In Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War, Richard Serrano tells the story of the last two survivors of the Civil War. It’s the 1950s and both men are in their 100s, still holding on to life and their past glory. One is a former drummer boy for the Union now living in Duluth, Minnesota and the other lives in Texas, having served with General Hood’s Brigade fighting for the South. They’ve both been alive for various Civil War reunions and each hopes to make it to the upcoming Centennial Celebration set to begin in 1961. However, one of them never served for the United States in any conflict and was a mere boy of 5 years old when the Civil War began. Which one really deserves the accolades, including a federal pension, and which is an imposter?
Serrano’s book is full of details about these men and others who claimed to be former Civil War veterans. What is compelling about this narrative is that many records from the Civil War, particularly those of the South, were lost or destroyed over the years. Some men even served and were discharged without official papers. With painstaking research into the records and archives that do remain, including the 1860 U.S. Census, Serrano is able to write an accurate story of the various frauds who tried to claim the glory that was never due to them.
As Serrano posits, the reasons for their deceptions included poverty (many new pension claims from Civil War vets occurred during the Great Depression), a need for fame and an inability to distinguish fact from fiction. Some of these men had been telling their stories for so long that they began to believe they were true. Serrano points out that even the most well-intentioned fraud detracts from the countless number of men who served during the Civil War and never got their due.
Baltimore author Laura Lippman is a favorite of many BCPL readers. Her new stand-alone novel, After I’m Gone, brings together past and present in a suspenseful, character-driven story about the family of a fugitive living their lives in the wake of scandal. On July 4, 1976, Felix Brewer flees from Baltimore rather than face a jail sentence. He leaves behind his wife, Bambi, his three young daughters and his mistress, Julie. In 2012, Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez, a consultant for the Baltimore Police Department, reopens the cold case file of the murder of Felix’s mistress, Julie. Lippman skillfully weaves the threads of what happens to each of the women in Felix’s life with Sandy’s investigation to bring the reader to the unexpected conclusion.
Lippman recently answered some questions for our Between the Covers readers. She tells us more about the inspiration for this story and a new movie adaptation of one of her novels.
Your husband, David Simon, originally suggested that you write about Julius Salsbury, head of a large gambling operation in Baltimore who disappeared in the 1970s rather than face jail time, but you weren’t initially interested in that story. What changed?
I am pretty resistant to other people’s ideas. It’s a personal thing, writing a novel. It’s a year out of my life. And perhaps I wasn’t listening as closely as I should have because David probably did emphasize that he thought the novel would be about the women affected. But it was when I started thinking about the daughters, saw a story beyond a love triangle, that I saw how I could do it.
Felix’s disappearance frames the story, but it’s quickly apparent that the novel isn’t really about him. It’s about those left behind. What is it about these five women that captured your imagination?
We define ourselves by our relationships. We are wives, girlfriends, daughters, sisters. What if one of those relationships is taken away? Who are we then? How do we adjust? The same would be true of men, by the way. Sandy, the retired cop in the novel, very much identifies himself as a widower, as someone who was married and is now alone, unhappily so.
What kind of research did you do for After I’m Gone?
I mainly tried to make sure the pop culture lined up. I remember being very disappointed to find out that Michelle’s bat mitzvah was just ahead of the introduction of the bubble skirt. I wanted all the Brewer women to be in fashion-forward bubble skirts.
Sandy meets Tess Monaghan near the end of the story, and the two of them talk business. Will readers see Sandy again in the future?
The movie adaptation of Every Secret Thing, starring Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks and Dakota Fanning, is in post-production. What was it like to see that story come to life on film? When will the movie be released?
The film has been accepted by a major film festival, but that’s not official yet. The hope is it will find national distribution there. The whole experience was wonderfully surreal. It was as if the games I played with my Barbie dolls, all those years ago, had come to life.
Are there any authors on your personal must-read list? What have you read recently that you loved?
My must-read list includes Megan Abbott, Alex Marwood, Alison Gaylin, Rebecca Chance, Ann Hood, Stewart O’Nan, Tom Perrotta, Dennis Lehane, Georgoe Pelecanos, Mark Billingham, Andre Dubus III, Alafair Burke – shall I go on?
I also just had the privilege of guest-editing Best American Mystery Stories , so I’ve been reading amazing short stories – but I can’t say by whom.
Harlem in the early 20th century was home to some of the most successful African-Americans in the country. In Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood, Carole Boston Weatherford (born and raised in Baltimore!) takes readers inside a remarkable part of Harlem and introduces its famous residents. Weatherford’s energetic rhymes are perfect for reading aloud and R. Gregory Christie’s bold illustrations capture the excitement of this dynamic community. Single lines of text encapsulate the contributions of the men and women who contributed so much in such an array of fields. Artists, musicians, entertainers, civil rights leaders and lawyers are all represented, including Faith Ringgold, Miles Davis, W.E.B. DuBois and Thurgood Marshall. Biographical blurbs offer further information, but this is really a tribute to an influential community that cherished its artists, dreamers and leaders.
Kristy Dempsey imagines the life of one young Harlem resident in A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream. This lyrical tale told in powerful free verse is narrated by a young girl growing up in 1950s Harlem. Her mother works tirelessly as a seamstress at the Metropolitan Opera House, and while waiting for her to finish up, the narrator dances in the wings. She attracts the attention of the Ballet Master, who invites her to join his class. But this lively little girl still wonders, “Could a colored girl like me / ever become / a prima ballerina?" When she attends the debut performance of Janet Collins, the first African-American prima ballerina, at the Met on November 13, 1951 the young girl realizes her dream can come true. Coretta Scott King Award-winning illustrator Floyd Cooper sumptuously illustrates this story of hope and inspiration and vividly brings to life one young Harlem girl.
Jill Shalvis returns to her bestselling Lucky Harbor series with her new novel Once in a Lifetime. Lucky Harbor fans know that Aubrey Wellington is trouble, but she has decided to give herself a life makeover. She makes a list of wrongs she has committed and sets out to make amends. Ben McDaniel has had no interest in love since he was widowed, but he finds he can’t ignore the electricity between him and Aubrey. As they grow closer, Aubrey worries that one secret item on her list may push him away forever.
Shalvis’s sexy, laugh-out-loud funny romances have made her a star in the contemporary romance genre. The author recently answered some questions about love, life and her new novel.
Between the Covers: What scene did you have the most fun writing?
Jill Shalvis: Oh I have quite a few from this book! When Aubrey throws her drink in Ben’s face, when she runs and hides out in an AA meeting and makes friends with the pastor, when Ben figures out she’s writing a list of people she’s wronged and he wonders that it’s not a lot longer than it is, when Aubrey gets a little tipsy and throws rocks at Ben’s window like a scene right out of the Say Anything movie …
BTC: Describe Aubrey a sentence
JS: Aubrey: her heart’s in the right spot but she doesn’t like to lead with it, if that makes any sense.
BTC: Aubrey inherits a cat named Gus, who has quite the personality—was he inspired by a real life cat?
JS: He was inspired by my own Satan—er, Sadie, who believes she is the queen of all humans.
BTC: Aubrey has some scandalous photos from her college days surface in her ex’s tell-all. Is there are anything from your past you wouldn’t want to see the light of day (but that you’re willing to share with us)?
JS: Alpha Man [Jill’s husband] has a photo on his phone that he snapped just as I was flipping him off. I’m not super proud of that moment, which of course is why he has it as my photo id when I call him…
BTC: What can your fans look forward to next in the Lucky Harbor series?
JS: Next up is a Lucky Harbor trilogy for this coming summer and fall, It’s in His Kiss, He’s So Fine, and Once in a Million, the stories of the three sexy hot guys who run Lucky Harbor Charters.
Alice LaPlante’s latest novel, A Circle of Wives, tells a story of lies, secrets and determination from the perspective of several different women. When Dr. Paul Taylor is discovered dead in his hotel room from an apparent heart attack, everything changes as it becomes clear his death was anything but natural. Married to his wife Deborah for 35 years, Dr. Taylor was a kind-hearted and renowned plastic surgeon who specialized in facial reconstruction for children with birth and medical defects. But his death opens a veritable Pandora’s Box of polygamy and deception when it's revealed that Dr. Taylor had not one, but three wives throughout the state of California.
Detective Samantha Adams is 28 and assigned to her first murder case. She becomes embroiled in the lives of Dr. Taylor’s wives and, while the motive to kill is clear, the question remains as to which wife it could be. They are very different women: the society wife, the hippy accountant and the successful doctor. Two were unaware of their deceased husband’s lies and his “real” wife emerges as the puppet master behind the whole arrangement. Could this make her the most likely suspect?
While LaPlante’s novel initially seems to be a clear cut murder mystery, it quickly evolves into an entirely different story full of psychological suspense, obsession and passion.
A tight-knit community is turned upside down when tragedy strikes. Carla Buckley’s new novel, The Deepest Secret, shows how a once safe and unsuspecting community can transform when one minor bad decision goes unchecked and snowballs.
Everyone makes mistakes, and Buckley highlights the flaws of all of her characters, but it’s the mistake of one person in particular that propels the plot and changes the dynamic of a whole family. Eve is the mother of a son with a rare condition leaving him unable to come in contact with ultraviolet light. Her family has revolved around the rising and setting of the sun until an error in judgment becomes the center of her universe.
Buckley has a way of conveying guilt and a sense of ambiguity that leads the reader to hope that there is the potential for innocence. Buckley also brings other characters’ mistakes to light, leading the reader to rethink who may be at fault for the crime that shakes this community’s sense of security.
The shame that can be felt while reading this book could be compared to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, while the family dynamics and legal components are reminiscent of William Landay’s Defending Jacob. One minute, incidents seem certain, yet in the next they shift, keeping the reader guessing and eager until the very end.
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Donald Yacovone is a fascinating companion book to the recent documentary series of the same name. Like the series, the book begins with the story of Juan Garrido, the first known African-born person to arrive in what is now the United States in 1513. The narrative carries through to the present, covering 500 years of African-American history. The book, which is organized in nine chapters that mark distinct periods in the African-American story, brings greater depth to the stories presented in the documentary. In both, Gates highlights the diversity and the resilience of African-Americans by sharing the stories of individuals whose experiences shed light on their time and place in this complex history.
This documentary series is a lifelong dream that Gates was finally able to bring to fruition. He explains,“Since my senior year in high school, when I watched Bill Cosby narrate a documentary about black history, I’ve longed to share those stories in great detail to the broadest audience possible, young and old, black and white, scholars and the general public. I believe that my colleagues and I have achieved this goal through The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The critics agree that it is a success. Both the series and book have been nominated for NAACP Image Awards.
The six-part miniseries, which aired on PBS last fall, was recently released on DVD. This touching and inspiring video clip gives viewers a taste of the storytelling found in this riveting look into 500 years of history.
Go to a New Hampshire college for a summer prep program, only to find out your dorm was an old psychiatric hospital. Needless to say, you won’t be having a peaceful summer. In Madeleine Roux’s new book, Asylum, this is teenager Dan Crawford’s experience when he arrives for a program for gifted students. An outsider at his school, he sees this trip as a chance to be with like-minded students and finally have some friends. But his stay starts out as anything but ordinary when he finds a disturbing photograph in his dorm room upon check-in. Soon, he and two friends discover old patient records, medical instruments and more ominous photographs in the old warden’s office and in a series of hidden rooms, all of which hint at horrific treatment of patients and human experiments gone awry. To make matters worse, Dan begins having nightmares about the old place, receives strange emails and discovers some chilling connections between the history of the asylum and his and his friends’ present-day lives.
Staying away from anything too mind-bending or fantastical, Roux creates a good old-fashioned scarefest of a story, one where you’re holding your breath as the characters open up the next door or descend yet another flight of stairs. The suspenseful nature of the book and the well-developed characters will appeal to both readers of realistic fiction and horror/suspense. Similar to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Roux’s tale adds to the unsettling ambiance of the story by incorporating photographs from real asylums. Roux has left plenty of loose ends and unanswered questions for another book, which is due out later this year.
Bestselling novelist Gary Shteyngart is a really funny guy. He is a master of social satire and self-deprecating humor, reminiscent of Woody Allen or Phillip Roth. In Little Failure: A Memoir, Shteyngart turns to his own life and skewers himself, his family and two countries with a razor sharp wit.
Shteyngart (What kind of name is that? Keep reading, he’ll tell you, and good luck not laughing out loud when he does.) was born in the former Soviet Union. The only child of Jewish parents who affectionately called their asthmatic son Soplyak, meaning “snotty,” or Failurchka, which needs no translation, the family immigrated to the United States when Shteyngart was 6. Life for poor Russian Jews was not easy under the Communists, but America is fraught with opportunities for humiliation too.
Reading Little Failure is, at times, like listening to a clever borscht belt comedian: badda bing, badda boom, with a zinger in every paragraph. Whether comparing his after-school time at Grandma Polya’s house in America to “being fed like some pre-foie-gras goose,” describing Black Sea vacations Soviet-style or recounting his time as an Oberlin College student, Shteyngart has an eye for the absurd. With his deft blend of humor and pathos, he can relate family history under Stalin and the complex relationship with his father or his family’s glee upon receiving a pseudo-check from Publisher’s Clearinghouse with equal panache. On the The New York Times best sellers list, Little Failure will appeal to readers with an intelligent funny bone.
Billy Miller is about to start second grade and is very worried. He hit his head in a fall over the summer and is worried he won't be smart enough for school. Reassuring him, his father tells him this will be The Year of Billy Miller. Follow Billy through his second grade year in this charming novel by Kevin Henkes. Broken into four parts, Billy’s school year is told through his relationships with his teacher, sister, father and mother. Realistically portraying the worries of a 7-year-old, The Year of Billy Miller touches on a little bit of everything.
Does his teacher like him? When Billy thinks he has offended his new teacher he worries and wonders how to fix it. Can his little sister fill in for his best friend when a planned sleepover is cancelled? He really wants to stay up all night. Is he really too old to call his father “Papa?" That’s what the know-it-all Emma says. Will he be able to recite the poem for his mother in front of everybody? Will his mother like it?
Henkes delivers a poignant, realistic portrayal of Billy that is relatable to any elementary school student. Fans of realistic fiction such as the Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary will enjoy this novel. Kevin Henkes is an award-winning author of over 50 picture books as well as numerous novels for children. The Year of Billy Miller is a worthy continuation of his great body of work.