at school thinks he’s a freak, so he spends his time thinking about death and ways he could commit suicide. But after the bell tower, Finch and Violet begin spending more time together — initially because they’re working on a school project together that has them wandering around Indiana, but eventually because they find they help each other grow.
All the Bright Places is “the story of a boy called Finch and a girl named Violet,” but it’s also a beautifully told story of grief, depression and finding yourself again. Niven has written a powerful, heartbreaking, romantic novel that is difficult to put down. All the Bright Places is set to become a film starring Elle Fanning.
Poet, playwright and novelist Greer Macallister inspires intrigue with The Magician’s Lie. While Macallister’s plays have been performed at the American University and she has been published in periodicals such as the North American Review, this is her debut novel.
The Amazing Arden is one of the few female magicians in the early 1900s, which is controversial enough without her being wanted in question for her husband’s murder. Virgil, a down on his luck police officer, stumbles upon Arden and, though he is able to restrain her, he is unsure of her. As the capture would substantially boost his status, Virgil is conflicted about how to proceed.
After bringing the magician to his office and restraining her with several pairs of handcuffs, he allows her to recount her story before deciding how to move forward. Arden’s story is so captivating that Virgil can’t help but be taken in by her resilience and attention to detail. It’s in the midst of the narrative when Virgil learns that Arden may just have something to offer Virgil that he can’t get elsewhere, leaving him with a tough decision to make.
Macallister is able to use Arden’s story to pull the reader into history and what life was like for a young woman with few options in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With Arden’s success she is able to challenge the traditional gender roles for woman of the time, transforming her character into an inspiration. If after reading this you are looking for another historical fiction novel with a strong female protagonist, look to Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar.
Jane Austen apparently got the idea for Pride and Prejudice from an 80 year old minister named Mansfield. At least, that’s the general premise in Charles Lovett’s novel First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen which delves into possible connections between Austen and Mansfield. Told in chapters that jump back and forth between Austen’s time and the present, Lovett’s modern day heroine, Sophie Collingwood, is part Austen scholar and part amateur sleuth.
Sophie’s world has centered on her beloved Uncle Bertram who introduced her to great writers such as Austen. When Bertram dies of an alleged accidental fall down his stairs, Sophie begins to suspect that someone may have wanted her uncle dead. It all seems to be related to an obscure book in her uncle’s collection written by Mansfield that may shed some light on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice. However, as she digs into the mystery of her Uncle’s death and the missing manuscript, Sophie puts herself into a very dangerous situation.
Lovett is at his best when he is engaged in the modern day writing of the conflicts and crises in Sophie’s rather than Austen’s world. While this book is a work of fiction, there are some historical facts mixed in. After finishing this book, readers may want to do some research on their own to discover which parts are invented and which parts are true.
Rolling up your sleeve for your flu shot this season, you probably did not think about the zoonoses you are keeping at bay. A zoonosis describes an infection that is transmitted from animal to human. The flu falls into this nasty category, as do other scary things like West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, rabies and, yes, Ebola. Science writer and explorer David Quammen is not trying to scare us in his slender but potent new book, Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus. Rather, he provides much needed perspective on the 2014 epidemic in West Africa that dominated the news here and abroad.
Where did Ebola come from? That's the question everyone wants answered about a disease whose first recognized emergence dates to 1976. Quammen takes us back to that point and the consequences of interconnected ecosystems. He writes in layman's terms about early efforts to sequester various species for testing only to be disappointed each time. "It was Zorro, it was the Swamp Fox, it was Jack the Ripper — dangerous, invisible, gone," Quammen says. This is the problem with a disease that moves, or spills over, from animals to humans. Identifying the reservoir host animal is key to understanding how the virus wreaks havoc, then disappears again, for perhaps decades. The need for containment is great for fear that it will eventually adapt. For scientists, the hunt is on.
Quammen, who extracted and updated material from his 2012 book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, spent time in the jungles of Gabon, where he first encountered the "peculiar, disconcerting disease." Through interviews with laboratory sleuths and Ebola victims' families he fills in as many blanks as possible, writing in a highly readable journalistic style. Readers of Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, whom Quammen gently takes to task in his book, will find a fast-paced science mystery that urgently begs solving.
With infinite care, deep detail and vast meteorological knowledge, Adam Sobel recounts the events leading up to one of the most destructive storms in history in Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future. Sobel, an atmospheric scientist and Columbia University Professor, recounts the growth of the storm and the predictions leading up to the disaster which were relied upon by elected officials, civic leaders and the general public.
Studies have shown that there is an approximate four to one benefit to cost ratio of investing in preventive measures, yet we lack the imagination to foresee the potential for disasters such as Sandy. Historically, we experience a disaster and then plan for the next event. However, with global warming gradually making its effects known, we may not realize the disaster in time to take effective measures. With this scenario, Sobel argues, “buying insurance after the flood will not work.” Development of low-lying areas, a rising sea level and climbing global temperatures will produce great environmental challenges. This will require broad cooperation between local, state and federal agencies and the private sector. Through clear-headed science, Sobel argues that we cannot afford to politicize an issue of such profound international importance as climate change. Storm Surge is a highly thought-provoking, engrossing tale of nature at her most destructive. It is also a story of human nature, and how we react, or fail to react, to our environment and its demands.
Dr. Sobel received his PhD in meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a tenured professor at Columbia University. He has won several major awards, including the David and Lucile Packard Fellowship, the Meisinger Award from the American Meteorological Society, the AXA Award in climate and extreme weather and the Ascent Award from the American Geophysical Union.
It’s not often that a book cover really captures the essence of the words contained within, but J. Robert Lennon’s collection See You in Paradise is complemented perfectly by its paradisal suburb set against a split pea soup sky. Lennon’s stories share a theme of familial dissolution, which makes the pop art a choice of scrumptious irony. It's always easiest to smile and embrace delusions of complacency.
See You in Paradise's opening story "Portal" is a clever spin on the concepts of growing up and growing apart and sets the tone for the book. A young brother-sister duo discovers a portal in the woods behind the family house and rushes to tell mom and dad. After a cautious inspection, the family decides to venture through together and reappears on the other side of town. Portal trips quickly become a familial ritual, until one goes awry and has lasting consequences for everyone. "Zombie Dan" is what happens when scientists develop a revivification process for the rich, but haven't quite perfected their techniques. Each newly restored corpse exhibits unintended complications; in Dan's case, he develops mind-reading powers after reminiscing with former friends and uses his new powers to exhume buried truths. "The Wraith" is the story of a manic woman who is able to separate her negative energies into a sullen, lifeless copy of herself, which she does before each workday. Her husband works from home and is left alone with his husk-wife until curiosity eventually gets the best of him, and their relationship is forever altered.
Lennon's stories depict the repressed tragedies of suburbia in a witty, imaginative manner, which makes the slightly melancholy mood feel more like reverie than depression. Readers who enjoy See You in Paradise should also check out Kevin Wilson's Tunneling to the Center of the Earth.
When faced with a tragedy, it is common to reflect on what might have been if only we had done or said something differently. This is the theme explored by German author Jenny Erpenbeck in The End of Days. Set in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, the story begins with the sudden accidental death of an infant girl. The tragedy tears the family apart. But what if her parents could have found the baby in her cradle in time, and by some miracle had managed to bring life back into that little girl? What path would their lives have taken if only their baby hadn’t died?
Erpenbeck’s story is written in five parts, exploring the possible paths that this one life could take if only something different had happened. While the first part is her death as an infant, the second part begins with the girl as a teenager in Vienna just after the end of World War I. Her fate stems from her choices made as a rebellious youth, getting mixed up with the wrong boy and paying for those choices with her life. What would have happened if different choices had been made? Each of the following parts explore those possible lives, and by the fifth telling, her life spans almost a century.
Readers who enjoy the works of Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy may be interested in this book for its complex style of writing and bleak, haunting themes. I was drawn to this book because of the thought-provoking subject matter and because I enjoy historical fiction set in Europe. It is human nature to think about what might have been, and Erpenbeck deftly explores this subject with grace.
Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, is a book with a mission, the public face of a project determined to get humanity moving back in the right direction. What direction is that? The direction is big dreams backed by science, a drive unseen since the furious push of the space race. Hieroglyph is built on the idea that scientists and engineers need science fiction writers to dream big dreams for them to chase after. To that end, Arizona State University started the Hieroglyph project to get everyone talking with each other. These debates are open to the public. This book is an anthology of short stories. After every story, URLs are provided to discussions with the hope that the readers read further, and maybe even take up the torch themselves.
The stories run a range. Most aren't concerned with space travel, keeping the science closer to home, and more likely to be reached within our lifetimes. The first story is about the massive architectural shifts that could come from building a tower 20 miles high. Other stories create greener cities, or more peaceful conflict resolution through social media and advanced common literacy. This is an optimistic book, sometimes utopian in its outlook, but often not. There's a lot of pragmatic futurism here, including massive acknowledged debts to Robert Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, which was far less about space travel than it was about the business deals necessary to make space travel possible.
As literature, the stories vary in quality from crisp prose by Cory Doctorow to long descriptions about future cities that aren't really stories. It pitches big ideas and strange ideas, through narrative and experiments. Considering all of the technology we use every day, from medical technology, smartphones and touch screens that came out of Star Trek, sending science after science fiction makes sense. If Hieroglyph gets traction, expect sequels with more dreams.
Cozy mysteries are great books to snuggle up with. Ellie Alexander’s debut novel Meet Your Baker is such a book. While the storyline is quaint and the character development is provocatively drawn out, the book is light enough that it’s a quick and undemanding read.
Jules decides to take a break from her husband troubles and heads home to Ashland, Oregon, where she can bake her troubles away. Ashland is a small tourist town that is known for its Shakespearean outdoor theater. The comfort of her home town is supposed to help Jules sort out her troubles, so when she finds a dead body in her mother’s bake shop, she is completely taken aback.
Instead of the comfort she was looking for, Jules is lured into a murder investigation by her high school boyfriend. Between murder, lying husbands, financial problems and ex-boyfriends, Jules’ respite is anything but refreshing. Will Jules be able to put her life in order while helping the local law enforcement solve a murder?
The combination of murder mystery, family drama, cooking and Shakespearean references are enough to engross anyone looking for a light read that’s not too kitschy. Alexander saves the full recipes till the end which allows for an unbroken storyline, but still provides the details for people whose mouths were watering throughout the enticing descriptions. This book is a great read for those who are fans of Jessica Beck or Joanne Fluke.
It’s no secret that dads can have tremendous influence on their children’s lives. Here are three very different picture books from 2014 which highlight the myriad ways in which dads positively shape their little ones, whether over the course of an hour or a lifetime. Here’s to you, dads!
A rainy day. A bored little girl. A dad who takes time to spur his child’s imagination by asking “If you had your druthers, what would you do?” Flights of fancy ensue. In the space of a few pages, author Matt Phelan demonstrates the impact of a dad who simply takes the opportunity to engage in a little play time in Druthers.
From author Daniel Beaty comes a tale of the strong bond between father and son over the chasm of many years’ absence. Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me begins with one young boy’s loving memories of his father and the knock-knock game they used to play every morning. One day, there is no knock, and a new and palpable absence begins in the boy’s life. Missing his father, the boy writes a letter urging him to come home. In time, he receives a poignant letter in return. In it, his father encourages his son, reminding him of his love and all the ways in which he will always remain with him. As the letter unfolds, illustrator Bryan Collier’s richly evocative images foreshadow the boy’s path to adulthood and his eventual reunion with his father.
Young fans of illustrator James Dean’s Pete the Cat series will warm to his latest Mighty Dads, created in collaboration with author Joan Holub. Sing-song, rhyming text pairs with appealing illustrations of construction machinery in dad and child sizes. Hardworking, protective, patient and encouraging, the mighty dad machines act as teachers and role models to their young companions, who help them over the course of a day at the construction site. Punctuated by satisfyingly repetitive and onomatopoeic descriptors (“Crash, bang, boom!”) and bold, colorful illustrations, Mighty Dads is a deceptively simplistic picture book with an underlying message about the important roles dads can play in their children’s lives.