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.
Keeping secrets is a tricky business and can be the death knell of a relationship. Two new romance novels present characters conflicted by secrets which threaten their happy-ever-after.
Sarah MacLean concludes her Rules of Scoundrels series in spectacular fashion with Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover. Lady Georgiana’s fall from grace before her first season was colossal. Pregnant and unwed, she was cast from society but rebounded with the help of three other ruined women and created The Fallen Angel, London’s most successful gaming club. But life in the fast lane is hampering her daughter’s future and Georgiana needs to marry well to clean up her reputation and re-enter society. Handsome newspaper tycoon Duncan West agrees to assist Georgiana in her efforts by using his resources as an outlet for planting articles shining her in a glowing light. As the two grow close, their chemistry intensifies and readers will be rooting for this dynamic couple to find forever love all while being shocked by the secrets revealed.
Marcus is the dissolute Duke of Rutherford in Megan Frampton’s The Duke’s Guide to Correct Behavior, the promising start to the Dukes Behaving Badly series. Marcus is stunned when 4-year-old Rose, his unknown child, arrives on his doorstep. He hires governess Lily to care for his newfound daughter and finds himself quickly attracted to Lily’s quiet beauty. His feelings are so strong that he vows to change his wicked habits and requests Lily’s help in becoming a proper gentleman in the hopes of one day securing her love. But Lily has a secret that could change everything, especially her future with Marcus. Readers will fall in love with Marcus and Lily who share quick wit, thoughtful conversations and a common love for Rose, all while their physical attraction grows impossible to ignore.
Ethics and morality get trumped by passion and ambition in Saskia Goldschmidt's disturbing yet engaging debut novel, The Hormone Factory, translated from Dutch by Hester Velmans. Mordechai de Paauw is the Dutch cofounder and CEO of a slaughterhouse-turned-pharmaceutical enterprise. His new company, Farmacom, becomes a global success for its pioneering of hormonal treatments, including the contraceptive pill. However, it is deeply overshadowed by the flawed humanity of its owner.
Now on his deathbed, Mordechai reflects on his turbulent life, its towering achievements and its darkest failures. He revisits the early days of the family butcher business he and his twin brother Aaron inherited from their father. It is Mordechai who sees the pharmaceutical possibilities of extracting hormones from animal waste, but it is Aaron who pays a dear price. Mordechai seeks and forms an uneasy partnership with an equally ambitious German scientist, Rafael Levine. The two mount one breakthrough after another while Hitler charges toward Holland’s doorstep. World War II threatens Mordechai's interests, as do gross errors in judgment, personal and professional.
Goldschmidt, whose father survived the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen, found material for this story while conducting research for another book. "I came across the file of Professor Laqueur, a famous pharmacologist and clinician, one of the founders of the pharmaceutical company Organon and the man who discovered testosterone. More important, he also happened to be my father's first father-in-law." Professor Laqueur’s collaboration with the Van Zwanenberg slaughterhouse owned by two brothers from the town of Oss, Holland, eventually resulted in one of the country's first multinational pharmaceutical companies. To be sure, Goldschmidt's imagined story of the real players sheds an unflattering light on a young industry on the cusp of discovering miracle drugs. An intriguing book club read, this story will resonate with anyone who has ever swallowed an aspirin.
As the calendar year comes to a close, it’s become common to compile best-of lists to share, discuss and widely recommend. Here are 10 of my favorite fiction titles, in no particular order, published in 2014. What lands a book on my best-of list? All of these novels feature quality writing, stories with an intriguing plot hook and memorable characters. They make the reader reflect on bigger issues, and ultimately on the human condition. We want to read books we can connect with, often in ways that are far from obvious. While I want to be entertained as I read, I want to be thrilled by the author’s craft. I look for a poetic turn of phrase, descriptions that make me pause, reread and reflect. This list reflects a variety of fiction subgenres, including realistic, historical, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic and mystery.
The eye-catching cover of Lily King’s slim novel Euphoria, depicting the inner bark of the native rainbow eucalyptus, slyly reveals the story’s setting of Papua, New Guinea. Loosely based on events in the life of brilliant, pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria’s Nell is a headstrong researcher both aided and hobbled by her partner in life and in the field, her Australian husband Fen. As the book opens, the two are fleeing the brutal tribe they had been observing for a number of months, frustrated and hoping for a new opportunity. Fate connects them with the previously isolated English anthropologist Bankson, who welcomes a chance to work with the dynamic couple in studying a female-centric tribe, the Tam. Intellect, connection and understanding (or lacks thereof) spark passions among the anthropologists and the tribe itself, leading to both internal and external discovery.
“I was strong and he was not, so it was me who went to war to defend the Republic.” Thus begins Laird Hunt’s Civil War nod-with-a-twist to Homer’s The Odyssey, Neverhome. Here Penelope goes proudly off to battle while Odysseus tends to the home fires. Told in a first person narrative, the story follows “Ash” Thompson, a young Indiana farmwife hungry for honor and adventure, who passes as a man in order to join the Union army. Ash soon finds she has a strong taste for battle and a remarkable talent with a gun. Hunt takes readers through the harsh realities of war in the Civil War era, seasoning the story with the kind of small details of daily life that fascinate readers and make history come alive.
Mark Watney has the dubious distinction of being the first astronaut accidentally stranded on Mars in Andy Weir’s The Martian. A biologist and mechanical engineer, Watney was left for dead after a violent sandstorm caused flying debris to pierce his spacesuit and sent him flying down a hill. This event triggers the sudden evacuation of the rest of the crew of NASA’s third manned mission to the red planet. But Watney has suffered only minor injuries, and pure dumb luck and a little science keep his suit from being totally breached. He soon realizes his dire circumstances, setting the survival plot in motion. Author Weir has created a smart, funny, self-deprecating geek in Watney, a guy you can’t help but root for as he solves problem after problem with determination, grit and pure knowledge of math and science. Told in a series of log entries interspersed with chapters that depict the scientists and suits at NASA working on a way to rescue the man whose plight has become an international cause, The Martian is a pure sci-fi page-turner.
A team of four women make the twelfth expedition to Area X, a lush overgrown landscape teeming with wildlife and cut off from civilization for decades after The Event has begun. The team is comprised of our narrator, known only as the biologist; the surveyor; the anthropologist and the psychologist, whose penchant for hypnotizing the others makes her immediately suspect. Annihilation, a smartly packaged original paperback, is the first installment in The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, whose volumes have all been published in 2014. Mysteries abound in this unsettling, intellectual sci-fi thriller, as the party discover a feature of the landscape heretofore undocumented — an underground tunnel (or tower, as the narrator prefers to think of it) that descends deep below the surface. Who or what has left the message on the walls, written in living, pulsating vegetation? How is the narrator changed when she accidentally inhales spores that have been released? And what exactly happened to those who came back from previous expeditions, irrevocably damaged?
“Irrevocably damaged” also serves to describe the characters who populate Phil Klay’s stories of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Redeployment. The winner of this year’s National Book Award, Klay’s stories plumb the emotional and psychological depths of what it means to serve, and the aftershocks that reverberate throughout the bedrock of life after homecoming. Justly compared to Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried, Redeployment will surely maintain its place on must-read lists for decades to come.
The other titles that round out the list have been previously reviewed by my colleagues here on Between the Covers: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia, Station Eleven by Emily St. John-Mandel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas and The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.
Following the journey of the heroine in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks gives the sensation of jumping down a confusing yet richly stylized rabbit hole. Holly Sykes is not only a strong-willed English teenager who loves her Talking Heads LP, she’s also a hypersensitive psychic phenomena. At age 15, she rebels against her callous mother by running away for a weekend. This typical rite of passage causes a terrible loss to the family and Holly herself. And so the jostling expedition begins through space, sanity, and many years.
Throughout her life, Holly develops complex relationships with a series of eccentric characters who also narrate this intricate tale, including an arrogant college student, a journalist covering the Iraq War in 2003 and an aging egocentric literary writer. Reality begins to distort as Holly’s psychic strength attracts two separate groups of mystics with supernatural powers and questionable intents. The plot’s jagged terrain has the unhinged feeling of sewn together novellas, and seeing the seemingly free-flowing threads come together is a one-of-a-kind reading experience.
The Jane Austen Centre declared today Jane Austen Day in recognition of the anniversary of her birth in 1775. Austenites worldwide are making plans to celebrate their beloved author in all manner of festivities, including teas, costume balls and social media events. Indeed the day has its own Facebook page! Austen’s enduring appeal is evident in the legion of literary spin-offs and retellings published every year. Two new entries in the field will interest the Austen Army as well as readers of historical fiction, mystery and romance.
If you liked P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley which was recently adapted as a two-part series on Masterpiece Theater, then Stephanie Baron’s Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas is for you. The 12th installment in this popular series takes place during the Christmas season of 1814. Jane and her family are dining at The Vyne, the wealthy Chute family’s ancestral home. When one of the guests is killed in an accident, the mood dampens. Almost immediately Jane suspects something sinister is afoot and that a killer is at large. Baron’s attention to detail is impeccable, the mystery is well-crafted and devotees will savor the biographical tidbits sprinkled throughout.
Syrie James invites readers to get to know the teenage Jane in Jane Austen’s First Love, a novel, the author explains in her afterword, was inspired by actual events. It’s 1791, Jane is 15 and she dreams of falling desperately in love. Edward is 17, heir to an estate and handsome beyond belief. They live in two different worlds but continue to spend time together. Jane can’t stop thinking about him or the fact that he seems interested in her too. But there is a rival for his affection. When Jane starts matchmaking with three other potential couples, things go disastrously. This charming story’s appeal extends beyond Austen fans to romance readers and those who enjoy compelling coming-of-age stories.
Written from the perspective of Downton’s own trusted butler, Carson, Rules for Household Staff is anything but the dry instructional manual its title would suggest. Carson’s careful and precise introduction brings a depth of dignity to the serving class in keeping with the series’ sensitive depiction of its members.
Referring to servants as Improvers of Lives, Carson likens those who enter the profession to “doctors and nurses” who “heal and make well lives that can be fraught with worry and responsibility.” Clearly, those who serve – at least at Downton – are called to do so, and by the correct and efficient discharge of their duties, they may aspire to master their chosen career. To this end, the remainder of the volume is dedicated.
Replete with useful notes and instruction on a staggering variety of practical duties and behavioral obligations, Rules for Household Staff is a surprisingly concise and markedly engaging read. Readers who follow the series will develop a deeper understanding of the downstairs characters in Downton, as well as a keener appreciation of the responsibilities each member of the household bears in the running of the abbey. Along the way, readers may also pick up some unexpectedly useful skills, such as napkin folds, the proper procedure for decanting wine and a nontoxic method for ridding the kitchen of flies.
Recommended for history enthusiasts and in particular for fans of the Downton Abbey series. Those who have already enjoyed Rules for Household Staff may also appreciate The Chronicles of Downton Abbey.
Mallory Ortberg’s Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters is a funny, irreverent take on what it would be like if famous authors and classic literary characters texted. Ortberg takes books and authors that we read in high school or college and retells their stories in text form. From Hamlet to Elizabeth Bennett to the Lorax, from Edgar Allan Poe to William Wordsworth to Emily Dickinson, no character or author is out of reach for Ortberg.
Ortberg uses classic characters like Jo March and Jane Eyre, juxtaposed with more modern ones like the twins from Sweet Valley High and the members of the Baby Sitters Club. She brings these characters to life through text speak and emoticons, making the reader crack up at the thought of Plato texting the cave allegory to a close friend, or Hamlet text-yelling at his mother to keep out of his room. The texts referenced in the title of the book are particularly amusing—Mr. Rochester’s in all caps and Jane Eyre’s cool and distant, as he tries to lure her back to him.
Ortberg, one of the co-editors and founders of The Toast website, has translated her hilarious online writing career into print with Texts from Jane Eyre. Readers will be laughing along as they relive some of their favorite (or least favorite) literary characters in text message form. This is one that former English majors will devour!