Fraser’s comprehensive history shows how partisanship and compromise have always been ingredients in the stew of American politics.
This meticulously researched volume follows the evolution of the United States from 13 disparate, self-interested Colonies to one nation united by the Constitution. Writer Fraser allows that this is well-traveled ground but explains his goal in his introduction: “I want to provide a historical account for the general reader, one that answers a basic question: why are we one nation, and not two, or four, or fifty?” He answers that question with anecdotes and a straightforward, easy-to-follow historical primer. Take, for example, this passage about the dilemma faced by the founders when designing a national government: “Madison was grappling with the age-old problem in democratic governments of whether elected officials should act purely as delegates who simply follow the wishes of their constituents, or whether, as Madison preferred, they should exercise independent judgment.” The founders also struggled with citizens opposed to national rule: “The ever-present suspicion of centralized power was a great disincentive to forming any type of national government, and it would continue to bedevil the leaders of the American Revolution over the ensuing decade.” After a decade with the ineffective Articles of Confederation (1781-1789), under which the states held most of the power and the national government little, came the development of the Constitution, completed by a Bill of Rights, the framework that the fledgling nation required. Fraser also explores the many British missteps in policy that led the previously loyal colonists to pick up arms against their former homeland. The author shows a knack for choosing the best material to reinforce his points, whether he’s writing about the foibles of historical figures or the political infighting at the Constitutional Convention (all men are created equal, but don’t anyone talk about the slaves). Fraser has created a well-structured work that both informs and entertains by putting human faces on those parties involved. He illustrates that the nation’s early turmoil still echoes today, as the tug of war between personal liberty and the public good continues unabated centuries later.
A 40-something Oregon man writes about his yearslong experience with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in this debut.
Douglas was living on a houseboat in a fairly posh part of metropolitan Portland in 2005 when he decided that he wanted to make a difference by helping at-risk youth. He’d seen a booth for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program at the Portland Pride Festival, was intrigued, and signed up. He was matched with Rico, a 12-year-old whose mother was an immigrant from Guatemala. At the time, the quiet, reserved Rico was living in foster care and had no objection to the match. Thus began the six-year-long story of their relationship, with early Frisbee games and movies evolving into Douglas playing a much greater role in Rico’s life, including attempting to steer him clear of gangs and drugs and to ensure that he graduated from high school. Although a Big Brother’s role is mainly to listen and be a friend, Douglas’ micromanaging approach was sometimes baffling to Rico, the author writes, as were his emotional demands. Douglas intersperses flashbacks to the 1970s throughout the Big Brother narrative and relates chilling tales of growing up gay in a strict, religious home. He also relates the story of Russell, his childhood friend and de facto bodyguard in school—a heroic figure who unfortunately descended into a life of crime. Douglas’ book does a beautiful job of connecting the past to the present, particularly in the sections that depict his blossoming relationship with his parents as they aged. His memories of being a gay teenager in the ’70s are also full of engaging personalities, sometimes monstrous and sometimes beautiful, which make the story hard to walk away from. As Rico grew up and Douglas’ involvement increased, the author broke a few Big Brother rules, particularly when he helped Rico out financially. Even so, Douglas’ compelling story moves toward a conclusion that’s a genuine testament to his tireless dedication to his Little Brother.
A moving memoir about struggling to form personal relationships in turbulent environments.
This debut collection offers a series of disconcerting tales in which characters experience horror that’s more metaphysical than palpable.
In many ways, this book is populated by prisoners, beginning with “Angel of Mercy,” in which quadriplegic Marcus Ambrose is at the mercy of his caretaker wife, Elena. But as the story reveals, he may have already been locked inside a seemingly cold relationship. Fate often directs the characters, leading them to unavoidable dark conclusions and making all the tales rather gloomy. In “The Butterfly,” for instance, Benedict and Star’s sexual congress is enhanced when she demands he bite her fresh wound. But once the cut heals, Star will inevitably crave much more. Similarly, the unnamed female narrator in “Satan’s Lure” tends to the hungry and helpless Vern, hiding in the cellar from her father. But it isn’t long before the two give in to their primal urges. There’s religious allegory running throughout the volume, but like the stories’ horrific elements, Pizzarello effectively downplays it. Two of the more notable examples are the successive “The Silence” and “Fugues.” With shades of Kafka’s The Trial, the former follows an unknown man who may be facing punishment but is unaware of any crime (or sin) he’s committed. In the latter, Arnold is so intent on appeasing his Roman Catholic parents that he’s hiding within himself, an entity that sticks close to the marrow and sees Arnold as an automaton, only occasionally taking over. A standout among a stellar series is “The Stranger,” in which Nugent becomes fixated on a stranger who has way too much clout for having just arrived in town. Nugent’s paranoia turns dangerous, as he starts seeing anyone with a smirk like the stranger’s as a “minion” and himself as the people’s savior. It’s astounding that Pizzarello manages to end every story with a punch. There’s definite resolution in each case but always with a lingering uneasiness: what if, say, there’s merit to Nugent’s obsession? The book’s other tales, “The Gift of Life” and “Tabula Rasa,” are tender but ultimately unnerving companion pieces, featuring, respectively, a man with terminal cancer and a guy asking his best friend to be a sperm donor.
Sublimely understated frights, both brooding and indelible.
In the sixth book in Kane’s (Baksheesh Bribes, 2015, etc.) Spies Lie series, a motley crew of spies, hackers, and mercenaries unites to stop China and Russia from declaring war on the United States.
Former Mossad spymaster Yigdal Ben-Levy is dying of cancer, but he refuses to live out his remaining days in hospice. Rather, he’s dead set on getting from Washington, D.C., to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City so that he can warn its members of a plot cooked up by Russia and China to attack America. What’s bad for the United States is bad for Israel, and Ben-Levy refuses to die with his beloved country in limbo after devoting his entire life to keeping it safe. In order to make it to the U.N. without getting killed by Russian and Chinese assassination squads, he calls on Jon Sommers, a former Mossad recruit who’s now working as a banker in New York. Sommers is furious with Ben-Levy, who’s responsible for the death of his fiancee, but when the dying man calls on him in his hour of need, he reluctantly agrees to help. He teams up with Israeli soldier–turned-mercenary Avram Shimmel, expert hacker William Wing, and former covert operative Cassandra Sashakovich, a Russian, to get the job done. The strengths of this thriller are its lack of especially graphic violence and relatively straightforward plotline, both of which make it more accessible than previous installments. Other Spies Lie stories occasionally got so complicated that it was difficult to keep track of whom to root for. The story here essentially boils down to a long chase scene, packed with action movie set pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in a Michael Bay film. Kane neatly ties up all the loose ends left over from the roller-coaster story arc that began in Bloodridge (2014) while also setting up Jon, Cassie, Avram, William, and company for further adventures together, which will please fans and give newcomers an opportunity to enter this addictive fictional world.
The latest adventure in a series that only grows more engaging with each installment.
A supposedly average boy realizes that he’s not so mediocre after all in this debut middle-grade novel.
James thinks he’s a typical 11-year-old, which suits him just fine. His father is gone, his mother hates him (she commonly wishes he was never born while on the phone with her friends), and he has no siblings. James, who earns C’s in school, looks rather ordinary (he certainly isn’t handsome). Instead of fighting it, he embraces his mediocrity, declaring himself the best average guy the planet has ever seen. One day in a garden, he meets Mayor Culpa, a talking goat. Following the animal, James finds himself suddenly transported to another world. The chatty creature reveals that he’s a Scapegoat (“As long as I’m to blame, no one else can be burdened. It’s what I was bred for”). He tells James that he can become the Kingdom of Average’s new ruler. But to claim the crown, the boy must first complete a mission—find the old king and discover why he abdicated the throne. Mayor Culpa, professional optimist Monsieur William Roget, and Roget’s pint-sized pessimist, Kiljoy, join James on his journey. They travel from Disappointment Bay to Serenity Spa to the Unattainable Mountains, and as their quest evolves, James begins to learn that maybe he’s not quite so mundane. When they reach the part of the kingdom dubbed Epiphany, James finally grasps who he is—someone extraordinary. While James initially believes that he’s mediocre, Schwartz’s novel assuredly is not. This is a volume that kids and parents can read together because it works on two levels—young ones should love the adventure-packed plot and hilarious characters, and grown-ups should chuckle at the wordplay embedded in every page. Schwartz’s characters are more than clever—they’re ingenious. Mayor Culpa constantly apologizes, and Kiljoy represents that little voice inside people’s heads that attempts to invalidate their intentions. These living, breathing allusions effectively push the narrative forward (although Armitage’s sketchlike illustrations fail to enhance the story—such fanciful places and characters should be left to the imagination). Schwartz’s nicely succinct writing style places the focus on the striking worlds he creates. The book delivers an important lesson—be your own hero. With this debut, the author should soon be a hero to readers everywhere.
A skilled and witty tale about a boy who would be king that should appeal to children and adults.
A collection of subdued tales features characters who can neither evade the past nor confront the inevitable future.
John Fromme, narrator of the book’s titular and longest story, is a schizophrenic freelance writer. When his wife, Janet, frantically tells him their son, Ted, is missing, the two eventually find him with John’s mother, Charlene. It seems that Ted, ashamed of his dad’s condition, may want to live with Grandma. But as John and Janet argue with Charlene over who should be Ted’s guardian, readers are privy to John’s skewered perception. Voices in his head, for one, are personified, including look-alikes Lana and Carly, who talk to him as Janet and Charlene’s dispute presses on. Charlene points to the family’s history of mental illness, but John’s recollection of his past soon has him questioning his own memories. Characters in the other five, much shorter stories may not have a clearly defined disorder like John, but they are similarly afflicted. Nathan Ploegger, in “The Offering,” for example, is an American obsessed with finding a strange woman he met while touring the Yucatán, an obsession that may prove disastrous. In “I, Singularity,” Harold, blind since birth, experiences unbearable headaches. Surgery may help, but early tests lead to a surprise that could change Harold’s life as well as his relationship with his clingy sister Tess. In many ways, “Complementarities” is reminiscent of a soap opera, as Frankie’s affair with Juanita, the girlfriend of his pal Jimmy Sheephorn, invariably results in deceit and discontent. But like all of the tales, it’s shackled with an almost cruel predetermination: readers, in this case, know from the beginning that Jimmy’s died horribly. Mustin (We Are Strong, But We Are Fragile, 2013, etc.) rounds out his book with “Object of Affection” and “The Phantom.” In the former, a mother tells of her son Carlos, a celebrity athlete whose rise to fame is curtailed by a faster and miserable drop from the spotlight. The latter and closing story is also the most upbeat: baseball fanatic Karl has a shot at a career in his favorite sport—and his grandfather’s special homemade baseball is along for the ride.
Often despondent, but the brooding characters will stick in readers’ heads like emotional glue.
The business partner of a power broker in Chicago recounts political shenanigans that led to a presidency in this debut novel.
Marston “Mars” Gregory, partner of Saidah “Sam” Alsheriti, describes himself as “the last man standing” in his story, since “Everyone else is either dead, in prison, or untouchable.” He provides excerpts of his own memoir, which include an account of events that “ended the careers of two governors and elected a president of the United States.” It all began with a 1994 traffic accident that killed six children. It was eventually revealed that drivers’ licenses were being given to unqualified truck drivers who bought tickets to a fundraiser for politician Ed Parker. The scandal was initially hushed up, though, and Parker became Illinois’ governor. Gregory then left his corporate law gig to become partners with Chicago real estate developer Alsheriti, a Syrian immigrant. Alsheriti was eager to become a political power broker, but Vince Perino, “the mastermind of the Republican Combine,” turned down his offer of campaign contributions. This snub led Alsheriti to help take down Parker and install a new Democratic governor. He also assisted Malik Alawi, a beaming, young African-American state senator, by securing a bargain price for land near his home. By novel’s end, Alsheriti and both governors are behind bars, and Gregory is amazed that Alawi now sits in the White House, as his partner predicted. Author Beller, a Chicago-based investment-firm executive, takes readers through an entertaining composite tour of the highly publicized corrupt politics of his city. Along the way, he brings an array of recognizable honchos to life, such as the controversial, real-life Obama supporter Tony Rezko. Beller spends a bit too much time on descriptions of Mars’ extramarital activities, however, and too little time fleshing out his Obama-like character. Indeed, Alawi makes only a few enigmatic walk-ons, and Sam’s bombshell that “Malik owes me big” for fixing a problem with a birth certificate is dropped very late in the game.
An engaging, thinly veiled fictionalization of Chicago politics.
In this debut novel, two brothers remain close until a tragic death rocks their family.
The Hopkins family—being of mixed race—stands out in the small town of Preston, Connecticut. Fourth-generation members Langston and Trajan are three years apart. Langston, who excels at taekwondo, dreams of competing in the Olympics. But when he falls for his beautiful classmate Angelica Chu, her older brother, Albert, self-proclaimed protector of his sister, fights Langston. He pushes him, and Langston ends up hitting his head, which causes permanent brain damage; he endures seizures and develops a learning disorder. The boys’ father, Chester, and their mother, Dottie, a kind, plainspoken teacher’s aide, drift apart—and Chester takes up with another woman. The boys’ grandfather Tuke fills in, steadily imparting wisdom about love and life to his grandsons. And then tragedy strikes the Hopkins family again; Langston dies while being held in police custody for simple trespassing. Dottie mourns, holed up in her bedroom, while Trajan wanders—following his friends toward trouble, exploring the newly discovered world of love and sex, and feeling lost without Langston to smooth the way for him. Dramatic surprises round out the conclusion, with descriptions worthy of cinematic translation. Quotable quotes abound (“Run from your troubles, and there’s no place the devil won’t find you. Stand your ground, and the devil just may go nosing around elsewhere”) as well as offbeat humor and lovely prose. Some phrases are shining standouts and must be reread to fully appreciate their subtlety, curvy flow, and euphonious cadence. But there are challenges for the reader in Mayberry’s semiautobiographical tale: the plot isn’t linear, and the author makes unexpected stops along the way, sometimes suddenly diving into the background of a character who’s just been introduced. This hopscotching narrative might be off-putting to some, but to a patient reader, it imparts a multilayered richness to the story and a striking clarity to the characters’ relationships.
More than just a complex coming-of-age story, this potent book makes an indelible impression.
This short, reflective guide to overcoming common relationship obstacles offers strategies for stronger communication and resolution.
Debut author Fowles doesn’t fill her pages with anecdotes, tips, lists, and metaphors, as so many other self-improvement books tend to do. Instead, she offers a succinct, minimalist approach to handling issues such as anxiety and depression when they create dysfunction in family and couple relationships. The opening chapters offer insights into making certain one’s “self” is honored in any relationship dynamic. She emphasizes the importance of saying “yes” only when one means “yes,” and not when one simply wants to appease, avoid tension, or seek approval. She further expands the notion of honoring the self’s desires with a chapter on quieting negative “voices”—beliefs formed in childhood regarding one’s sense of self-worth and self-image. Although her anecdotes are few, they are powerful; for example, she offers an illustration of two different girls getting ready to go to the same birthday party. One’s family members encourage, support, and praise her when she shows her newdress to them. The other’s family puts her down, criticizes, and shames her. It becomes clear that the two girls will grow up with entirely different notions of self. Fowles expertly weaves this same idea into later chapters about couples and families, pointing out that these dynamics draw on past affirmations or degradations. One of the most valuable chapters teaches “passive listening,” in which a listener supports someone by refraining from posing questions, imposing judgments, or giving extensive advice, in order to give the person space to arrive at his or her own realizations. This author also demonstrates this powerful tool through scripted examples.
An invaluable book about developing empathy in relationships and strengthening one’s inner voice.
Lea offers a gripping novel about the difficult choices that soldiers face during wartime.
At the center of this novel is Anson Scott, an American volunteer who joins the British Royal Pennine Regiment in France during World War I. Scott has a secret reason for volunteering: he’s a reporter aiming to get the inside story on the war for his New York City newspaper. However, Scott doesn’t know what he’s getting into: “I told myself I was used to taking calculated risks....I was sure that I’d get through in one piece somehow. Poor bloody fool.” Scott makes a fast friend in David Alexander, an officer beloved by most in the regiment: “As he disappeared inside, there was a great roar of approval from the party.…I thought of how good it must make a man feel to have that sort of effect by simply walking into a room.” Scott takes on another secret when he falls for Alexander’s fiancee, Beatrice Tempest, a nurse. The American soon discovers that he’s not the only soldier there with secrets, and he spends the months leading up to the bloody Battle of the Somme learning about the truths behind the personnel of the Pennines. He also finds a home: “Only that evening I’d allowed myself, finally, to think I’d found a place where I fitted in.” Even those that survive that battle aren’t left unscarred, providing a bittersweet end to that chapter of Scott’s life. In this thought-provoking novel, the first in a planned series, Lea celebrates the heroism of soldiers, not the glory of war. He draws very well-developed characters that readers will care about, particularly Scott, Alexander, and Tempest. He also effectively captures the mundanity of daily life in a military camp. However, this book isn’t a work of military history: it’s a story of what soldiers will do for those they love, whether their brothers in arms or the people they left behind.
A war story that’s less about conflict that it is about emotion.
A collection of short stories about the women in a tightknit family and the sometimes-supernatural difficulties they face.
The Ficola women are the protagonists of this newest work by Labozzetta (Sometimes It Snows in America, 2013, etc.), featuring 10 stories that each explore a different challenge of marriage or motherhood. Joanna struggles to save her marriage after the death of her child, while Rosemary struggles to save herself after the death of her marriage. Nancy faces family-related illness and adoption simultaneously, Barbara works to redefine herself after her children grow up and move out, and Angie searches for confidence in her own body. Labozzetta gives each character her own quirks (Joanna is artistic, Barbara is a hoarder, and so on), though at times it seems they all share one indistinct narrative voice. Still, the author successfully weaves a web of interlocking stories, with each woman moving in and out of the lives of her family members. The best stories are those that the author imbues with an unsettling sense of the supernatural. In “Villa Foresta,” for example, Joanna becomes convinced that an Italian peasant girl is the reincarnation of her daughter, while her empirical husband begins to worry for her mental condition. The scenario itself is intriguing, but it’s the conflict between grieving husband and wife that drives the story forward. “The Birthing Room” is another supernatural standout, in which the author turns the story of a mother with an empty nest into a classic poltergeist story. Both tales reflect Labozzetta’s greatest strength: taking common material—parenthood, adultery, illness—and adding something slightly uncanny. At the same time, the formula also reflects some of the author’s weaker points. For example, her premises are often stronger than her prose; her dialogue, in particular, occasionally feels unvaried and overly explanatory. Nonetheless, the characters maintain a strong, distinctly female voice throughout. They’re world-weary and wiser for it, and readers will want to enter that world. Most of the 10 stories could stand alone, but they gradually coalesce into a comprehensive, compelling family portrait—a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts.
Warm, often engaging stories about the challenges of five women midway through their lives’ journeys.
After six years in prison, a woman victimized by the system and her loved ones seeks retribution in Smith’s (Behind Closed Doors, 2015) searing drama.
Dana Toussaint’s father, Bernard, may be a drug dealer, but he provides well for his family in 1980s East St. Louis. When he wants out of the business, though, Dana’s mother, Diana, forces him out of the house. Twelve-year-old Dana, her mother, and her three younger siblings move to an apartment in the projects, and Diana, accustomed to having money, does the unthinkable by pimping Dana out to the perverse Mr. James on a regular basis. Years later, the cocaine-addicted teenager becomes a stripper, but she manages to finally escape Mr. James thanks to Tyree, whom an incarcerated Bernard sent to help her. After thugs brutally murder Dana’s friend Ja’El and most of Ja’El’s family, she decides to get out of East St. Louis by attending Gretna State University. She hasn’t left her old life behind, however, as she transports drugs across state lines for Tyree. Unfortunately, someone’s deception results in Dana’s arrest and imprisonment. Six years inside gives her time to compile a mental list of revenge targets, from her mother and Mr. James to Ja’El’s killers. This thoroughly engaging novel boasts a protagonist whose vengeance is justified; the reprehensible Mr. James, for example, is a pedophilic heroin dealer. Smith’s voice is both sturdy and elegant, delivering blunt, edgy prose that’s never lurid; she makes it clear what happens to Ja’El, for example, without providing graphic details. Dana’s college roommate Alex, a character from Smith’s previous series installment (in which Dana likewise appeared), provides occasional perspective. These moments offer a fascinating alternate view of the protagonist, but they can be jarring when they stray too far from the main story, particularly during Alex’s romance with another character. The somber plot isn’t without a wry sense of humor, though, as when a sardonic Dana notes that she’s “a magnet for men in the drug dealing profession.”
An uncompromising but profound urban tale from an incisive author.
A piano with magical properties opens up new worlds to a 9-year-old girl in this debut middle-grade fantasy.
A surprise awaits Laurel and her parents when they move into their new Lakeland, Florida, home. Tucked away in a storage shed behind the house is an antique piano. The instrument is promptly promised to Laurel as an early present for her 10th birthday. Initially, she’s less than thrilled with the development. After all, accepting the gift means her parents will likely pressure her into continuing piano lessons—a chore Laurel thought she’d left behind in North Carolina. But when an impromptu concert throws the neighborhood into chaos, Laurel discovers that the piano is enchanted. Along with a talking cat, Tatanka, and her ferret, Houdini, Laurel uses the instrument to transport herself across time and space, including into magical realms. She learns about the piano’s history through her travels and connects with Daff, a fast-talking fairy. But as Laurel learns more about the piano’s past, she’s also exposed to the dangers posed by the extraordinary instrument. Can she use magic to right past wrongs? Or will the piano’s powers fall into the hands of evil forces? The story is told in four parts. Early in the book, Sedona introduces readers to the German woodcutter who crafted the piano in 1888 and to a 20th-century magician who previously used the instrument in his act. But it’s not until Laurel arrives on the scene that the story truly begins to take shape, and oh, what a tale. Laurel, imaginative and independent, embarks on action-packed adventures. Sedona’s writing style will especially appeal to younger readers: puns abound, several characters speak in rhyme, and the tale offers plenty of shenanigans. In one memorable passage, Houdini escapes from his cage during a road trip and climbs up the pant leg of Laurel’s father. “Dad slammed the car in park, jumped out, and pulled his jeans off in the redbrick driveway,” Sedona writes. “Mothers were holding their children close for safety as Dad stood in the driveway, wearing just his boxer shorts, which read ‘Where the Sun Don’t Shine.’ ”
A modern-day fairy tale about a time-traveling heroine told with heart and humor.
In this modern noir, a man sets out to discover himself on a road trip only to become mixed up with counterfeiters.
Tommy Kelsey, a mechanic from Gates Mills, Ohio, has just turned 29. After a night of blowout celebration, he realizes that his life is nothing but a quagmire of texting and wasted potential. Impulsively, he hops in his restored 1965 Plymouth Barracuda, packing some mystery novels and his guitar, and drives west. He also tosses his smartphone out the car window—job and relationships be damned. At a Big Boy restaurant, he meets a beautiful, redheaded hitchhiker named Mona. He drives with her to Chicago, agreeing to be her private investigator for three days. She pays him $600 cash from her tightly clutched backpack, and they check into a hotel. In the morning, Mona is gone, and he finds her backpack shoved under the hood of his car. Inside the pack is her phone, a note from Mona asking him to find her, and $500,000. Now Tommy must hone some genuine PI skills if he’s to survive a city known as much for its astonishing murder rate as its blues music. He finds Mona dancing at the Pink Monkey club—but she doesn’t recognize him at all. Klingler (Rats, 2014, etc.)presents his craftiest yarn to date, summoning the pulpy spirits of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The setting of Chicago rattles from the page in lines such as, “The buildings held noise and exhaust fumes around me like a torture chamber.” The author populates his narrative with ingénues (Lizz the librarian, Penny the criminology major, Tracy the groupie) whose engines Tommy easily revs; they also help him with his investigation until he finally starts getting somewhere on his own. Klingler carefully shades in the connections between a murder in an underground Detroit cemetery, a counterfeiting operation, and the hitchhiker with a short memory. Although the final third wanders a bit with Tommy moonlighting as a blues guitarist, the finale offers a thrilling portrait of citywide corruption.
A winning tale of music, technology, and femme fatales.