John Brown: abolitionist, Harper’s Ferry raider, failure. Dry high school American history text material, forgotten right after the test…or not, especially if presented by author James McBride in his bawdy and raucous new novel, The Good Lord Bird.
Henry is 10 years old. He helps out in the rural Kansas barbershop in which his father works. Both Henry and his father are slaves, owned by Dutch. Henry’s father is barbering the scripture-quoting Old Man when Dutch walks in; an exchange with the Old Man gets heated and after guns blaze, Dutch is wounded, Henry’s father is dead and the Old Man is unmasked as the despised John Brown. Brown rescues Henry, though he mistakes him for a girl and calls him “Henrietta.” “She” is incorporated into his motley band of family and stragglers embarked on a mission to free the slaves.
McBride presents this story as 103-year-old Henry’s recollections, recorded by a fellow church member. Written in the coarse lexicon of the times, the rich and illustrative language can result in a comedy of errors. Henry is biracial and becomes adept as passing for a girl, and sometimes as white, to ensure his safety. As he travels through the states, alone or with Brown, he offers an out-of-the-mouth-of-babes razor-edged skewering of blacks and whites, slaves and owners, and country and city folk. The Good Lord Bird is historical fiction and McBride freely molds icons like Frederick Douglas and Brown into his own flawed characters. This book is not a choice for the easily offended.
Only in the hands of a talented writer like McBride could subjects like slavery and emancipation manage to entertain and amuse while also inform and illuminate. Despite the irreverent approach, ultimately the reader is left with Henry’s observation on slavery and its poisonous legacy when he says “the web of slavery is a sticky business. And at the end of the day, ain’t nobody clear of it.”
Jenn McKinlay has come out with a new series, Hat Shop Mystery. The first installment of this series is Cloche and Dagger. The novel follows Scarlett Parker as she uproots her life and travels to the U.K. to help her cousin Vivian run the hat shop that they inherited from their grandmother.
Scarlett’s move isn’t so much voluntary as necessary, since her boyfriend turned out to be a married man. Scarlett discovered this when she stumbled upon him throwing an anniversary party for his “beloved” wife. Though she prides herself on being a people person who can handle any sticky situation, she lost it and began hurling anniversary cake at her boyfriend. The whole act is caught on camera and posted online where it goes viral. Everyone pesters Scarlett for the inside scoop on the cake throwing debacle, from the average Joe on the street to members of the media.
To avoid the fallout, Scarlett escapes to London. When she arrives in London she discovers that her cousin has neglected to pick her up, and the mystery begins. Where is Viv? Why is a person associated with the hat shop dead? Scarlett finds herself the subject of the investigation and must discover who the real culprit is in order to clear her name.
This quick and quirky read is like Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series with a little less grit. Cloche and Dagger has an endearing amateur detective trying to get by, and a dash of love and intrigue to keep the reader engrossed.
Jill Shalvis and Kristan Higgins are two of today’s most popular contemporary romance authors. Their new novels feature pretend romances that ultimately become the real thing. Always on My Mind by Shalvis begins with a little white lie. Leah Sullivan is talking to Dee Harper, the mother of her childhood friend. Dee thinks she is dying, and is scared that she has made her son Jack afraid of relationships. Leah panics and says that she and Jack are together to give Dee peace of mind. Dee is elated, and soon the whole town has heard about the fake relationship. Leah and Jack both quickly realize that this relationship might not actually be phony, but Leah has a history of running when things get too hard for her to handle. Can Jack persuade her to stick around this time and make their relationship permanent? Always on My Mind is another great entry in Shalvis’s popular Lucky Harbor series.
The Perfect Match is the second novel in Higgins’s Blue Heron series. After her doctor reminds her that her biological clock is ticking, Honor Holland proposes to her friend and long-time crush Brogan. The night is an embarrassing disaster. To add insult to injury, Brogan announces a few weeks later that he is marrying Honor’s best friend after a whirlwind courtship. Humiliated, Honor begins searching for a man to settle down with. Tom Barlow needs to get his Green Card so that he can stay in the U.S. to be in his teenage stepson Charlie’s life. Honor agrees to a marriage of convenience to help Tom, who sees no other alternative. They move in together, and things get even more complicated. Add a strange federal agent, a feisty little dog named Spike and Honor’s crazy family, and you have a charming story told as only Higgins can.
In addition to being fan-favorite authors, Shalvis and Higgins are also good friends. Their social media banter entertains their readers and makes fans feel like these authors are their friends too. They frequently appear together on USA Today’s Happy Ever After romance blog. For a taste of their Lucy-and-Ethel-style antics, check out this recent post.
Diplomas – check. Now what? The familiar dilemmas facing recent college graduates are played out in Gemma Burgess’ fresh new series, Brooklyn Girls, also the title of the first book. While the focus is on Pia, Burgess carefully introduces readers to her roommates Angie, Julia, Coco and Madeleine, who all share a brownstone in Brooklyn.
Pia is stylish and fun, but likes to party and is unsure of her future. When she finds herself unemployed following a night of heavy drinking and an ill-advised Facebook photo, Pia is at a crossroads. Her parents cut off her allowance and insist that she return home. But after years of boarding school and college, Brooklyn finally feels like home. If she wants to stay, she needs a job fast. Waitressing is an epic failure, and her art history degree is useless. She jumps at the chance to purchase a food truck knowing there is a market for cheap and healthy breakfast and lunch alternatives. Thus, Skinny Wheels is born. The business booms and Pia also finds love, or at least like. She has always avoided relationships following a bad break-up, but when Aidan enters her life she is instantly smitten. Her life is full of ups and downs, and Pia is soon faced with roommate issues and the nice man who loaned her start-up money. Turns out he is a not-so-nice loan shark complete with menacing thugs.
Gemma Burgess has successfully recreated the emotional roller coaster that is the hallmark of post-college life with humor and honesty. Burgess wrote this series to capture the bonds of friendship during the tumultuous 20s, when you’re broke but having too much fun to care. Viewers who enjoy Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls, should appreciate this less gritty, but still realistic look at five young women getting ready to start real life. Look for the next installment featuring Angie in the spring.
Dr. Nadine Lavoie is a psychiatrist who is both driven by the desire to help people and skilled with the tools needed in mending broken lives and spirits. However, it is her own emotional state that becomes fractured when she discovers a commonality with her newest patient, a woman admitted to the psychiatric ward for an attempted suicide. During the course of her therapy, the young woman admits to having recently left a commune known as the River of Spiritual Light Center, which is under the leadership of Aaron Quinn. It only takes a quick Google search to confirm Nadine’s fear that this is the same man who ran a cult she and her family lived with as a child. Until this point in her life, she has been powerless to reclaim missing memories from her youth, and possibly the cause of her claustrophobia. Now the barrier has been breached, what she now remembers is terrible. Always Watching by Chevy Stevens is a suspenseful story involving past crimes and current consequences. In her crusade to bring Aaron Quinn’s past deeds to justice, Nadine risks her own life and the lives of her family members.
Fans of Chevy Stevens will recognize the protagonist in Always Watching as the psychiatrist in both of her previous novels. Dr. Lavoie is the silent doctor involved in healing the damaged women in both Never Knowing and the stunning debut Still Missing, a New York Times Best Seller. When readers wanted to know more about this character, Stevens decided to tell her story. In an interview on Global BC, a Canadian television station, the author remarked how she enjoys incorporating family dynamics and a deeper message into her stories, combining these features with a suspenseful tale. She also hinted her fourth thriller will be released next summer.
If you’re looking for a bold new page-turner, Koren Zailckas, memoirist of Smashed and Fury, delivers with her shocking fiction debut Mother, Mother. This physiological thriller provides two alternating narrators: that of the volatile younger sister, Violet, and the delicate yet determined mamma’s boy, William.
The plot has already thickened at the beginning of the novel when it’s revealed that the eldest and most cherished child, Rose, has fled the family for an undisclosed location. The remaining and less “perfect” children, Violet and Will, are left under the calculated and cunning reign of the matriarch, Josephine. And then there’s distracted and weak-willed father.
From an outsider’s view, the Hurst family has achieved all upper middle class aspirations. However, when an unexpected act of violence takes place in the picturesque home, the secrets surrounding the absentee Rose steadily unravel through Violet and Will’s dueling accounts; the effects of which rival the circular layers of an onion being stripped away. As tensions build, the book gets creepier and creepier. As Josephine’s tight control begins to slip, small daily activities at home prove that her and William’s relationship makes for one of the most unnerving mother and son pairs in recent history.
For those who cannot get enough of the current trope of Mother as Narcissist, as seen in Wendy Lawless’ Chanel Bonfire: A Memoir and in Cate Blanchett’s performance in the film Blue Jasmine. When you start this book, make sure you have enough time to finish it because you won’t be able to put it down.
In the eyes of society, five young women were lost even before they went physically missing and found dead. In Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, Robert Kolker vividly details not only a modern-day true crime case but also the stories of these women who slipped through the cracks of American society. Melissa Barthelemy. Maureen Brainard-Barnes. Shannan Gilbert. Amber Lynn Overstreet Costello. Megan Waterman. None of these became household names like Laci Peterson or Natalee Holloway did when they were reported missing. In fact, for several of them, their relatives had trouble being taken seriously by law enforcement. Yet all five women had personal histories, albeit with many common threads. They all grew up in towns without a lot of economic opportunities, they all had troubled family backgrounds, and several had children of their own they struggled to support. They all turned to prostitution as a way to make ends meet. And all of their bodies were discovered in the Oak Beach, NY area, a sparsely populated strip of land off the coast of Long Island.
Kolker masterfully interweaves the histories of these five women with suspenseful and frustrating elements of the crime investigation, including questionable detective work and an uncooperative beach town with secrets of its own. Ultimately, this is still a cold case, with speculation about whether all five died at the hands of the same person(s). Kolker also traces the evolution of prostitution, with women now being able to find clients through sites like Craigslist. This Internet business model belies the dangers that still exist in this line of work and has made it all the easier for those in desperate situations to sell themselves. For true crime fans, this is a book to read not only for the unsolved murders but for what it reveals about overlooked pockets of American life today.
Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project is an irresistible, laugh-out-loud funny love story that begs to be read aloud and shared with friends. Don Tillman is a brilliant geneticist whose life is built around logic and order. The story is told from his perspective, and it quickly becomes clear to the reader that Don doesn’t process the world in quite the same way that most of us do. Don decides that he wants to find his perfect mate, and he embarks upon The Wife Project. He designs a questionnaire that he believes will help him weed out unsuitable candidates as efficiently as possible. His criteria are very specific, and he won’t consider a woman who doesn’t meet them. Don begins trying to meet women at parties, on dating websites and on one memorable occasion, at a speed-dating event. He asks the women he meets to complete his survey and return it at their convenience, a request that produces mixed results because of his inability to read social cues.
Don’s best friend Gene sends a woman named Rosie to Don’s office as a joke. Don misunderstands and thinks that she is a wife candidate. Rosie is immediately eliminated because of her obvious incompatibility. She smokes and drinks. She works as a bartender and is chronically tardy. In other words, everything about Rosie is contrary to Don’s requirements. Don eventually agrees to help Rosie search for her biological father, and he soon finds himself spending more time on the Father Project than the Wife Project. As he and Rosie track down the potential candidates and obtain DNA samples to test, he finds himself in some unexpected and amusing circumstances.
Although Don often fails to understand the social subtext of the situation, the reader does not, and Simsion’s use of humor is pitch-perfect. Fans of The Big Bang Theory’s Dr. Sheldon Cooper will love seeing the world through Don’s eyes. The Rosie Project is my favorite book being published this Fall. Don’t miss this charming and hilarious new novel!
Yoshiki Tonogai’s acclaimed manga horror series Judge has made its way to this side of the Pacific. In the first volume, the time-honored story of unrequited love gets a twisted twist. Longtime platonic friends Hiro and Hikari are Christmas shopping together with Hiro’s older brother Atsuya, who is also Hikari’s boyfriend. But Hiro has a crush on Hikari, and when he attempts to derail Hikari and Atsuya’s date, an unexpected tragedy occurs. Two years later, Hiro wakes up chained in an unfamiliar place. He is wracked with guilt over causing the tragic incident, but even more incredulous of his fate.
Tonogai’s art is as integral to Judge as the fascinating story line. Those facing judgment like Hiro are caricatured with giant animal heads that insinuate the deadly sin for which they have received their castigation. The quick pace of the story is mimicked in the line art that is both page-turning and sometimes jarring. Scenes that are meant to put the reader ill at ease are drawn with the same effectiveness as unsteady camerawork in film. How each of the sinners finds his or her judgment is reminiscent of how contestants are culled on reality shows, but with a much more harrowing end. Those who enjoyed the Saw film series will likely find Judge appealing.
New to the library shelves are two memoirs, both written by young and accomplished African-American authors, which reflect on the challenges of growing up black in the United States. MK Asante draws on his experiences as a child and teen in urban Philadelphia in his book Buck. Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward, recounts her family life based mainly in the poor rural South. Each writer, however, portrays the same pain and difficulty of coming of age in communities which are reeling from the dual legacies of racism and the drug culture.
For generations, Ward’s extended family has lived along the Gulf Coast in Mississippi and it is “home” for her no matter where she currently resides. Men We Reaped refers to her brother and four friends, all of whom died within a span of a few years from what Ward originally thinks are disparate causes: drug overdose, suicide, car accident, murder. Instead, as she tells each of their stories she finds the common thread is the desperation of being a young black male living in a region meting out race-based criminal justice, few economic prospects and the attendant breakdown of a once strong family and neighborhood structure. Ward, a 2011 National Book Award winner, is a gifted writer whose graceful style shines throughout her narrative of tragedy.
Asante’s Buck starts at a different place. Asante’s family is well-educated and middle-class. His father is a prominent professor, and he has an older brother whom he adores. By Asante’s teen years, his rebellious brother is incarcerated in Arizona, his parents’ marriage is in tatters and his mother is severely depressed. Asante finds a substitute family on the streets of North Philadelphia and begins a downward spiral. His mother enrolls him in an alternative school, which another student characterizes as “the island of misfit toys,” where Asante thrives. It is here where he determines he wants to write. Laced with quotes from Tupac to Orwell to Asante’s own hip-hop work and including excerpts from his mother’s journal, Buck is edgy, literary and blunt. Asante, a professor at Morgan State University, is also a filmmaker who previews his book here.