A human rights activist recalls a richly textured life in this memoir.
Hart Wright (When Spirits Come Calling, 2002, etc.) was born in the middle of the Depression. She grew up in New York City, where, as a child, she was ashamed to invite classmates back to the family apartment on account of it being poorly maintained and infested with cockroaches. This led to her being somewhat of an outsider. But her uncle and aunt were wealthy publishers, and the author grew up surrounded by books that she loved to dive into. Always a bright student, Hart Wright finally found her footing when she attended Juilliard Prep, where she felt she fit in with the other girls in class. Her outsider status came to an end in junior high, where she was elected to minor offices in two clubs and went on to win a scholarship to Cornell. So began a remarkable life adventure, which saw her active in the anti-war movement in Berkeley, California; witness the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech firsthand; and take up residence in Panama with her then husband, a zoologist. Hart Wright’s memoir details all manner of diverse experiences, from coming under attack in Mexico while supporting the Zapatistas to believing to have received messages from beyond the grave from her dead husband, Paul. This account elegantly captures the zeitgeist of mid-20th-century America. For example, when recalling a protest outside the United Nations Tower, the author notes how even though the “McCarthy era was beginning to wane, American civil liberties still left much to be desired.” She describes a man taking photographs of the protesters who she suspected was an FBI agent. She recalls: “Every time I circled past the man with the camera, I would raise my sign to cover my face.” Hart Wright’s writing is also astonishingly steely at times. When discussing a former husband, she asserts: “I didn’t love him, his presence didn’t excite me.” Yet at the very heart of this memoir is the vehement belief that “when good people help and the system works then, with luck, things can get better.” The book offers a powerful message of hope that resonates as strongly today as it did 50 years ago.
A smart, straight-talking account by an author who courageously followed her beliefs.
A trainee doctor combats burnout with heartening stories of how medical professionals make a difference in patients’ lives.
Debut author Sinha wrote these seven concise, well-crafted pieces while he was in internal medicine residency training at Yale New Haven Hospital. As a new intern, he had “the energy of a lively puppy,” but long hours spent with the ill and dying soon took a toll. Burnout was all around him; he even wrote an exposé on physician suicide rates for the New York Times. Worried that happiness couldn’t coexist with medicine, he was determined to search for joy in the context of life-threatening illnesses. In “Urine Trouble,” the funniest anecdote, a man called Harry, who was summoned to court for public urination, faked a seizure to go free. Cleared of neurological problems but suffering from cognitive impairment, he remained on the ward as a “social admit.” Harry refused to shower until Sinha agreed to accompany him to the rooftop healing garden—where he promptly urinated into a stream. “Nails and Screw-ups” has a similarly tidy, full-circle structure, opening and closing with scenes of the author cutting the toenails of Michael, a morbidly obese patient at the VA clinic. In between, Sinha regretted that his poor medication decision landed the man with hefty hospital bills. The author is always cognizant of how comedy and tragedy alternate, or even overlap, in emergency situations. Other tales see him saving Christmas for Carol, who accidentally mixed whiskey and Valium; watching an intern say the Lord’s Prayer with Raymond, dying of an abdominal infection; and helping a family make the decision to take cancer patient Ted off life support. These punchy essays (five of which have been previously published on websites) glisten with just-right details, dialogue, and characterization. Sinha also pays tribute to Yogesh, a chief resident who showed “empathy, vulnerability, and grace” while dying of brain cancer. A closing letter to his future self returns to the Introduction’s themes by warning against “the ever-present threat of crippling cynicism.” The only problem with the book? It’s too short—let’s hope a few more years in practice will give the author sufficient material for a full-length work.
The times, they are a changin’ in Arkansas in this third installment of a series.
This volume picks up immediately after Book 2, with Julie Morgan struggling in the wake of her baby’s birth and her mother’s recent death in 1957. When Julie flees Happiness House, a home for unwed mothers, and heads to El Dorado, she leaves behind her baby and postpones any real decision about her future. Julie wants to reclaim her old life, but she physically and emotionally can’t be the same girl. She is now a young woman who not only lost her mother, but is also a mom herself. While she secretly lived in Happiness House, her half sister and look-alike, Carmen, assumed Julie’s identity in El Dorado. Now Julie must live as Carmen and adapt to high school as an outsider. Early on, Julie muses: “This deception business will take some getting used to.” Most difficult of all, Julie only has 90 days to decide whether she wants to bring her baby home and become a social pariah or forfeit her parental rights and give her son up for adoption. In addition to Julie’s personal challenges, current events are front and center in the novel. El Dorado, like the entire nation, is riveted by the forced integration of Little Rock Central High School, and racially charged discussions are unavoidable in the conservative Southern town. Rascoe Keenan’s (In Those Dazzling Days of Elvis, 2017, etc.) decision to include two African-American characters, women whom the white protagonist counts as friends, provides a desperately needed perspective for Julie and readers. This is the strongest book in The Days of Elvis series so far, as the characters are well-developed and the focus on national events gives added weight to the small-town story. The underlying thread running through the engrossing narrative is power and the struggle against judgment and oppression. When Elvis, a wise fairy godfather at this point, tells Julie, “It’s too bad the woman has to pay for the consequences of a natural thing between two people who love each other,” he gets right to the heart of this tale.
A coming-of-age story that deftly demonstrates the potency of standing up for one’s beliefs.
A physician recounts three years of service in a small Soviet village and the horrors of the communist medical system.
In exchange for tuition-free medical school, Tsesis (Why We Remain Jews, 2013) was obligated to perform three years of service as a doctor in an “underserved area”—in his case, Gradieshti, a farming village of 5,000 inhabitants in rural Moldova. The author was almost forcibly pushed into military service—he was threatened with academic failure—but saved from that fate because he was a pediatrician, a specialty dangerously underrepresented in the Soviet Union, which was plagued by terrifyingly high infant mortality rates. When he arrived in Gradieshti, he encountered remarkably primitive conditions—few homes enjoyed the unreliably delivered electricity or had indoor plumbing; poverty was crushing; alcoholism was “rampant”; and the sanitary conditions were appalling. In short, it was a woeful microcosm of the Soviet Union at large, vividly captured by the author. And the health system itself was nothing like the “grandiose global show” theatrically staged by the government—in fact, there were chronic shortages of basic medicines, including penicillin; undertrained doctors deprived of the best equipment; and ubiquitous corruption, all masked by mendaciously contrived data. In his memoir, Tsesis also chillingly describes his unfortunate encounters with an all-too-common anti-Semitism—in one recollection, he’s nearly ousted from a neighborhood tavern for being a “dirty kike.” And just as Soviet authorities disseminate false information to the outside world, they shield their own from exposure to more successful alternatives. Tsesis was denied permission to use his vacation time to take a cruise to the Mediterranean, the desire to travel considered inherently suspicious. The author’s remembrance is an edifying look at the wages of authoritarian rule, which resulted in the routine deaths of young children from easily treatable conditions like dehydration. His account is unflinching and often moving: The story a tearful wife shared with Tsesis captures the heart of this book. Her husband had to beg an official to give their sick child the proper medicine. She lamented: “I am a law-abiding citizen, but I ask you, is it fair to go through all this humiliation?”
A historically eye-opening memoir told with insight and wit.
A millennial gets caught up in the ripples of time travel in Houser’s complex sci-fi thriller.
In 2013, Todd Woodside shares a spacious apartment in San Franciscowith his boyfriend, Jason. He’s not thrilled with his job as a medical researcher, but it helps to pay the bills. His comfortable life gets turned upside down, however, when, one morning, he wakes up in the body of an 8-year-old boy named Peter Bremer. He quickly realizes that scrawny Peter lives in a trailer with his schizophrenic mother in rural Oregon—and that the year is 1962. Todd’s strange new existence goes from bad to worse when Peter’s father is killed in a traffic accident. Jack Quinn, a local ne’er-do-well ex-convict, eventually marries Peter’s widowed mother. When Todd finally wakes up back in 2013, he hires a private eye to find out if the people he encountered in 1962 actually existed. He discovers that Peter and his mother died in a fire just after Christmas that same year. It turns out that Jack, who also murdered Peter’s best friend, Lloyd, started the fire, and when Todd ends up back in 1962 again, he resolves to kill Jack. However, that’s not as easy to accomplish as he’d hoped. Because of the butterfly effect of time travel, changes that Todd makes to the past could have unexpected consequences. In his debut novel, Houser creates a layered time-travel puzzle. He smartly makes Todd an atypical hero—one who’s spoiled, self-involved, and even a little lazy. As a result, the protagonist is forced to grow as a person when fate thrusts him into the role of Peter’s protector. Thanks to Houser’s effective past-and-present narrative structure, readers will sometimes find Todd’s journeys to be as jarring as he does; however, the author does supply dates at the beginning of each chapter to help orient his audience. As Todd grudgingly embraces his mission to take on Peter’s tormentor, the author presents a bittersweet tale that wraps up with a satisfying conclusion.
A promising first novel featuring an unlikely hero.
Otherworldly creatures terrorize the Wild West in this genre-bending adventure.
The sharpshooting Etta Davis is a magnetic protagonist in Reinfried’s (Grim Vengeance, 2017, etc.) latest novel. When readers meet her, she’s a miserable, hard-drinking woman who’s suspicious of everyone, but readers get to watch her transform into a magnanimous hero with bravado to match. When she hears that mysterious, feral creatures are destroying towns—and that her former paramour, Ira, is leading the charge against them—she can’t help but join the fray. Despite the fact that she’s invaluable in combat, the men that Etta aligns herself with don’t trust her merely because she’s a woman. Etta and Ira promise to leave their romantic relationship in the past, but things get complicated when a new love interest for Etta joins the fight. Meanwhile, the group’s otherworldly foes seem to grow more wily and vicious. These creatures—who remain unnamed at the end of the book—are among the most engaging elements of the novel: “They’re pretending to die, then coming back to attack,” one fighter notes at the beginning, foreshadowing the increasing threats that the gang will face. The heroes ride through town after town and help local residents defeat the otherworldly beasts, but they receive little help from others along the way. Overall, Reinfried delivers a fresh take on frontier stories with intriguing sci-fi elements. The first third of the novel, though, is consumed by a subplot about Etta escorting a father and daughter to safety. The abrupt shift in focus to Ira’s cause makes it seem like the story is missing a third act, and Etta’s complicated backstory could have used slightly more clarity. As she’s not one for talking, her trauma is mostly reported through cinematic flashbacks and conflicted inner monologues; her mantra—“Attachment means pain. Pain means distraction. Distraction means death”—is a neat, if overused, summation of her life thus far.
This debut YA novel tells of a family coping with a mother’s firm belief that she’s a mermaid.
In Columbus, Nebraska, 16-year-old Emily Parker is driving with her mother, Nora, in the passenger seat. When another car rear-ends them, her mom hits her head. Soon after Nora is discharged from the hospital, she becomes frantic because, for some reason, she thinks she’s missing a tail—one that was “aqua and turquoise with flecks of gold in the sunlight.” She further insists that if she isn’t returned to the Pacific Ocean, she’ll die. There’s a long waiting list at the hospital, so Emily’s dad, Bart, does all he can to comfort Nora at home, including pretending to be the dashing pirate that his wife now believes him to be. Emily’s 6-year-old sister, Amy, loves Nora’s transformation, but the teen loathes it—and the additional responsibilities that it entails. She now has to drive Nora to therapy and swimming sessions when she’d rather work with her school crush, José Hernandez, on a Shakespeare project. As the family’s life becomes more hectic, other changes occur: Nora loses quite a bit of weight and rekindles her relationship with Bart. However, when her personality change is imitated by others and becomes a phenomenon, Emily tries a new tactic to try to bring her mom back to her old self. Author Lilo’s YA fantasy is hilarious and touching, by turns, and it perfectly blends its teenage struggles with grown-up drama as it develops its characters. Nora, a no-nonsense Child Protective Services attorney, is described as never being able to relax because “She was too busy saving the world”; she’s also shown to have raised Emily with an awareness of her privilege, yet the girl “rarely [feels] comfortable” in her own skin. The author also weighs in on aspects of social media, which amplifies Nora’s problems. Lilo provides a memorable supporting cast throughout, including Emily’s rule-breaking grandmother and her 20-year-old swim coach, Tia. It all builds toward a suspenseful finale that respects the surrealism of the plot and the integrity of the characters.
An exuberant fantasy that earnestly explores its teen protagonist’s problems.
A historical novel set during the period of Kamehameha the Great’s battles to consolidate the Hawaiian Islands stars a fierce yet tenderhearted young warrior determined to bring security to his family.
It is 1790, and 17-year-old Kalani Moku Tana has been sent by his mother to Kona to live with his Aunt Lei. Here he is to attend Kamehameha’s Pa lua, a military training academy. He faces daunting challenges. His mother warned him: “The men in the school are chiefs. Unlike them, you cannot show ancestry to the gods. For this you will be tested, humiliated. Be strong. You must survive the training and become a koa” (warrior). Kalani’s father, captured during a battle, was sacrificed to the War God Ku. Gruesome human sacrifice had been brought to Hawaii by the Tahitians, who conquered the original settlers near the end of the first millennium A.D. On his first day at the academy, Kalani makes one fast friend, Moki, and one very dangerous enemy, Hauna. Kalani becomes skilled in the use of the Hawaiians’ primitive weaponry—slingshots, spears, and shark-toothed clubs and daggers. He also becomes entangled in a risky romantic liaison that will cost him dearly. The capture of the Western schooner Fair American presents a new opportunity for Kalani: He learns how to handle muskets and cannons. In this rip-roaring tale, Bill Fernandez (Hawaiian Rebellions, 2018, etc.) has done his research. His narrative is rich in small details of island life before the impact of Western civilization, such as keeping track of time by counting heartbeats. The numerous battle scenes are graphic, bloody, and riveting. And there is endless intrigue, as the islands’ various higher and lower chiefs (there are so many of them that readers are likely to have difficulty keeping them all straight) forge fluid alliances based on current opportunities or the chance to settle old grievances. The author’s wife, Judith Fernandez (Hawaiian Rebellions, 2018), contributes helpful hand-drawn maps of the islands, black-and-white photographs, and sketches. In addition, there’s a valuable upfront glossary of Hawaiian terminology used throughout the text.
An action-packed adventure, a wealth of historical and cultural minutiae, and an engaging protagonist.
In this debut sci-fi novel, a world already facing nuclear devastation may be under threat from an unexplained space phenomenon.
In 2066, U.S. President Antoinette Proust has a potential crisis on her hands. Numerous regions around the globe are participating in nuclear activity, an outright violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Unfortunately, the problem is considerably graver than nuclear testing. Mossad agents Hannah Rabin and David Strauss have recently uncovered evidence of more than 50 black market transactions involving sales of atomic bombs. This indicates that unknown terrorist groups worldwide could be in possession of 50 nuclear weapons. Around the same time, an observatory in Chile notices missing star clusters and a strange void of darkness suddenly appearing in space. This phenomenon, which the United States eventually dubs Tilly, shares traits with a black hole, though scientists immediately debunk that possibility. Even if no one can identify it, it’s only 240,000 miles from the planet and, therefore, a probable danger. Tilly’s gravity, for one, appears potent enough to “swallow light,” and that level of power would be catastrophic if the singularity moves closer to Earth. Meanwhile, the president, anticipating terrorist strikes around the world, considers relinquishing America’s current isolationism and returning to foreign intervention. She soon learns of Tilly, which renowned astrophysicist Dean Peterson and others are debating at NASA headquarters. A theory on what Tilly is, based on a similar marvel in 1914, may lead to a solution regarding the impending threat of nuclear disaster.
Meckfessel takes an unusual but engrossing multigenre approach to the narrative. It begins as an espionage story: Hannah and David are on assignment to infiltrate dubious art dealer Josef Doubhani, who’s actually Amir al Suhenaddin, a chemical weapons supplier. The tale even highlights the agents’ relationship, as the two lovers make plans to leave Mossad. The action then abruptly shifts to an orbital space station and later introduces myriad additional characters, such as Nambuko, a man leading a band of travelers to Ethiopia. Though jarring at first, the ensuing abundance of character perspectives proves advantageous, helping to maintain a consistently brisk momentum. For example, theoretical discussions of Tilly unfold in multiple short scenes that don’t slow down the tale. Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s ample dialogue, but the author illustrates the ongoing tension via description; at one point, the only activities in a room at NASA are a typing keyboard, someone pacing, and a tapping pen. Some characters and subplots are a mystery in terms of their connection to the main thread. But each of these has a payoff, including Nambuko as well as Theresa Judge, whose seemingly modest civil rights movement has a serious impact in America. Considering all that the book accommodates—several characters’ backstories; details of the future world; and the startling decision of how to handle Tilly—it’s relatively short. Meckfessel wisely leaves the ending of his concise novel wide open.
An assortment of intriguing characters and subplots neatly packed into a memorable cautionary tale.
Six people from the 21st century travel 152 years into the past in order to prevent nuclear destruction in Meckfessel’s (Thread Discarded, 2018) sci-fi sequel.
In 2066, as atomic explosions rock the globe, a crew of astronauts flies through a wormhole toward a 20th-century destination. The six crew members’ mission is to “disinvent” nuclear weaponry and thus avert Earth’s apocalyptic end. Landing in the Swiss Alps in the year 1914, they gradually acclimate to the new time period and later separate into three couples. In the United States, NASA astrophysicist Dean Peterson joins Lusanne Demeraux, whose has expertise in capital markets; they work to help prevent the country’s economic collapse. The other two couples—best-friend pilots, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Maria Hampton and Lt. Col. “Boley” Boleskaya, and former Mossad operatives Hannah Rabin and David Strauss—have decidedly different agendas. They plan to “subtract”—that is, kill—key political figures who have ties to the impending Bolshevik Revolution or the Cold War’s nuclear arms race. Another of Hannah and David’s missions is to kill Adolf Hitler before he reaches power. Although the group tries its best to remain incognito, it’s evident, at least to readers, that someone’s shadowing them. Hannah, David, and the others soon suspect that the Bolsheviks may be aware of the assassinations—and they’re out for blood. As the group members suffer physical injuries and mental anguish, they find that they may not be able to escape their adversaries in Germany—especially at the height of World War I.
Meckfessel keeps things relatively simple in this novel, which is to its benefit. For example, time travel is not the primary focus of the story, and although the group acknowledges future historical events, such as World War II, their own tale spans no more than five years. There are hints of romance among various characters, but the author makes each couple distinctive. Dean and Lusanne’s relationship, for example, is only just beginning at the book’s start, while Hannah and David have been an item for years. Conflict spices up the narrative, as well, as when someone’s commitment wavers and Hannah’s growing paranoia causes strife. Additional characters play important roles, including Swiss Federal Police officer Felix Rickart, who monopolizes a lengthy section of the story; he’s a curious, enigmatic gentleman who teams up with whip-smart freelance reporter Greta Bertrand and investigates recent deaths from an epidemic that he surmises are assassinations. But when the plot shifts back to Maria and company, readers will have a long wait before they see Felix and Greta again. As in Meckfessel’s preceding novel, the prose is lucid and concise, as in a scene with Hannah at a German military hospital: “Wounded and maimed men reached for her in agony….Her shoes made a sickening clack as she pulled them from the floor, sticky with drying blood.” Despite a conclusive resolution, there’s a fun twist in the last few pages that suggests a possible sequel or two.
An engaging second sci-fi installment with remarkable details and characters.
A landowner fights to protect his Colorado property from soulless commercial development.
Micah Forrester’s family has owned property in Wishbone Ridge for generations, and he loves living there. He spends the bulk of his happily sleepy days hunting and fishing and enjoying its pristine vistas. However, Willem Vossler, an entrepreneurially ambitious local, has plans to build a colossal ski resort and transform the area into a vacation destination. Micah frets about the environmental degradation such a development could cause, especially plans for a sewage treatment plant. Willem offers him an astronomical sum for his property—an offer Micah never entertains for even a moment—and refuses to take no for an answer. Debut author Corle makes sure the fictional assignment of good and evil is free of ambiguity. Willem’s henchmen are willing to badly beat a college student activist, and Micah is simply incorruptible, no matter the price. The backbone of the novel is Micah’s complexity as a character—educated to be an architect and a former Air Force Ranger, he’s a rare combination of refinement and unpretentious authenticity. Also, the romance between Micah and a local college professor unfurls with great tenderness and sensitivity. Micah’s retreat into the woods is an emotional one. He still reels from the failure of his marriage and the deaths of his parents. Corle’s impressive goal is to shatter shopworn stereotypes. Micah is an accomplished painter, and his friend Lonnie, a “local dude wrangler,” is a college-educated man. The plot is a far-too-binary lesson in morality, however, which makes it seem too eagerly didactic. Also, the dialogue can be a touch canned, reminiscent of old cop shows filled with bravado and corny one-liners: “Follow my instructions and you’ll live to bitch another day. Give me any trouble and you’ll be the ugliest damned corpse our coroner ever saw.” Corle generously fills his tale with action and drama; readers looking for fast-paced excitement will find it here.
A philosophically simplistic but entertaining ecological drama.
A Texas lawyer becomes embroiled in a case of murder, arson, and deceit in this fifth installment of a thriller series.
Attorney Alice MacDonald Greer is chairing the Rules Committee at the First Annual Coffee Creek Barbecue Competition. She’s anticipating the occasional complaint but certainly not the body she stumbles on. The murder victim is John Pine, a food writer who had made a few enemies, including two renowned chefs acting as guest judges for the competition. Unfortunately, locals suspect Alice’s friend M.A. Ellison of the homicide, as she has an unmistakable link to the murder weapon. This gives Alice incentive to identify the real killer, but she already has her hands full. She has lost at least some business, likely due to the influence of Coffee Creek banker Clay Black. He thinks Alice is supporting her pal Red Griffin, a CPA who’s running against Clay in the election for the electric co-op board. Alice is also representing Clay’s estranged nephew, Caswell Bond, who just closed on a ranch that the banker had been interested in purchasing. This is the same property with a house that someone later decides to torch, and soon Alice is looking for a murderer and an arsonist—quite possibly the same person. Foster’s (Ghost Dagger, 2017, etc.) recurring protagonist deftly handles multiple tasks and hurdles. Not only is she running her law practice and tracking down criminals, she also finds herself in peril, as when someone shoots at her. The progressively complicated—though never convoluted—story ultimately includes drones and espionage. While who’s behind most or all of these activities isn’t particularly surprising, watching Alice piece together the puzzle is riveting, as the tale showcases her sharp reasoning. Alice and her friends are often refreshingly blunt, prompting the book’s crisp dialogue. For example, Red, who may be regretting her bid for the co-op board, informs Alice: “If ever again I tell you I want to run for anything, dogcatcher, whatever, just shoot me.”
A sufficient mystery elevated by a pragmatic and able heroine.
Strutin’s (History Hikes of the Smokies, 2003, etc.) novel tells the story of a minor character from the biblical Book of Exodus who fights for justice.
Sixteen-year-old Noa and her four sisters, Milcah, Malah, Hoglah, and Tirzah, are spirited young women making the journey with their elderly parents from Egypt to the prophesied land of their fathers. They’re following Moses, but they’ve been waiting for months for him to come down from the top of a nearby mountain, where he’s been receiving new laws from God. In the meantime, groups of men among them start to make laws for themselves, or seek out idols to help them on their journey. After a misunderstanding about some man-made rules, Noa’s father, Zelophechad, is stoned to death. Without him, and without any brothers, Noa and her sisters aren’t guaranteed a plot of land when the caravan of pilgrims reaches its destination. Noa is determined to achieve justice for her family and begins to plot ways to convince judges of their case. In the meantime, there are alliances to be made through marriage, a business to maintain, and an aging mother to care for. With great attention to detail, Strutin takes these obscure characters—who are mentioned in only three Bible verses—and spins out an in-depth account of the joys and hardships of womanhood in the ancient world. She uses each of the sisters to portray a different stage of womanly growth, from the tomboyish 8-year-old Tirzah to awkward teenager Hoglah to the eldest three, whose thoughts are of money, matrimony, and everything that comes with them. It will certainly help a prospective reader to be familiar with the plot of the Book of Exodus, at least in vague terms. That said, there’s a great deal of interpersonal drama and intrigue that will keep even nonreligious readers engaged in the tale of Noa’s sheepherding family.
A good choice for readers who love historical tales of strong-willed women.
A historical novel re-creates life at the 16th-century court of Queen Elizabeth I via a 20th-century murder mystery involving a cache of valuable papers found in a tomb.
The year is 1579, and 16-year-old Anne Vavasour has successfully obtained her place at the court of Queen Elizabeth, “the Virgin Queen.” Anne has been raised for this. Schooled in accordance with the precepts of Roger Ascham, who tutored Elizabeth, Anne is both learned and self-confident, speaking and writing several languages and knowledgeable of “philosophy, history and literature.” She records her thoughts in her “commonplace book.” Fast-forward to 1992. Vicar Hamilton of St. Mary discovers a trove of papers, books, and scrolls while mucking around in the 300-year-old tombs beneath the ancient church that has been flooded by a stopped-up toilet. The vicar finds the papers (some of which appear to be a version of Macbeth penned by Shakespeare himself) in “the final resting place of” Lady Anne Vavasour, “benefactor of the old church and an ancestor of Mrs. Hamilton...the vicar’s late wife.” When the vicar is murdered, two amateur sleuths start hunting for clues—Stephen White, headmaster of St. George’s prep school and a student of history, the classics, and 16th-century English literature; and Margaret Hamilton, the vicar’s daughter, a BBC investigative reporter, and Stephen’s former fiancee. Casey (The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant, 2015) peppers his imaginative novel with tidbits on the development of writing in the Elizabethan era. Readers are treated to intriguing historical factoids: Sir Walter Raleigh’s twitch caused his uneven handwriting, resulting in typesetters making numerous typographical errors. Each of the central protagonists—the vicar, Margaret, and Stephen—is a well-drawn character. And the author’s prose is elegant, with evocative imagery: “She lowered herself smoothly into the chair across, touched her elbows onto the tabletop, and cradled her chin in her hands, leaning forward.” But readers may find themselves skimming over the excerpts of 16th-century poems and writings, which are arduous to pore through and slow the narrative momentum.
An engaging read with a plethora of captivating literary and historical details wrapped in a contemporary whodunit.
A former heroin addict’s story of hitting rock bottom and finding a way back by unconventional means.
In his debut memoir, Auler describes in rich detail how, as he puts it, “I lost my soul by stages.” He details his youth during the 1960s, colorfully describing the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst during the peak of hippieculture. He says that he always tried to maintain a balance between “Light” and “Darkness” in his inner life, which makes his description of his slow descent into drug addiction all the more gripping. While inquiring into the root cause of his migraines in his early 20s, he was diagnosed as “severely depressed and highly anxious.” He started abusing the Percodan that he was prescribed for his headaches and eventually descended into heroin and cocaine addiction. He found various methods of recovery, including methadone treatment, to be ineffective: “Our drug policy is outrageously out of touch with reality,” he writes. It’s only when he was at the edge of death that Auler heard about Iboga, which he describes as a “sacred shamanic plant medicine used by the Bwiti cult of the Fang peoples, found mainly in Gabon and Cameroon.” Through his own efforts and those of his support system, he arranged to take a drug derived from the plant, Ibogaine, at a facility on the island of St. Kitts. He says that the treatment changed his life: “Ibogaine detoxification is a powerful springboard with which to begin the journey of recovery,” he writes.The bulk of this book is a stark, memorable tour of more than two decades of heroin addiction, which Auler calls “a special kind of hell.” For the most part, his story markedly lacks a sense of hope, yet his narrative skill makes it a visceral read, as when he writes of reaching a point of drug toxicity that made him a kind of living ghost. His experiences will be familiar to readers of other drug-abuse memoirs, such as Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight (1995) or Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries (1978); they include overdoses, law enforcement encounters, serial abuse of friends’ and family members’ trust, and the deaths of other addicts. Still, he offers a harrowing and engrossing revelation of “the interior world of addiction.” For example, he begins the book by recalling the specific moment that he realized that he wasn’t in control of his drug use—and that it controlled him. He skillfully combines vivid description with an unflinching lack of sentimentality as he tells of scoring, hoarding, and dealing drugs while gradually succumbing to them. The most moving scenes are those that portray his final state, when he could no longer function—a living death of dope sickness. The book would have benefited from a stronger copy edit to catch some distracting typos: “The Hip Revolution was just breaking…like a tidal wave over the Establishment dykes when I enrolled.” However, the overall narrative is powerful and ultimately uplifting.
A colorful, involving account of decades of drug addiction.
In this fantasy debut, a warrior on a mission to infiltrate a band of rebels begins to empathize with his targets.
In the world of Isfalinis, Vistus belongs to the t’Okaedrin, human warriors for the Kayrstaran Empire. T’Okaedrin serve the Syraestari, who are beings that live for thousands of years. But some humans, such as the Scions of the Fallen Tree, openly defy the Syraestari. The Scions make concerted efforts to liberate and recruit the Kalilaer, the Syraestari’s human laborers. The Scions consider these workers slaves. In response, Syraestari High Lord Tazil drafts Vistus to pose as a Kalilaer escapee and ultimately lead the t’Okaedrin to a Scion camp. Though the assignment is moderately successful, Tazil wants Vistus to go deeper: live among the Kalilaer to locate more camps and identify Scion leaders. Meanwhile, Ninanna, a Sword-Whisperer and essentially Empress Kayrstana’s bodyguard, is a Syraestari outcast since she sees humans as equals. Accordingly, the mysterious Shadow-Servant approaches Ninanna with a plan he derived from a prophecy: Further conflict in Isfalinis can be avoided by the Syraestari isolating themselves and leaving humans alone. Though the prophecy’s wording is vague, it seemingly warns against the Syraestari’s dominion and references an individual whom the Shadow-Servant believes is Vistus. As a Kalilaer and under the alias Belarrin, Vistus, along with other laborers, endures abuse, even from his t’Okaedrin “brothers.” He quickly befriends Kalilaer and Scions, later learning that, in connection with the prophecy, he may have an extraordinary ability of which he’s never been aware.
Oldenburg’s painstakingly detailed world sets a solid foundation for his series opener. For example, long ago, one of the Etyni (firstborn of Isfalinis creator His Highest Above) rebelled and precipitated the Great War. The Etyni’s deaths, in turn, created the Cataclysm, a series of natural disasters that still affect characters in the present-day narrative. Vistus is a perpetually conflicted protagonist: He’s loyal to the Syraestari, whom he believes are “wiser and stronger” than humans, but also tormented by some of the Scions he’s killed in servitude. The narrative even takes to calling him “Belarrin” when he’s on a mission, differentiating his compassionate alter ego from Vistus and the t’Okaedrin life he’s beginning to doubt. As such, he garners sympathy when he’s with the Kalilaer and Scions. A female Scion named Sravika, whom Belarrin grows close to, becomes an obvious love interest. The story boasts ample mystery, primarily through possibly shady characters, like the Shadow-Servant. Ninanna has trouble trusting the enigmatic character, while Belarrin is certain Shadow-Servants are killers. In the same vein, there are dubious goings-on among the Syraestari and t’Okaedrin as well; several high lords are clearly plotting something against the empress. Despite the book’s length (over 800 pages), the author’s rich descriptions are often concise: “The thunder and lightning roared to the tempo of Belarrin’s nightmares until a final crash wrenched him to wakefulness.” Although this novel is the first installment of an epic series, its thorough resolution makes it a stand-alone.
Laudable characters and striking exposition give this world a grand introduction.
A collection of poetry that examines themes of exile, joy, loss, feminism, and political repression.
In the eight parts of this compilation, Azad (Thus Speaks Mother Simorq, 2018, etc.) often draws on her own experience as an emigrant from Iran to Canada to consider a range of concepts that touch on separation and connection. The first section, aptly named “Lightness,” sets a mood of joyful expectation in such pieces as the opening poem, “Overture to Spring,” in which the speaker makes ready for the end of winter by cleaning out a birdbath, singing as she scrubs out the slimy bowl in anticipation of goldfinches who will fluff and play there; indoors, she says, “butterfly spirits / waltz in through the walls.” Other poems in this book share this speaker’s sense of possibility and spiritual connection, such as “Taming My Animus,” which appreciates how the narrator’s “inner man” allows her imagination to blossom. But the poems generally take a darker turn, addressing emotional distance; exile and diaspora; the loss of a child; a friend’s suicide; and government oppression, particularly of women in Iran. Although these poems can be powerful, many of them are simply bald statements of political stances. For example, in “Mullahs Cannot Block Our Declamations,” the speaker bemoans how “Women wishing to be treated as people, / … / find themselves in the solitary confinement / of the Republic of Discrimination.” Such lines lack subtlety, but Azad does offer cleverer, more artful poems.
“Cinema Paradiso,” for example, is entirely constructed of real-life movie titles: “Wings of desire / Heart like a wheel // A man and a woman / Made for each other.” The poem works on its own, apart from the conceit, while also displaying the evocative lure of a good title. Another ingenious piece is “House Wanted,” which imagines the needs of exiles, “A family of five…(million Iranians)” in terms of a classified ad; the fixer-upper they seek “Ideally is / Woman-friendly with / Access to cable democracy.” Others use rhyme, alliteration, and varying verse forms effectively. In “A Garden in Galicia,” for example, the haiku stanzas are more powerful for their compression, saying more with less. “Epiphany” tells an Innu girl’s story, achieving a spooky quality—like a night breeze in dark forest—through rhyme, assonance, and repeated sibilants: “She said she missed her missing / mother, who was nothing but stories / of gaps, ghosts, and dark places, / who shape-shifted into cypress / … / and other displaced faces.” “A Room Full of Joy,” an optimistic poem despite references to “illusions,” “scars,” “burst bubbles,” and “past tears,” concludes with a forthright statement of resiliency: “Don’t be surprised / to see how / my sorrows rise / for lack of / weight.” Here, Azad subtly uses rhyme (“surprised” / “rise”) to lift the stanza, isolating “weight” on a single line, as if to suggest its powerlessness.
Searching poems that often make effective use of language, though some are overly polemical at times.
A high-profile treasure hunt monopolizes headlines as a serial killer roams the London streets in Chancellor’s (The Forgotten Echo, 2012, etc.) thriller.
Callum Relph, a wealthy American expatriate in England, posts a YouTube video of himself burying what he claims is the legendary sword Excalibur. To find it, citizens must decipher clues using the ExcaliburQuest app, or they could happen upon one of seven golden tickets hidden around the country, each worth £500,000. If the puzzle remains unsolved in five days, the seven ticket holders will be brought to the area where the sword’s hidden and compete to dig it up. Meanwhile, Detective Chief Inspector Frank Moke is working a murder case in which the killer severed the victim’s thumbs—the same M.O. as a serial killer called “Scissorman,” who hasn’t been active in nearly 20 years. Back then, Moke arrested a man who went to prison for the murders of six girls, although the high court subsequently acquitted him on appeal, due to questionable evidence. The detective gets help in the present-day case from rookie police officer Morgan Luttrell, and she and Moke soon determine that the killer’s latest murder may have been inspired by ongoing media coverage of the Excalibur game. Despite its length, Chancellor’s tale maintains a steady pace throughout. The characters’ backstories gradually unfold in snippets, rather than as prolonged exposition. Various mysteries about specific characters develop over the course of the story; the public knows little about Relph, Luttrell keeps a secret from Moke, and it’s revealed that George Eagle, a profiler who worked the older case, later had “some kind of breakdown.” Intermittent scenes from the killer’s perspective become more unnerving in the novel’s latter half, when he’s holding someone captive for a frighteningly unclear purpose. This is Chancellor’s first adult thriller (he previously wrote children’s books) and although it’s occasionally violent, it more often relies on atmosphere. A description of an old crime scene, for instance, merely hints at earlier savagery: “The dark patch of dried blood in the middle of the carpet was still covered by a sheet of plastic.”
McIlvain (Stein House, 2013, etc.) takes readers back to Texas at the end of Reconstruction in a novel about a man trying to come to terms with his biracial son’s radical decision and the return of a woman whom he’d thought he’d lost.
In 1875, plantation owner Al Waters’ gifted son Toby, who’s leaving for Harvard Medical School in the fall, comes home from a college graduation party enraged by a rumor that he’s not wholly white—although his skin is light enough that he can easily “pass” as Caucasian, as he has all his life. Al confesses that Toby’s mother was a black slave; Toby was conceived, Al says, on a night when he was drunk and despondent over the fact that a woman named Amelia wouldn’t leave her husband for him. Later, Toby, for reasons that are hard for Al to fathom, decides to embrace the black side of his heritage; the young man comes back from his first year at Harvard with his hair cut very close to highlight his new identity. Al had married his brother’s widow and freed her slaves, and he now runs the plantation as a cooperative with the freedmen; members of the Ku Klux Klan try to terrify the cooperative into submission, but they’re beaten back. Meanwhile, Al continues to struggle with his son’s choices. To say that McIlvain writes well is an understatement; she makes readers truly feel for her characters, and as a result, they seem very much like real people, not fictional ones. Among the notable secondary players is Amelia, whom Al marries, and she helps him reconcile with Toby in a process that proves to be long and subtle. There’s definitely a sagalike quality to McIlvain’s tale, with key moments of both sorrow and optimism—good people die, but others carry on and have children. She also offers an ending that will remind readers that the end of Reconstruction was also the beginning of Jim Crow. But still, through it all, one gets a sense of indomitable hope.
Readers will likely welcome a sequel to this well-wrought historical family saga.
A debut history book focuses on a New Jersey cemetery while exploring the whole spectrum of the black experience in the region.
Buck and Mills both have deep familial ties to the Stoutsburg Cemetery near Hopewell, New Jersey. They have jointly served as trustees of the cemetery’s association for more than 30 years. In 2006, someone distraught over the possibility that a nearby but unofficial burial ground would soon be bulldozed contacted Buck. The authors immersed themselves in research in order to find documentary evidence of the land’s hallowed purpose, a task that begat this extended “detective-labor-of-love.” The result is a panoramic history of the African-American experience in New Jersey and the region, concentrating on the Stoutsburg Cemetery, a powerful reminder of the segregation that persisted long after the demise of slavery. In fact, a state law made it criminal to bury blacks and whites on the same grounds; it was finally overturned in 1884. The historical landscape traversed is expansive. The authors discuss the centrality of the church for African-Americans in the area, the history of the black population’s military service, and the nature of black landownership, which provided “real power and sovereignty” for otherwise disenfranchised citizens. They also dispel the myth that slavery in the North was more humanely practiced than in the South. New Jersey was in fact a brutal participant in and advocate of slave ownership. At the heart of this moving chronicle is the authors’ impassioned desire to “break the cycle of America’s historical omissions” regarding its black citizens, whose significant contributions have often been consigned to oblivion. “The challenges that African Americans face in proving their family history is a direct result of the lack of primary documentation—records of accomplishments or achievements in their lives,” the authors assert. The study is meticulously documented and written in prose that is always lucid and often stirring. The authors tend to confront readers with mountains of detail—family genealogies and even recipes are provided—but given the mission to disinter a buried history, it’s hard to quibble with their zeal.
A stunningly thorough and poignant study of African-Americans.
A young boy climbs a mountain to the Magic Moon in this children’s picture book.
The titular Moon will grant visitors two requests during their lifetimes—to find a lost treasure and to receive something good that won’t hurt anyone. A young white boy makes the journey and gets his first answer: His sister’s lost dolly is behind the woodpile. At school, a new student is ostracized and teased, but the protagonist plays with him, enjoying his invention involving a ball and a peach basket. The boy later climbs the mountain to ask the Magic Moon for “the secret of happiness.” But the Moon tells the boy that he already knows, reminding him of how he felt helping his sister and the new kid at school. His second trek isn’t wasted, though. The Moon says: “The difficult journey makes the happiness found at the end sweeter!” Debut author Moulton gives her Magic Moon an interestingly challenging personality with a booming voice, sometimes making jokes, sometimes oracular. This characterization rescues the story as a whole from becoming too syrupy while still getting the message across. Young basketball lovers will enjoy the veiled references to that game’s origins. Whitchurch’s painted illustrations are somewhat crude in style, but they’re varied and nicely composed.