In early 1938, the intrepid Maisie Dobbs returns to England and her former profession in Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear. As Maisie walks the streets of London, she meanders through her memories. Dealing with her grief and the irresponsible actions that lead to her husband’s death, Maisie is approached by MI-5 for a treacherous mission. Leon Donat, a British subject visiting Germany to publish books, has been taken prisoner and sent to the notorious prison at Dachau. After complex negotiations, the German government has agreed to release Donat, but only if his daughter personally escorts her father home. Bearing a striking resemblance to Donat’s gravely ill daughter, as well as possessing certain valuable skills, MI-5 considers Maisie to be Donat’s only chance at escape.
Donat is no ordinary book publisher. He loves to tinker, and with his pen and paper he creates amazing inventions. Donat’s engineering skills and creative energy could mean the difference between winning and losing a war. While war has not yet been declared, it is obvious that the great nations of Europe are marching down an inexorable path. Germany has become a powder keg of simmering tensions, traitorous neighbors and underground defiance. Into this maelstrom, Maisie must convince Nazi officials she is Donat’s daughter and spirit him safely away before the Gestapo discovers his value.
Winspear has created a tale of emotional depth and moral conflict as Maisie struggles to reconcile her own experiences with what she has been called upon to perform. For while she is trying to free Donat, she has also been asked to assist the one person she holds accountable for her husband’s death.
Jacqueline Winspear has won the Agatha, Alex and Macavity awards for best first novel. If you like your mysteries with lots of historical atmosphere, a touch of spiritualism and a lot of spunk, Journey to Munich will surely deliver.
Edward O. Wilson has spent many decades explaining science to the multitudes. His passion for natural history rings true in all of his books. From his very first book The Ants (his specialty is myrmecology — the study of ants) to The Social Conquest of Earth, up through his most recent, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, Wilson spends his words to ignite in every human passion for the Earth that equals his own.
This 86-year-old myrmecologist starts off huge: Humans need to set aside fully half the Earth for nature, no exceptions. Why do they need to do this? Because only something that startling in scope can offset the magnitude of what people have been doing to the planet. His ultimately hopeful conclusion inspires the reader to action. This world can get better. The Earth can heal. But Wilson believes that the inhabitants of the Earth cannot sit by and dream of a better place — they have to make it. All life is interdependent, and in this Anthropocene Era, the era of humanity, humans are best-equipped to begin the healing process.
Believe him or not, there is absolutely no arguing with the man’s passion or his commitment to making the world safe for generations to come. Anyone interested in climatology, biology, or any of the life sciences, and those who enjoyed The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us by Diane Ackerman or Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming should read this book right away.
When you pick up a copy of Saving Alex: When I Was 15 I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That’s When My Nightmare Began, you do so already knowing that author Alexandra Cooper grew up Mormon, that she came out to her parents at a young age and that the results were disastrous. What you might not realize is how profound, life-changing, community-changing and uplifting the journey Alex took after her “nightmare” was, and what a powerful effect this young woman has had over one of the most complicated and tightly knit communities in our country.
One of the final strongholds that has continued to uphold discrimination against gay Americans, and gay youth in particular, has been the establishment of the Church of Latter Day Saints. According to Mormon doctrine, which includes but goes beyond the Old Testament, gay individuals cannot belong to sacred family units, or the Church, or reach Heaven. Certain belief in this is what frightened Alex’s parents to hysterics when, at 15, rebellious and strong-willed, she told them that she was dating another girl, and that she was a lesbian. They had taken action to discipline their “problem” child before, but this time their choices were devastating. They sent Alex away from their home in California to live with a family in St. George, Utah —a family that promised to help “cure” Alex of the sin of homosexuality. Alex found herself isolated from her friends, unable to use any methods of communication outside the strangers’ house, and, when she acted out in desperation for freedom, beaten, enslaved and made to carry heavy burdens and stare at a wall for weeks at a time without rest.
Alex tells her story with such love and tenderness that it’s mortifying to realize what cruelties she endured. Despite her trauma, Alex speaks with clear-headed empathy for her family as well as the culture she was raised in. She expresses an understanding for the fear and anxiety that led her abusers to treat her the way they did, even if she now knows they were wrong for trying to change her. Alex’s case made very recent history in Utah in 2011 by overturning legislation that enforced a parent’s right to try to change or reform a child’s sexuality against their will. Saving Alex is a hard book to read, but is ultimately a triumph, ending as reality often does — broken but hopeful, with some things lost and some things gained. Alex did not lose her life, family or rights, as so many before her did. She hopes to gain the same for the youth of the future.
Tessa Hadley’s new novel The Past is a beautifully written story capturing the complex relationships of families — both with each other and with their own past — as the characters find themselves tangled in patterns of behavior they don’t know how to break.
The story begins with a summer holiday. One by one, the grown siblings arrive at Kington House with children, groceries and even an unexpected guest. Harriet has arrived first, but immediately slipped off to the woods for a walk. When Alice arrives without her key, she must sit on the stoop and wait. That would have been fine if she hadn’t inexplicably invited her ex-boyfriend’s son Kashim, a chronically bored college student. As they peer into the house like strangers, Alice grows embarrassed of her typical forgetfulness. Fran and her children show up with their car packed full of groceries and let the others in. The sisters immediately begin pouring drinks and speculating about their brother Roland’s newest wife, Pilar, whom they haven’t yet met. And, as easily as that, they all slip into the family roles they know so well: the distant one, the flighty one, the responsible one.
Kington House is the vicarage where their grandparents lived and their mother grew up. The pleasantly dilapidated house has no cell phone service, cable TV or even a decent store, but it is full of memories. Every chipped tea cup and desk drawer holds a story, a part of their family’s past. On this vacation, the siblings must decide whether they will continue to hang on to the house, which needs a great deal of repair, or let go.
This lovely isolation creates a perfect setting for us to be enveloped in this chaotic family. We become one of them, feeling empathy for them even when they frustrate us beyond belief.
There is a grace to Hadley’s writing as she slips from one character’s innermost thoughts to the next. Even without an action-packed plot, this work is hard to put down. This family, their struggles and secrets, are so well written they become like people we have known, and they will linger with readers.
Readers who enjoy The Past will be interested in Hadley's previous books. It is easy to see why she is being called one of our greatest contemporary authors.
The 100th anniversary of the War to End All Wars has created a proliferation of popular fiction set during World War I. Standing head and shoulders above the crowd is Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War.
Agatha Kent has a well-ordered life as the wife of a British diplomat. She has travelled the world, and resides contentedly in the coastal Sussex town of Rye. Agatha is confident that her husband will succeed in his efforts to quell the quarrel in the Balkans and looks forward to a visit from her two nephews. Hugh is a brilliant young surgeon just finishing his studies. Daniel, the apple of his aunt’s eye, is a burgeoning poet of great promise. The only potential tempest on the horizon is Agatha’s arrangement to hire a female Latin instructor for the local school.
Beatrice Nash has lost her beloved father and must find a way to support herself. Her inheritance has been tied up in a trust controlled by relatives who do not believe a single woman should be without the protection of a man. Fleeing their plans to marry her off, she has accepted the position of Latin instructor in an insular English village. The daughter of a respected writer, Beatrice is well-traveled and highly educated. Her new role, as well as her independence of spirit, presents a challenge to the rigid hierarchy of the town. As the summer deepens, everyone must face a far greater threat to their way of life; the German invasion of Belgium brings reality as well as refugees.
Simonson’s debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an international bestseller. The Summer Before the War is an insightful, witty, haunting portrait that will surely captivate its readers.
Dawn Tripp’s Georgia is an arresting, sensual novel that offers a startling and realistic picture of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life, inspirations and influences.
The novel is mostly a close examination of her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, noted photographer and curator who was an early champion of her art. As each period of her art passes, and their relationship develops, we feel her frustration with how others perceive her deeply personal work as an extension of Stieglitz’s art: how the photos he’s taken of her are linked in critics’ minds to her work itself. This imbalance threatens their marriage and, more importantly, O’Keeffe’s ability to create.
It's when O’Keeffe is on her own on her self-directed retreats that we feel her freedom to take her work in an entirely different direction. “When someone looks at something I have painted, I want them to feel what moved me to paint it in the first place. I paint as I feel it. Light, sky, air. As I want it to be felt,” she said.
Georgia is a work of fiction and, while the rich descriptions of O’Keeffe’s art are well-written, reading about them will inspire you to look up O’Keeffe’s actual works. Georgia O’Keeffe: An Eternal Spirit by Susan Wright offers a great overview and pictures of her most famous paintings. Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction by Barbara Haskell and E. Bruce Robertson is a great companion to the novel as it focuses on some of her often-overlooked art. Also worth watching is this brief video about her life and work from the O’Keeffe Museum.
Brash. Gritty. Laugh-out-loud funny. Just a few of the adjectives I would use to describe Richard Fifield’s debut novel The Flood Girls. An irresistible tale of redemption, understanding and acceptance which I guarantee will make you laugh, cry and muse about life until the very last word.
In 1990, 20-something Rachel Flood returns to her hometown of Quinn, Montana, after a nine-year absence to make amends for her outlandish teen behavior. Having destroyed numerous marriages and relationships, she is certainly not welcomed by the townsfolk, including her own mother Laverna, the 40-something outlandish, brazen owner of the aptly named bar, Dirty Shame. But why does she despise Rachel? Will they reconcile? Can they be mother and daughter more than in name only?
Luckily for Rachel, she finds an ally in her 12-year-old neighbor, Jake. With his love of vintage clothes, Madonna’s music and Jackie Collins novels, he is an outcast in his own right. A teen determined to stay true to himself no matter how much it sets him apart from everyone else, much to the chagrin of his disapproving stepfather and the close-minded townsfolk. Jake and Rachel find support to be their true selves in each other, but will the townsfolk forgive Rachel? Will they accept Jake? Will either of them find happiness?
Capturing both the ugly underbelly and the heart of small town life, The Flood Girls will be one of your favorite reads. Fifield’s witty prose, sassy characters and rollercoaster ride of a story will have you feverishly reading into the wee hours of the night. Small town life has never been so much fun! You can learn more about Fifield on his website. Those looking for a similar read should try Ryan Stradel’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest.
There are books with racist subtext, and then there are the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Although his books defined the horror genre, Lovecraft was also an unrepentant racist who made xenophobia a major theme of his work. As time goes by, this has become harder for readers to tolerate, and his image was recently removed from the World Fantasy award trophies for this reason. But Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country explores Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos from the perspective of the people Lovecraft deplored, creating a moving story about race and the supernatural in one unforgettable novel.
The book begins in 1950’s Chicago, where Atticus and his Uncle George report for the Safe Negro Travel Guide, a book with real historical roots that guides black travelers through areas of the Jim Crow south where they’re likely to be harassed. The two men also share a mutual love of science fiction that the rest of their family finds hard to understand. But when Atticus’ father Montrose sends him a mysterious letter, they find themselves pulled into a fantasy of their own, a conspiracy of magic and elder gods that reaches far back into their family history.
Never before has a horror book engaged with race in such a thoughtful way, with supernatural evils serving as metaphors for social ones. But none of it would land if Ruff hadn’t crafted characters of such depth and complexity. I could go on about the family’s rich interpersonal relationships, like young Horace who sweetly draws his mother her own comic book series because she wants to read a story about a black woman for once, or the book club discussions between Atticus and George which could’ve filled the entire novel and been perfectly satisfying. These are characters to root for, who never back down from a challenge, whether they’re being chased by a sheriff or a shoggoth (which, believe me, are creepy). Fans of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series will enjoy this similarly pulpy piece of historical fiction.
With the reconstruction of the set for BBC One’s hit show Sherlock now underway, some fans may be fine living in anticipation until January 2017, when Season 4 is slated for release. But for those who are impatient for the detective’s next adventure, there’s Steve Tribe’s comprehensive Sherlock: Chronicles to ease the wait.
The book overflows with facts about the production process of Sherlock and includes interviews from cast and crew alike, giving a broader perspective into how the episodes were created from start to finish. Going in order from Season One’s A Study in Pink, each chapter focuses on one episode at a time, allowing for a depth of detail that would please even Sherlock Holmes himself. The chapters also include other fan treats, including deleted scenes, actor biographies and lots of production photographs. Notorious Holmes fanboys themselves, show creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are known for including little references to various Holmes stories; Sherlock: Chronicles pairs some of these Easter eggs with the corresponding Conan Doyle story title and quote.
It’s not just the televised episodes that get scrutinized; there’s a recounting of Holmes’ appearances in print and on screen, a chapter on the televised teaser released before Season 3, references to the in-character blogs and references to the ever-expanding Sherlock fandom.
There’s enough information here to keep even the most casual Sherlockian fan happy, and it's a good refresher for the lead-up to Season 4. Fans looking for more Sherlock trivia should also check out The Sherlock Files by Guy Adams.
The dysfunctional Plumb family is at the center of The Nest by debut author Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. When we first meet Leo Plumb, the eldest and most successful sibling, he is drunk, high and speeding away from his cousin’s wedding. Leo's intoxicated state and speed result in an accident which necessitates his going into rehab. We meet the rest of the Plumb siblings as they gather to meet with Leo, who is just out of rehab. The topic of this family gathering is The Nest, their joint trust fund, which they are scheduled to receive when Melody, the youngest, turns 40. They all eagerly anticipate receiving their portion of The Nest, as they all need the money.
Melody has two teenage daughters who are on their way to college. She has always wanted the best for them — a house in an area they couldn't afford, private schools and Ivy League colleges. Jack Plumb runs a failing antique shop and is in debt. He also has a mortgage on the vacation home he owns with his partner of more than 20 years, Walker. Then there is Beatrice, who once was a promising writer but now works at a literary magazine. Soon, they discover The Nest is all but gone. They are all counting on Leo to get them out the financial woes they have gotten themselves into, but can he? More importantly, will he?
The story is told from multiple points of view, so you get insight into how each sibling feels and what secrets they are keeping from one another. If you enjoyed Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Emma Straub’s The Vacationers, you will definitely want to meet the Plumb family.