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A Warped Sense of Reality

The Girl BelowThere is an unsettling mystery at the heart of Bianca Zander’s debut novel, The Girl Below, a tale of family secrets and self-discovery set in modern-day London. When Suki Piper was a little girl, she lived with her parents in a basement flat in Notting Hill. One night, her parents threw a party in their building’s courtyard. During the revelry, Suki and a few others became trapped underground in a World War II-era air raid shelter on the property. Suki has no memory of how she escaped, and this incident haunts her repeatedly, in dreams and also in waking moments when she is suddenly transported back to the party. She has other strange memories, including a hand which would reach out to her from a wardrobe and an unnerving statue of a girl in her neighbor’s flat. In the present day, Suki is in her late twenties and having a tough time. After a decades-long lonely existence in New Zealand trying to reconnect with her father, she has returned to London. Having little success with a job search or friendships, she becomes reacquainted with her former neighbors, a nice but dysfunctional family. Suki is once again launched into her past and must make sense once and for all of her fractured family and the missing pieces.

 

Suki can be a frustrating narrator, coming across as fairly lazy, impulsive and immature. Yet as she embarks on her search and more is revealed about her unstable family and upbringing, she becomes a more sympathetic character. Childhood events are relayed as Suki remembers them, giving a large portion of the story a fantastical, magical bend. Among her influences, Zander cites authors as diverse as Haruki Murakami, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sarah Waters. From these inspirations, a unique story is spun.  

 

Melanie

 
 

Eight Degrees of Manipulation

The Stockholm OctavoSome novels seem designed for escape, others for amusement, and yet others to satisfy an intellectual craving. Karen Engelmann’s The Stockholm Octavo fits into none of these particular niches yet embodies the characteristics of them all by simply engulfing the reader. With each passing scene, Engelmann sweeps the reader further into to a richly-detailed hybrid of 18th century Swedish politics and mysticism.

 

Emil Larsson has fared well for himself in this world. A rising sekretaire, skillful gamer and thoroughly contented bachelor, Larsson is a man immersed in the pleasures and glory of Stockholm’s Golden Age.  However, destiny is about to deal Emil an altogether new hand. One night, shortly after learning he must give up bachelorhood to maintain his prestigious government post, Emil is approached by Mrs. Sparrow, the proprietress of his favorite gaming house. A known seer, Mrs. Sparrow tells him she has had a startling vision of his future and invites him to undergo the cartomancy ritual known as the Octavo.

 

The Octavo is a rare and delicate reading – granted to few and successfully wielded by yet fewer. Revolving around a singular life-changing occurrence and the eight people who will bring the event to pass, the Octavo is no mere game. It is a chance meeting of known destiny and free will.  And as Emil is about to discover, he is not the only player.

 

The Stockholm Octavo will appeal to a wide range of readers. A wholly original and dazzling blend of historical events, personal fortune, political intrigue and mysticism awaits readers who dare to follow Emil on his perilous journey.

 

Meghan

 
 

Drawing Our Nation’s Capital

District ComicsOur neighbor to the southwest is examined chronologically in District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC. Edited by Matt Dembicki, founder of a comic creators’ collaborative called D.C. Conspiracy, this graphic anthology looks both at the familiar, and especially, the less well-known events that has shaped the culture and history of the city. Each vignette, some no more than ten pages, is written and/or illustrated by a different person, which makes for a great variety of tone and artistic style.

 

More commonly known aspects of DC history are covered, such as L’Enfant’s design of the city; Dolley Madison’s rescue of priceless items from the White House as the British burned the building during the War of 1812; and the foiled assassination attempt on Harry Truman by Puerto Rican nationalists. Two particularly moving pieces deal with Washington’s role as a focal point of the grief of the nation. One focuses on the work that Walt Whitman did volunteering to help wounded Union troops at Washington hospitals during the Civil War. The other is the story of the man who played Taps at Arlington Cemetery following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Another important historical event that gets its due is what was known as the Bonus Expeditionary Force, or B.E.F., which “occupied” DC after World War I. This group of veterans did not feel they received appropriate benefits after the war, converged on the city, and were later forcibly removed from their protest area in a fashion that seems eerily similar to the Occupy movement of today. Personal stories are featured as well, including that of janitor James Hampton, who built an incredible altar to his spiritual beliefs in a rented garage – so amazing it later made its way to the Smithsonian. Lawmakers, spies, journalists and athletes, too, take their places among the many stories in this handsome collection.

 

Todd

 
 

A Journey through Time

A Journey through Time

posted by:
September 20, 2012 - 8:30am

Shadow of NightShadow of Night, the second book in Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy, was released this summer to the delight of her fans. It continues the story of historian/witch Diana and geneticist/vampire Matthew who met and fell in love in A Discovery of Witches. They go back in time to Elizabethan London to continue their search for the alchemical manuscript Ashmole 782. Upon their arrival, they meet Matthew’s friends from the School of Night, all well-known historical figures like Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe. Their spellbinding journey takes readers to England, France, and Prague. Diana continues her magical education while facing the dangers of being a witch in that time period, and much more is revealed about Matthew’s past and his family.

 

This series has enchanted readers with its blend of magic, history, and romance. Shadow of Night picks up right where the series-starter A Discovery of Witches left off, so readers new to the series will need to start with the first book. The series is flavored by rich historical detail. The author’s passion for history comes as no surprise, though. Harkness is a professor of history at University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Some of the lingering questions from the first book of the series are answered in Shadow of Night, but many more are left to be explained in the final book of the series.

 

Harkness’s knowledge of wine is evident in her novels, especially A Discovery of Witches. Many readers may not realize that in her spare time, she shares her love of wine on her award-winning blog Good Wine Under $20.

Beth

 
 

Fierce Women

Fierce Women

posted by:
August 24, 2012 - 8:30am

Tigers in Red WeatherTigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann is the story of two cousins growing up in Tiger House on Martha’s Vineyard. The first cousin, Nick, is getting married to the devilishly handsome Hughes when he returns from the war. But Hughes returns a different man, slightly distant and living in his own head. Nick requires variety and excitement, but what Hughes provides is stability and normalcy, and they begin to drift slowly apart. Helena is the second cousin, and she was engaged to a man who was killed in the war. She instead marries Avery, who works in Hollywood in the film industry. Later, Helena discovers that Avery’s sole purpose in life is to maintain a collection pertaining to a dead actress and this drives a wedge between the couple.

 

Years pass, and Nick gives birth to daughter Daisy. Helena has a son named Ed, and the children become good friends. One fateful summer in the late fifties, Daisy and Ed discover the body of a young maid left beaten, strangled and covered in a blanket. This discovery affects all of the residents of Tiger House. Relationships deteriorate, secrets are kept and then revealed, and the world spins off its axis.

 

Klaussman, the great-granddaughter of Herman Melville, creates a compelling story. It is told in five parts, each focusing on one of the characters, and several scenes are replayed featuring a different point of view. This technique allows the reader to get a clear picture of the troubles facing Tiger House as well as the extent of the dysfunction within. Because of the unique storytelling style and the strong character development, this would be a good choice for a book club.

 

Doug

 
 

Where Joy and Sorrow Meet

In the Shadow of the BanyanGrowing up in a wealthy Cambodian family, seven-year-old Raami enjoys a privileged life until a civil war rips from her the only existence she has ever known. In an elegant autobiographical literary debut, In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner brings to life the 1975 Khmer Rouge capture of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, and one family’s extraordinary fight to live.

 

Told through the curious, fearful eyes of a young girl, Ratner’s story is more than the atrocities of revolution. Rather, it is about not losing faith in life’s beauty and goodness. With Raami’s tender, lyrical voice, the reader is introduced to pre-revolution Cambodia, as well as the new reality of forced labor and other unspeakable horrors. It’s a confusing world where being intelligent can mean death. Silence is the key to survival, and family members become lost. Before they know it, Raami, her beautiful mother and younger sister are forced into a peasant’s life. Raami becomes "koan neak srae," a child of these paddies. Her solace is remembering stories told to her by her stoic Sisowath prince father, who once said he writes because "words give me wings."  

 

Rattner's prose is as mellifluous as the Mekong River that Raami longs to see. Rich with similes, Rattner's images are as magical and lovely as they are harsh. In their fullness, the reader sees a Cambodia that is much more than a war-torn landscape and heartbreaking characters who reflect the human tragedy. A small child when the Khmer Rouge took over her country, Ratner strives to honor the lives lost during the genocides. "Sometimes we, like little fishes, are swept up in these big and powerful currents,” Raami's father tells her. Rattner's personal story describes their journey.

 

 

Cynthia

 
 

Coming of Age on the Lower East Side

UnterzakhnThe new graphic novel, Unterzakhn (Yiddish for “underthings”) by Leela Corman tells the story of twin sisters, Esther and Fanya. The sisters grow up on the Lower East Side of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Through Corman’s attention to detail in both her art and text, readers are immediately transported to New York City, 1909. In addition to the lively New York story, Corman also interweaves the family’s tragic past in nineteenth century Russia.

Daughters of Jewish Russian immigrants, sisters Esther and Fanya must learn how to survive when few choices were available to young women. The sisters take decidedly different paths. Esther works for a woman who runs a burlesque theater and Fanya goes to work for a “woman doctor.” These choices go on to shape them as the young woman they become. Although their lives are different in nearly every way--lifestyle, politics and values--their childhood bond enables the sisters to transcend these differences in adulthood.

As in any excellent graphic novel, the text and illustrations work together seamlessly in telling the story. Corman’s keen attention to detail allows the reader to enter Fanya and Esther’s world. Corman gives a real sense of New York and Russia, spanning from the late 1890s to the 1920s. She sprinkles the story with Yiddish phrases throughout and lovingly depicts Russian village life in the late nineteenth century. Corman is also particularly adept at conveying her female characters’ expressions as they go through a lifetime of emotions. Unterzakhn is very much a classic immigrant story but at the story’s core is a tale of two sisters figuring out to survive as young women in this time and place.

Zeke

 
 

C'est Magnifique!

C'est Magnifique!

posted by:
June 15, 2012 - 8:30am

Passing LoveIn Passing Love by Jacqueline Luckett, the reader first meets Nicole-Marie following the death of her best friend. Realizing life is too short, she satisfies a long-time dream to spend a month in Paris. Leaving a marriage proposal (from her already married boyfriend) in her wake, she embarks on the trip of a lifetime. Her vacation soon turns into an investigation when Nicole-Marie finds a picture of her father with an unidentified woman. She is drawn to this photo and feels compelled to find out who this mysterious woman is and more importantly, what her relationship was with her dad. 

   

That woman is Ruby Garret, a beautiful woman living in Mississippi during World War II. Ruby is an independent thinker desperate to get out of the south. She is tired of being treated as a second-class citizen in a world where Jim Crow laws governed. Ruby’s chance to escape comes in the form of Arnett, an older musician with a dangerous side. Ruby is soon part of the legion of African-Americans who moved to colorblind Paris during the glittering post World War II years which were awash in music, poetry, and art. 

 

Luckett manages to recreate both the Paris of today and the sparkling creative Paris of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Indeed, the City of Lights is a major character in this story told in alternating viewpoints and across six decades. Nicole-Marie and Ruby are two strong women whose stories are filled with secrets and betrayal, but also love and a celebration of life after fifty. 

Maureen

 
 

Slow Burn

Slow Burn

posted by:
June 15, 2012 - 8:01am

Coral GlynnLovers of historical fiction will want to check out Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron. The novel begins in 1950s England after the war has ended. Coral Glynn, a young nurse, heads to Hart House to care for the aging Mrs. Hart. Also living in the house is Major Clement Hart, who was injured in the war and is dealing with demons of his own. The Major is suffering from repressed sexuality and a confusing love for his childhood friend, Robin Lofting. Mrs. Prence, the irascible housekeeper, takes an instant dislike to Coral, and upon the unexpected death of Mrs. Hart she harbors many suspicions about the new live-in nurse. When an unexpected proposal happens, followed by a disturbing event in the nearby woods, the lives of the characters begin to change in wholly unexpected ways.

 

The English countryside in 1950 is the perfect setting for these characters; each comes with baggage and is very unsure of what the future holds. Cameron slowly reveals facts about Coral, drawing out the mystery as there is more to her than first meets the eye and the reader will become intrigued by her and the decisions she is forced to make. The magic of Coral Glynn revolves around the characters, their hidden secrets and desires, and missed opportunities.

 

Fans of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca should enjoy this story. Like Rebecca, Coral is living alone in a strange setting with an unknown gentleman and a distant and unlikeable housekeeper. Coral Glynn is a quiet novel that sneaks up on the reader, with the beautiful writing, quietly revealing plot details while introducing the reader to several characters they will want to get to know and spend time with.  Appealing for anyone that wants a character-driven story with a hint of mystery and suspense, this title will also be perfect for book clubs.

Doug

 
 

Tapestry

Tapestry

posted by:
June 14, 2012 - 8:30am

GlowHistorical fiction offers a window into the past for readers to experience the lives and circumstances of people during a previous era. The pleasure of acquiring a more comprehensive knowledge of an earlier time period has fans of this genre always on alert for the next great book. Glow, by Jessica Maria Tuccelli, is just such a book. Set in the remote mountain region of Hopewell County, Georgia, the novel chronicles both the childhood of Amelia McGee and her family’s story from before the War of Northern Aggression to the outbreak of World War II. This is an all-encompassing family saga told from multiple perspectives, and the reader will appreciate the family tree included at the beginning of the novel.

 

In the Takatoka forest, once occupied by the Cherokee, Indian legends are as commonplace as Bible stories. The community is made up of whites, freed slaves, half-breeds, mulattos, voodoo practitioners, and the occasional ghost. Glow is an intricately woven tapestry of folklore and heritage, rich with the colloquialisms of this unique region. Tuccelli spent several years exploring Northeastern Georgia to soak up the local flavor and she utilizes beautifully descriptive and jargon-filled vocabulary to paint an authentic portrait of bygone days. 

 

At the core of this character-driven story is love, especially the joy and the heartbreak associated with everlasting love and the strong bonds which mothers and fathers share with their children. The classic theme of family and friendship engages readers of all genres and leaves them with the feeling of having personally been woven into the author's tapestry. This is one of those books that you don’t want to end.

Jeanne