Her husband left her for a newer model and now he’s lost his job, which means no more child support. This leaves Molly Hagan up a financial creek and emotionally still at sea in Vanity Fare: a Novel of Lattes, Literature and Love, a debut from Megan Caldwell, a regular blogger for the popular romance site Heroes and Heartbreakers. When an old friend offers her a freelance project writing marketing materials for a new bakery headed up by British celeb pastry chef Simon, Molly jumps at the chance. Thus begins the familiar balancing act between work, her son, Aidan – a six year old still dealing with the fallout from his parents’ split, and her financially strapped mother who has moved in with her.
Out of the workforce since Aidan was born, her lack of experience increases her self-doubt as she tackles this creative assignment. But her fears are assuaged as she comes up with a unique idea playing on the proximity of the main branch of the New York Public Library to the new storefront. She creates stories tying each scintillating treat to a great work of literature and even comes up with the bakery’s name – Vanity Fare. Her self-confidence is further boosted when the sexy Simon shines his romantic spotlight on her. Unfortunately, she must deal with his business partner, Nick, who is suspicious of Molly’s abilities, but does show a softer side when Aidan is around.
The clever marketing copy opens each chapter and readers will find themselves longing for "A Room of One’s Scone" or a "Tart of Darkness". For the more adventurous, the epilogue includes select recipes to bake at home. While the mouth-watering descriptions create a framework for this story, it is ultimately the realistic, yet still humorous, story of one young mother trying to start over again professionally and find lasting love.
How do you think you would respond in the face of something truly strange? With horror? With amusement? With speed, by running as fast as possible in the other direction? Or would you adapt, until what once was so strange is now just a new way of being? In his collection of wonderfully imaginative short stories, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories, Manuel Gonzales and his very human characters take the latter course, exploring the incredible malleability of the human psyche.
In tales ranging from just a few pages to nearly thirty, bizarre, often frightening, and occasionally gruesome events and people make appearances. A musical genius is physically crippled by his gift to the point that he must develop a way to speak through his ears to communicate. A zombie adept at hiding from discovery convinces himself to give into his homicidal urges because of a secret workplace crush. And in the title story, a scientist accidentally miniaturizes his wife and must then deal with the increasingly violent consequences to his marriage and his life. Often mysteries are unearthed, but never completely explained. Gonzales focuses on the internal dialogues of his characters, who respond to the weirdness around them with painfully human emotions and according to familiar--often petty and selfish--motivations.
At times tender, disturbing, amusing, and eerie, The Miniature Wife is perfect for cold, wild, stormy nights filled with hints of thunder and an air of possibility. Fans of gothic literature, the paranormal, and the short story format will devour this compilation of oddities and enigmas.
The bonds of family are strong, built out of intense love, and sometimes equally intense resentment and hatred. The Dinner by Herman Koch is less a meal than a psychological dissection of a family. The entire novel takes place during the course of an evening meal between two well-to-do brothers and their wives. Each member of the dinner party is trying to control the others and the unnamed “situation” with their children. Various scenarios play out in the minds of the diners, each more shocking and brutal than the last, as they attempt to sway the group toward the best solution. Best for whom remains to be seen.
Dutch author Koch takes a look inside a seemingly harmless gathering and answers the question “What are you really thinking?” Relationships—Parent and child, husband and wife, brother and brother—all are put under the microscope with satirical wit and brutal honesty. Already an international best-seller, The Dinner has received advance praise from like-minded psychological thriller writers such as Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and S. J. Watson (Before I Go to Sleep). Come to The Dinner and ask yourself, which way does your moral compass point?
A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma: Mr. Churchill’s quote applies neatly to author Robin Sloan’s debut novel, the charming Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Originally published as a short story in 2009, Sloan says “it gathered a following and ultimately grew” into his first book. Imagine a story about an ancient and secret society, one which involves puzzles, complicated codes, handmade typeface, and the quest for immortality. Now imagine a thriller which involves computer-hacking geeks, advanced cyber-technology, trademarked font, and big business. Finally, try to imagine a book combining these disparate elements and the fascinating result will be Mr. Penumbra.
Clay Jannon is a twenty-something laid-off web designer living in San Francisco. Financially desperate circumstances and newspaper help-wanted ads land him a job as the night clerk in Ajax Penumbra’s store. While Clay is able to satisfy the job requirement of scaling a ladder three stories high to retrieve books from the skyscraper-like shelves, he quickly develops a problem following another workplace rule: he is never to look inside the books. Before long, Clay cracks open a forbidden spine and falls into a world of codex vitae, Festina Lente, and a members-only chained library, all while hanging out with the Googlers at their compound-like workplace campus, harnessing the on-line research superpower of Hadoop, and tapping into a digital database of museum inventories worldwide.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is both engaging and clever. Sloan splices together old-fashioned intrigue and modern computerized marvels using a mix of real and imagined constructs. Ultimately though, the true Holy Grails and miracles which Sloan is offering in this story may turn out to be the power of friendship and the amazing technological wonders of our times.
The 2013 Stonewall Book Awards were announced at this year’s American Library Association Midwinter meeting. The Stonewall Book Awards are given each year to exceptional books reflecting the gay, lesbian and transgender experience. Each year a fiction, nonfiction, and children's or young adult title is chosen for the award. Honor books are also chosen in each category. This year’s Barbara Gittings Literature Award went to The Last Nude by Ellis Avery. It tells the story of the passionate, tortured relationship between Tamara de Lempicka and her muse, Rafaela. The Last Nude is highly recommended to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the Lost Generation of Paris, learn more about twentieth century art or simply wants to read a fascinating, wholly engrossing love story.
The Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children's & Young Adult Literature Award went to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Aristotle and Dante, two Mexican-American teens, are trying to figure out where they fit in the universe and how to navigate their ever-evolving friendship. Aristotle and Dante walked away with multiple awards this year. In addition to the Stonewall Award, it was also the winner of the Pura Belpre’ Award, which goes to the work for children and youth that best represents the Latino cultural experience. The book also garnered a Printz honor award, which highlights teen books of excellent literary merit.
This year’s Israel Fishman Nonfiction Award was given to For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out and Coming Home, edited by Keith Boykin. For Colored Boys is a collection of over 40 essays and personal stories from gay and transgender people of color. The collection features essays on coming out in communities of color, religion, HIV/AIDS, family dynamics and finding love. A powerful and diverse collection, For Colored Boys gives voice to life stories that are rarely told.
A complete list of The Stonewall Winners and Honor Books can be found on the ALA website.
Widely regarded as one of the best spy writers alive, Robert Littell is often compared to John LeCarre and Alan Furst. In his new novel Young Philby, readers are treated to an absorbing fictional biography of the notorious double agent. Anyone interested in spies and Cold War history will certainly know the name Hadrian Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, one of the most fascinating figures in the history of modern espionage. He was a high ranking British double agent and one of the members of the infamous Cambridge Three. While spying for the Russians, Philby managed to have a successful career in both the British and American intelligence agencies. He caused incalculable damage with the secrets he shared.
Littell explores Kim Philby’s life story as a young man, including his early attraction to communism. Littell also tells of the Soviets tapping Philby, and details the methods they used to make him look attractive to the British Secret Service. Littell’s narrative is particularly compelling because he tells his subject’s story through the lens of a various people who knew him throughout his life. We get to know “Philby the man” through his lovers and his father, and “Philby the spy” through the eyes of his Soviet handlers. But even with the distinctly different views into this notorious spy, Kim Philby remains an enigma. As with Littell’s other novels, Young Philby manages to be both a well-researched historical novel as well as a riveting read.
HBO and BBC have partnered to bring Parade’s End, based on Ford Madox Ford’s classic modernist tetralogy, to the screen in a new five-part miniseries that will premiere in the US on February 26th on HBO. Ford’s novels, published separately between 1924 and 1928, were first combined and reissued as Parade’s End in 1950. The story follows Christopher Tietjens, the wealthy heir to the estate of Groby, who is serving in the British army during World War I. Christopher’s personal life is complicated by a love triangle. He is torn between his socialite wife Sylvia, who Graham Greene called "surely the most possessed evil character in the modern novel," and his suffragette mistress Valentine. Rather than focusing on the upstairs/downstairs themes of Downton Abbey, Parade’s End portrays a broader view of England and the English gentry around World War I. Parade’s End is a challenging but worthwhile read. The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch calls the novel “The Better Downton Abbey,” citing the characters’ sharper edges and the novel’s drama that excels where he feels Downton Abbey has begun to fall flat.
The miniseries was adapted for the small screen by Sir Tom Stoppard. Director Susanna White says that Parade’s End, which was commissioned before the Downton Abbey craze, is its own unique take on the time period. Get a sneak peak at this critically-acclaimed drama, featuring the BBC’s Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher, here.
Abraham Lincoln was an inexperienced president in 1862 when he faced his troubled country's most daunting crises to date. With the new year came the inescapable truth of a nation divided, broken, and at war. To realize his vision for the union would take patience, even-keeled fortitude, and the ability to draw in friend and foe alike. In David Von Drehle's terrific and highly readable book, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year, the historian reconstructs in a dramatic but disciplined tone the year's greatest challenges for the self-schooled Illinois lawyer. Unfolding month by month, Lincoln's growth as a leader is as transformative for the 16th president as it is for the state and stabilization of the union.
There is no doubt that issues were burning for Lincoln and the country. Aside from a civil war and unabated "secession fever,” the president was facing a government overwhelmed, a treasury without money, and a war department reported in shambles. Europe was exhibiting impatient leanings toward the south. At home, Lincoln's domestic situation presented its own challenges and heartache. The moral crisis of slavery, which would eventually catapult Lincoln to greatness, was looming.
Von Drehle's careful chronology of this tumultuous year begins with New Year's Day and concludes a year later with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In captivating narrative guided by hefty research, layers of political, military and diplomatic maneuvering are peeled away as Von Drehle attempts to define the man Lincoln became as a result of the year's high stakes. Micro-biographies of the usual players add color, as do the plethora of Lincoln quotes, many poignant. Readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough will recognize here the republic at a crossroads and the bellwether of a nation who saw beyond.
The inspirational story of a Ugandan teen is deftly shared by Tim Crothers in The Queen of Katwe: a Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. Phiona Mutesi lives in poverty with her mother and three siblings. Meals are hard to come by and Phiona’s education has been haphazard at best. In 2005, at age nine, Phiona met Robert Katende, who had also grown up in slums, was a war refugee, and worked tirelessly as a missionary. His dream was to empower children through chess – highly unlikely since the game was so foreign there wasn’t even a word for it in the children’s language.
Children were enticed to the chess lessons by the promise of porridge, but soon many grew to love the game. Of these children, Phiona stood out as a talented, thinking chess player. In 2007, she was her country’s junior champion and continued winning titles over the next several years. In September 2010, she traveled to Siberia to compete in the Chess Olympiad, the world’s most prestigious team-chess event. Although she didn’t win, she did earn the respect of competitors and teammates. The Queen of Katwe is the story of a young girl struggling against every conceivable obstacle to pursue her dream. Readers will root and hope that Phiona will one day succeed as a Grandmaster and will remember her uplifting spirit long after the book is closed.
Crothers first shared Phiona’s story in an ESPN Magazine article, which was a finalist for the National Magazine Award. To hear some of the story in Phiona’s own words, watch this video from ESPN. In September, 2012, Phiona again competed in the Chess Olympiad, and her strong performance earned her the title of Woman Candidate Master, making her the first titled female player in Ugandan history. This fantastic dream may just become reality.
Some reading experiences are meant to be savored. Jess Walter creates one in Beautiful Ruins, which begins in 1962 at Hotel Adequate View on the Italian coastline. Pasquale Tursi, who runs the hotel, is captivated by the blond woman who arrives at his hotel. She turns out to be a dying American actress, and thus begins a novel that sweeps over decades and contains a cast of captivating characters, all “beautiful ruins” in their own right. In the present day we meet Michael Dean, a film producer who has recently returned to favor with the popularity of a reality television show, and his long suffering assistant Claire Silver, who is in the process of discovering another line of work. Next comes Shane Wheeler who wants to make a pitch to Michael Dean with a screenplay about the Donner party. Other characters include a would-be novelist, a failed musician and a famous film actor. These lives are woven together in an unusual style that includes chapters of novels, film treatments and even a play.
The characters Jess Walter creates are completely realized and finely detailed. The story captures the imagination and you can’t help but care for this motley crew as they try to create something that matters, only to find themselves failing and falling and further affecting all the other lives around them. Although the characters seem separated at the beginning of the novel, the stories begin to intertwine and blend, leading to an incredible crescendo. Thoroughly discussable, this novel is perfect for book groups. Beautiful Ruins will pull you in, capture your heart and will make you reflect on your own life choices.