Thorpe (Bellamy’s Ball, 2015, etc.) offers a historical novel about the O’Shaughnessys of rural Wisconsin.
In 1913, Grandpa Duffy, a stiff-necked old man, dies, but he doesn’t bequeath his dairy farm to Will O’Shaughnessy, his eldest grandson, as expected. Will’s brother, Frank, who’s just as heartless as Grandpa was, gets it instead. Jesse, the youngest of the three O’Shaughnessy brothers, is a hopeless alcoholic, who will eventually come back from World War I grotesquely disfigured. Will still longs be a farmer, having gone to University of Wisconsin and absorbed modern agricultural ideas. He wins the heart of the lovely, smart Mary Tregonning and winds up owning a Ford dealership in Ashley Springs. Prosperity follows, and soon they can afford to buy the finest house in town, where they eventually raise four children. Readers follow these O’Shaughnessys through World War I, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918—which takes Michael, their firstborn—Prohibition (Will is a moderate drinker, Mary a scolding teetotaler), and the Roaring ’20s, when everyone, even Mary, gets stock market fever. Will is a cautious investor; others, such as his father, are suckered by con men or their own greed. Will soon faces a hard decision as his once-prospering dealership suffers direly. Any novel that starts out with hogs eating Grandpa is sure to grab readers’ attention. But Thorpe doesn’t disappoint as the story goes on; he’s a native of the Badger State himself, and he clearly knows it and its people well. It shows in his novel, which features well-developed characters that ring true. One running, character-based gag, for example, is that Will, a successful Ford dealer, still prefers to ride around in his horse and buggy. As a result, readers will grow to love Will and Mary and the girls, and cheer as they arrive at the farm that Will has wanted for so long.
An engaging first installment in a family saga that will have readers eagerly awaiting the next three.
Finally in charge of the planet, women resolve to do a better job than men; but for all their good intentions, Utopia eludes them in this study of human nature and gender roles.
In this debut novel, the war to end all wars has been accomplished in the not-too-distant future for the simple reason that the world has run out of men and materiel to fight anymore. The countryside has been reduced to rubble and most men are dead or presumed so. Not coincidentally, in a wave of vicious misogyny, women had been severely oppressed. Now, it is 10 years after, and the roles are reversed. Through sheer grit, women continue to dig out of the ruins and vow to make a brave, new matriarchal world. But they must always be on guard against roving bands of “raiders,” men bent on pillage, rape, and worse. (A few men are accepted, but they are literally house husbands.) Kate Decker is making a go of it on her farm with her twins, Margaret and Laura, and son, Jonah. One night, a man emerges from the forest begging help for his sick boy, Evan. Thus begins the tentative, tortured relationship between Kate and Michael MacGregor, who has in effect kidnapped his own son so that he will not lose him. If the women in town find out, they will take young Evan and probably kill Michael. With so much hatred, can a true balance ever be achieved? Aguila is a remarkably talented novelist. Her vivid passages paint a fractured society; one female character says of men: “We buried all of them. Even the ones who survived.” The author is not afraid to let a scene grow at its own pace, and virtually everything rings true here. And this engrossing tale is wonderfully balanced with fully developed characters: readers understand what fear and loathing have done to most of these women (even to Kate near the end). But they also know that Michael is a good man and should not be tarred with the same brush aimed at most of his sex. Men and women will react differently to the story, but both should find much to ponder (attention, book clubs). In the end, readers are forced to examine the tragedies that evil can wreak.
A novel of ideas can easily become righteous and preachy; this thoughtful matriarchal tale impressively rises above that.
A former world-traveling missionary–turned–small-town family man reflects on the joys and lighthearted foibles of country life in this memoir.
Hawron (Entertaining Detours, 2015) continues his trilogy of homespun chronicles with this second endearing entry in the True Tales series. With evocative detail and a healthy sense of humor, he lingers over the nuances of 20 years of living in a small East Texas town where he and his Danish wife, Annette, cohabitated on a rural farm. There’s certainly no shortage of anecdotes featuring his 12 children; in the opening chapter, he describes how his playful young son Richard frolics on the lawn. Hawron and his wife arrived in the hamlet of New Boston from Hong Kong many years ago and soon settled into a historic 120-year-old country property. The author generously shares the rich history of the Bowie County region, its remarkable landmarks, and the learning curve of their own “pioneer experience.” This included grappling with the house’s persnickety heating system, meandering skunks and possums, fire ants, and mandatory attendance at high school football games. They also learned about catalpa worms, dairy goats, and natural springs along the way. The townsfolk offered odd jobs to Hawron as he got on his feet financially, and he repaid their kindness with genuine, selfless friendship. Hawron’s prose is chatty, uplifting, and pleasantly conversational within a narrative that’s thankfully devoid of anything that anyone could deem offensive. He describes himself as a “car hypochondriac” and a tree lover, and many readers are likely to share these same qualities. At another point, he offers a gorgeous tribute to his loving wife. Overall, these stories are indeed a far cry from the days of exotic international wanderlust that Hawron enjoyed in years past. But his book shows his devotion to the unique peace and security of the bucolic countryside, where he treasures “the priceless gift of being a family, and the blessing of having wonderful friends.”
In this illustrated children’s book, a boy’s prank leads to a better understanding of the true spirit of Ramadan.
In Lahore, Pakistan, 8-year-old Raza lives in a multigenerational family house. During Ramadan, which involves fasting during the day, adults eat a special pre-dawn breakfast called sehri that includes delicious parathas, made of hot and flaky fried dough. Raza loves these, but he must wait for his own later breakfast because young children aren’t expected to fast like adults do. Early one morning, he smells wonderful aromas from the kitchen and decides that he just has to have some sehri for himself. He sneaks out of his bedroom, climbs to the flat roof, and bellows down the chimney in his deepest voice to Amina, the maid: “I want you to make some parathas for me!” Frightened, Amina believes that a supernatural jinni is on the roof and runs to Raza’s grandmother, his “Nani.” She soon sees through her grandson’s prank, and although he does get some parathas, he’s also scolded for deceiving and frightening Amina and given a task to make it up to her. Raza realizes that his Nani is right to do this: “How would he be able to fast in the future if he could not even wait for breakfast?” The next year, Raza keeps his first fast, which his family celebrates by giving him money and presents. The book includes an author’s note on Ramadan, a glossary, and a recipe for parathas (which notes that an adult should fry them). In her debut book, Rafi tells a warmhearted, amusing story about growing up in one’s faith. The character of Nani handles Raza’s mischief well; she goes along with the prank to a certain extent, and he’s allowed to have his parathas, but he doesn’t get away with mistreating Amina, who forgives him and tells him stories about jinn. As a result, the boy is allowed to be boyish while still being gently guided toward his greater responsibility as a Muslim. Illustrator Channa’s rounded shapes and soft colors add to the book’s welcoming feel, including nice touches, such as an adorable orange kitten in the background who also gets into some mischief.
An affectionate, amusing tale that serves as a sweet introduction to a Muslim observance.
A sleuth in the distant future works a case involving an actress proclaiming her innocence—despite security footage that shows she killed her husband—in this sci-fi mystery.
The world may have mastered light-speed travel and befriended alien species, but old-fashioned private investigators still prove necessary. Percival “Percy” Calendar is hired by Dakamon of Scla, whose client and friend, movie star Audry Parsons, is a murder suspect. Cops’ evidence against her is overwhelming: her home security system captured Audry beating her husband, Roger Gavin, to death with a golf club. Audry says it’s not her, but the sophisticated system can’t be fooled by a look-alike imposter—for example, a clone of the celebrity committing the murder. Percy scours the galactic quadrant for Audry’s potential enemies, including a rival actress and her ex-manager. But his probe soon uncovers a possible link to another case: Jack Layman’s serving a life sentence for killing his wife, but he continues to point the finger at their household android. If someone’s developed tech that can trick security cameras, it won’t be easy for Percy to prove Audry’s innocence. A killer may even be tempted to frame the detective for murder—or target him for death. Despite an expansive plot that takes the private eye to various planets, Riccobono’s (Is There A Medic in the House?, 2017, etc.) novel is a time-honored detective story. Occasionally cynical Percy, for one, drops memorable quips, like his response to Dakamon’s acknowledgement that the damning evidence looks bad: “No, an intergalactic war looks bad. This is worse.” Characters, however, are also well-developed, particularly Percy’s stepdaughter and homicide officer, Cryllin, whom the PI raised after her mother died. Copious interrogations beget a dialogue-heavy narrative; descriptions are short but comprehensive, though sometimes sparse (perhaps a few specifics on sonic handcuffs?). But it’s hard not to admire a private eye who refuses to give up, notwithstanding his client’s belief that the investigation has run its course.
Traditional genre trademarks and a stellar backdrop invigorate this tale, the first in a series featuring the whip-smart gumshoe.
Kmitta’s debut novel tells a story about Chicago baseball fans in two different eras.
The story starts in 1867 with a mysterious, forceful figure named William Hulbert who’s committed to two things: Chicago and “base ball”—two words, as it was then spelled. He’s determined to get this new game taken seriously as a professional sport. (In real life, Hulbert went on to found the National League in 1876.) Meanwhile, readers are treated to cameos by historical figures such as beer magnate Adolphus Busch and future president Ulysses S. Grant. The narrative then shifts to 1967—and from third-person narration to first-person—to focus on a young fan named Scott Banks at his first Chicago Cubs baseball game. Scott remains an avid Cubs fan as the years go by, even after his job forces him to move to St. Louis—enemy territory, as it were. Later, he has a wife and three grown kids, all Cardinals fans, and he wins a contest to face off as a batter against genuine Cardinals pitchers. Scott showed some promise as a high school baseball player, but life and injuries intervened; now, he can get a tiny taste of “The Show,” even if he has to do it in Busch Stadium, not Wrigley Field. The story toggles between Hulbert’s and Scott’s stories, and the run-up to Scott’s big showdown, in particular, is handled well. Part of the fun for readers will be in learning early “base ball” lore and terminology: the catcher, for example, was called the “behinder,” umpires were “arbiters,” and fans were “cranks.” Kmitta is a genuine baseball fanatic; indeed, Scott appears to be a thinly disguised version of the author, who’s active in a vintage baseball league.He’s also a capable writer, never skimping on detail and keeping the story moving at a fairly brisk pace while also giving readers a present-day protagonist that they’ll sympathize with and root for.
A good read for any baseball fan and a fitting tribute to the recently triumphant Cubs.
A marketing consultant shares brand differentiation strategies that resist imitation.
Miller (Stop Wasting Your Time at Trade Shows and Start Making Money, 2006, etc.), who boasts a Fortune 100 client list and more than 1,500 speaking engagements, delivers a coaching session in book form. Its rat-a-tat patois, the coined one-word title, and even the orange cover embody the author’s theories in practice. Don’t mistake the work’s brevity for a lack of substance. Miller oozes ideas but makes his points quickly, mostly through rapid-fire anecdotes. Short sentences—often questions—punctuate his discourse, engaging the reader as a stand-up comic might call out an audience member. He explains how competition focused on one-upping a rival’s product, price, or service breeds conformity rather than ingenuity. Miller’s prescription: “Look at what everybody else is doing, and don’t do it.” The goal: become “uncopyable” and create an “uncopyable attachment” among customers. His most vivid example is Harley-Davidson, whose devotees often tattoo its logo on their bodies. His trademarked advice is “Stealing Genius”—appropriating innovations from other industries. He recounts how Southwest Airlines copied NASCAR pit crews to service planes faster and how he helped construction trade show executives lift display ideas at an American Girl doll store. Miller asserts that businesses must forge anchors that plant their products in customers’ minds and triggers that activate brand choice when buying decisions arise. How? Creative words, phrases, color associations, and surprises that “shock and awe” customers. Miller bills himself as “Kelly’s Dad, Marketing Gunslinger”—uncopyable. His trigger color is orange; top clients get orange Mont Blanc pens. He advises establishing figurative or literal clubs, where sellers turn their best customers into “rock stars” and departure means sacrificing perks. The author elevates his clients (and himself) by pointedly dropping names throughout—Disney, Nordstrom, etc. His ideas aren’t all original, but his synthesis is, well, uncopyable. Miller has produced an easy and fun read with a wealth of actionable information that anyone responsible for building and marketing a brand should find useful. He acknowledges that nothing can remain uncopyable indefinitely, so he urges developing a mindset that’s continually on the lookout for inventive ideas. Copy that.
An enjoyable and helpful guide to developing and selling a brand.
Sparks fly when marketing consultant Ava Lindt lands a contract at a high-end jewelry company run by Sebastian Bennett, San Francisco’s most eligible bachelor.
From the moment Ava shakes hands with the CEO of Bennett Enterprises, she’s smitten. Sebastian is smart, sexy, and...totally off limits. Her contract is only four months long, and past long-distance affairs have left her jaded: “Finding a decent man and counting on him seems like an impossibility, akin to comfortable high heels or sexy period panties.” More importantly, her supervisor, Dirk, forbids romance on the job. But after a few textbook romantic comedy mishaps—a fall which results in Sebastian seeing Ava’s underwear and a face-palm moment when she accidentally sends him a compromising text message meant for her best friend Nadine—her resolve wanes. Sebastian’s incessant flirtation, gifts, and promises to make this the best four months of her life prove, well, irresistible. At first, the lovebirds are content with an illicit fling, but soon, the thought of leaving one another becomes unbearable. And with no family of her own, Ava has grown fond of being an honorary Bennett, complete with nine new siblings and two loving parents. What’s a career-minded woman to do? In this first installment of the Bennett Family series, Hagen (Your Tempting Love, 2017, etc.) employs an easy, conspiratorial writing style, alternating perspectives between the two leads. The CEO–employee power dynamic is hot, and though Ava is impressed by Sebastian’s power and masculinity, she is still every bit his equal. In terms of supporting cast, siblings Logan (chief operating officer and bad cop to Sebastian’s good cop) and Pippa (the company’s creative director) never threaten to steal center stage but are memorable enough that readers will look forward to seeing them again in future books. Toward the finale, Ava and Sebastian’s motivations do drift toward the implausible—both jump to irrational conclusions. It’s mostly forgivable, however, and the resulting conflict makes for a more satisfying ending.
A strong start to the series, with enough sizzle to stand alone and plenty of likable characters.
In Murray’s (To Hunt a Sub, 2016, etc.) latest thriller, U.S. and British agencies have less than a month to stop a North Korean missile strike after hijackers steal nuclear warhead–armed submarines.
America and Britain are on high alert when their nuclear subs, the USS Virginia and the HMS Triumph, are suddenly missing. FBI special agent Bobby James gets in touch with former SEAL Zeke Rowe, who’d helped James thwart a formidable terrorist last year. The fed also wants assistance from Zeke’s girlfriend, Kali Delamagente—more specifically, her AI Otto. During the same case with Zeke, Otto, “capable of finding almost anything on earth,” tracked down a sub, an impressive task he can hopefully do again. Accelerating the operation is an apparent deadline: James guesses that one of the subs is part of North Korea’s promised satellite launch, which may actually be a space-based nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, Kali’s son, Sean, security director of his San Diego apartment building, stumbles on a lead. Surveilling fellow tenant and suspected murderer Anjour Mohammed, Sean picks up chatter involving the Triumph and numbers that could be coordinates for the launch site. Unfortunately, this may put him in danger once he gets too curious for Mohammed’s taste. A blistering pace is set from the beginning: dates open each new chapter/section, generating a countdown that intensifies the title’s time limit. Murray skillfully bounces from scene to scene, handling numerous characters, from hijackers to MI6 special agent Haster. This does lead to the occasional skimping on pertinent details: as part of Mohammed’s assignment to capture a naval vessel, he sparks a conversation with Lt. Paloma Chacone, who intel declares is his girlfriend the very next day. Villains, however, are outstanding, with unnamed/unseen individuals making threats to Kali and Sean (demanding they stop aiding the feds) and the implication that someone believed to be dead is the mastermind. There are startling instances of violence, too, particularly flashbacks to Zeke’s harrowing torture in Iraq.
A steady tempo and indelible menace form a stirring nautical tale.
In Church’s debut thriller, a California schoolteacher’s search for her missing father in 1970s Barbados puts her in the middle of an ongoing fight over a much-desired piece of land.
When Drug Enforcement Administration agents show up at teacher Olivia Lassiter’s door, looking for her movie-producer dad, Del, she assumes that it’s related to drugs, due to Del’s constant association with the Hollywood crowd. Indeed, the agents claim that her father has a drug-running operation of his own and that he was recently spotted with her cousin, Aaron Law-Maddock, who was later found drowned—and whom she doesn’t even know. Olivia sees an agent swipe Del’s safe-deposit key, so she and her lawyer pal, Gail Kazarian, rush to the bank to get access to the safety-deposit box first. Inside are multiple surprises, including millions of dollars in bearer bonds and a birth certificate with Olivia’s birthdate but another name: Stella Harris. A couriered message from Del asks Olivia to take another key (from the box) to Perfidia, Barbados; then attorney Brendan Whitelaw, via phone, says that Del’s gone missing. She soon learns that Perfidia is heavily in debt and that the key to saving it may be the literal one that Olivia possesses. Soon, someone is following her and later accosts her and even sets her cabin on fire. Church manages, quite impressively, to maintain a sense of a hidden but perpetual threat. For example, most of the characters don’t provide straightforward answers to Olivia’s questions, which ultimately makes her wary of everyone. More than one man offers the possibility of romance, but these instances of tenderness are obscured by the constant, exhilarating atmosphere of distrust. Church’s indelible descriptions of Perfidia, meanwhile, turn even an innocuous cane field into something unnerving: “Dense foliage on either side of the path topped by the blackness of the sky created a tunnel alive with dappled shadows.” There are plenty of shocks throughout the story, including revelations about the land’s history and about a few characters’ relationships.
Overpowering dread and a leery protagonist make this a suspenseful read.
Short but powerful story for older middle-grade readers about a service dog and her handler by educator and coiner of the term “faction” (fiction based on fact) Ward (Letters Home, 2004).
On her second birthday, yellow Labrador retriever Maddie was awarded to Tom Ward, a Marine Corps veteran with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Trained as a service dog since she was 5 weeks old, Maddie spent an additional two weeks training with Tom before they traveled to his home in North Carolina. The story details the ways Maddie assists Tom—opening the kitchen drawers and refrigerator, picking up things he has dropped, sensing when he is tired or cold, etc.—while also providing guidelines for young children on how to behave around a service dog. Through photographs and text (sometimes told from Maddie’s point of view), the reader learns that a service dog should never be approached or touched when working with a handler unless the handler gives permission. Some information on the progression of ALS also emerges in the story. As fitting for a children’s book, the story not only shows how Maddie helps Tom, but provides a glimpse into their life together—going to the beach, dining out, playing ball, and having a late afternoon snack. The author—Tom’s spouse—also provides information on the service organization that provided them with Maddie as well as other useful links. While the text is well-written and provides important, heartfelt information, the photographs elevate this work. More than words possibly could, they convey the close relationship shared by Tom and Maddie. In addition, seeing Maddie in action clarifies how she provides various services to Tom. The only way the book falters is in Maddie’s canine commentary, which might amuse kids but jar an adult reader.
Affecting, insightful, and informative account of a lovely service dog and her handler.
In this third installment of Mahler’s (Power, 2015, etc.) thriller series, spy Betty Thursten struggles to stop a nefarious organization from obtaining enough wealth and power to start a world war.
Betty’s thirst for vengeance against whomever murdered her fiance, José Silva, has yet to be satiated. Control, the covert agency she works for, currently has the hit man in custody who took José out. But it wisely keeps the assassin out of Betty’s reach, because he could provide important intelligence on the Cabal, Control’s longtime nemesis. Control’s leader (and Betty’s current lover), Tom Howell, meets with a high-level Cabal member after the evil organization blows up the home of his late father (the former Control head); they call a truce of sorts, to avoid a “Pyrrhic victory.” That Cabal member is Ernesto Montoya, who likely ordered the hit on José. Still, he joins Betty on an assignment in Vail, Colorado, helping her get close to Cabal leadership. Vail turns out to be a hub for agents from both groups, including Betty’s ex-lover and former partner, Gil Richardson, who’s keeping tabs on Betty’s ex–best friend, Jil Harper. Betty must figure out who the bad guys really are—not so easy when they’re often interchangeable with the good. Mahler dives right into this series entry without an opening recap, which may baffle new readers. But things do get clearer as the speedy plot rages on, ultimately revealing a maze of relationships between multiple characters. The bulk of the action is relegated to the exhilarating second half, set in Vail, where Betty displays her skills with a knife, her fists, and a Black Card. The story is further intensified by the agent’s growing distrust of nearly everyone, which, at one point, necessitates “a stiff drink to wipe away her paranoia.” It’s primarily gloomy in tone, but lighter moments shine through, such as the promise of genuine, romantic feelings between Gil and Jil.
A fast-paced, crowded tale that’s sure to spark another sequel.
Jessica Delaney returns in this second entry in author/engineer Bolick’s (The Leftover Girl, 2016) Alabama-set YA paranormal series.
With her cousins Bailey and Pade Sanders exiled to their father’s house in Colorado and her suspected biological brother Chase further away, Jessica accepts Rachelle Whitman’s invitation to go to the lake for the day. She loses track of time and neglects to bring the powerful sunscreen that her parents always make her apply. But Jessica’s resulting sunburn doesn’t just make her skin red—it puts her in a two-month coma. Finally released right before the first day of school, Jessica just wants her life to go back to normal, but everything seems to have changed: former bully Tosh Henley is now nice, and new student Brianna is hassling Rachelle; meanwhile, just-returned Pade has quit football, making him the school pariah. Also, Joe, the new guy in Jessica’s history class, somehow reminds her of Chase, although he looks and acts nothing like him. When Joe suddenly disappears, everyone claims that he never existed—and that they thought that Jessica was talking to herself in history class. As her dreams and flashbacks increase, she learns staggering truths about Pade and Bailey. Meanwhile, as the adopted Jessica tries to discover whether her true name is Jessica Naples or Kayden Ray, her father’s health once again becomes precarious. This second series installment replaces exaggerated angst with suspense, making it far superior to the first. This time around, Bolick strikes the perfect balance of action, description, dialogue, and introspection. Readers’ eagerness to learn what happens next overcomes the book’s minor shortcomings, such as the many character introductions when Jessica goes back to school. A few subplots seem irrelevant here, particularly Jessica’s friend Angel’s romance, but they could possibly become integral to the next book. This novel ties up many loose ends from the last one, but it doesn’t function well as a stand-alone novel, so new readers should be sure to read the first in the series.
A suspenseful tale that stands out in a crowded genre.
A medical scientist conducts controversial experiments involving human memory and age with disastrous results.
Ten years in the making and an assured departure from the author’s Adirondack Trilogy, Holtzman’s (Forever Wild, 2013, etc.) fourth novel is effectively informed by his former career as a physician and geneticist. The tale opens with the death of Betsy Matthews, an African-American woman who perishes from leukemia as a result of her participation in a clinical trial sponsored by the local esteemed university and a financial backing corporation. The narrative flashes back to when Jason Pearce, the latest young, motivated faculty member of Virginia’s Bates-Bronsted Medical School, became obsessed with bankrolling his reputation for groundbreaking, National Institutes of Health–funded research into “gene regulation.” Personally, Audrey Meacham, an influential (and increasingly pessimistic) member of the collegiate administration, immediately captures his interest both scientifically and romantically. The two are married and have several children while Pearce continues his genetic experimentation. Holtzman cleverly infuses his protagonist with a smooth combination of clinical innovation and energized “path-breaking potential,” yet he also realizes these things require money, which seems to be the initial linchpin of the story. Pearce also exhibits a certain disdain for university politics and the manipulative biotech entities that dangle lucrative incentives above the heads of the medical school’s top scientists. That is, until he receives a timely and tempting offer he cannot refuse: to have his genetic research tied to Alzheimer’s disease fully funded by a venture capitalist firm that believes the scientist could be at the precipice of a groundbreaking discovery in human memory restoration. Once the literary groundwork is laid, the author gets to work amping up the suspense and the danger quotients concerning gene-therapy clinical trial volunteer Matthews, whose eventual fate throws Pearce’s formerly illustrious career and life into a harrowing tailspin of guilt and murderous negligence accusations.
By integrating themes of genetic research, ethical conundrums, unlawful death, and racial discrimination, this multifaceted novel delivers a brisk, riveting tale of greed and clinical malfeasance.
A debut novel tells the story of life in a California valley through the eyes of a tree.
The hero of this book is, as the title suggests, a tree. Specifically, a live oak that germinates in Topanga in the 18th century. The tale begins, more or less, at the protagonist’s conception: a new acorn drops from a tree and is picked up by a blue jay, which is in turn snatched by a hawk. The acorn falls from the hawk’s talons high in the air and comes to rest in a crack on the dry valley floor. It waits for days in the arid dirt until a mountain lion kills and eats a deer over the crack, coating the acorn in blood: “And the acorn responded to sudden moisture as seeds do. Things uncoiled and uncurled inside.” From there, Watts takes the reader on a journey through more than two centuries of California history with Tree right at the center, from the struggles of the surrounding animals and plants who serve as the oak’s neighbors to the human settlers—Chumash, Spanish, American, and contemporary Angeleno—who alter the face of the valley. The saga of Tree becomes a window into the immensity of nature, simultaneously dynamic and everlasting, and the ways that humans have come to upset the ancient balance. Watts writes in an elegant, highly detailed prose that shows an incredible knack for chronicling the minutiae of the natural world. Even more impressive is her ability to wring narrative from the most common interactions, reminding readers of the Homeric drama unfolding all around them, at every level of life. She makes the most of the novel’s conceit, going so far as to use a Tree-specific pronoun: e instead of he or she. Far from cute, this book takes a serious look at the value of love, the impossibility of permanence, and the ways in which humans leave the world. For anyone wondering about the outcome, Watts closes the work’s first paragraph with the reminder that “there is no happiness. Only serenity lasts.”
An ingenious and satisfying tale about a single live oak.
In this gripping novel of romance and social consciousness, a white California teenager encounters the effects of racial prejudice in the segregated South of the 1950s.
In 1986Los Angeles, Hannah Ross is devastated by the death of her father, but her world is turned upside down when her mother, Catherine, decides to share some long-buried family history. Most of the novel that follows takes place in the summer of 1955, as Catherine, a teenage college student, accompanies her father, Ben, to his childhood home in Arkansas to help her recently widowed grandmother, Mama Rae. Ben hasn’t visited the South in more than a decade, largely due to a desire to protect his children from their grandfather’s racist attitudes. The casual cruelty of whites in the Jim Crow South comes as a shock to Catherine, and she soon draws attention for her refusal to participate in it. She also finds herself irresistibly drawn to Jimmy Emerson,the college-aged African-American son of her grandmother’s housekeeper, Sally; he’d been her playmate during past childhood visits to her grandparents’ farm. Despite Ben’s, Mama Rae’s, and Sally’s warnings, they pursue their youthful attraction, and the life-shattering consequences will have repercussions for generations. Moose (Berkeley U.S.A., 1981, etc.)is a compelling storyteller, and this one unfolds with page-turning urgency as she paints a convincingly chilling portrait of white supremacy in a small Southern town. However, some of the characters here seem a bit too good to be true, while others are mere caricatures of evil, so readers looking for a more nuanced cultural study may be disappointed. Even so, readers will genuinely care about Catherine, Jimmy, and their families; the transformation of Mama Rae after her husband’s death is a delight, and the ending is satisfying without tying up its loose ends too neatly. A thoughtful “Author’s Note” with suggested reading about the Jim Crow South follows the text.
An often powerful novel about courage and integrity in the face of hate.
In Gallagher’s debut YA novel, a teenage boy in Queens, New York, meets a young woman from a mysterious culture who changes his outlook on life.
James Ward leads a fairly everyday American life with a quiet family, a few friends, a few bullies, and the usual high school workload. But one day, he meets a strange teenage Irish girl named Cornelia Parsons, who lives nearby with her old-fashioned aunt, Vivien Widdershins. Almost without him realizing it, his new acquaintances slowly initiate him into a hidden world involving tribes of Celtic travelers, itinerant people with a long, secret history and laws, language, and lifestyles that are uniquely their own. Over the course of his high school year, James learns more about the travelers and becomes fascinated by their culture’s blend of rough criminality, clannish insularity, and poetic beauty. He’s soon drawn into Vivien’s struggle to establish her title as queen of the traveler people, and he becomes willing to confront great dangers. Along the way, James learns life lessons and more about his own background as he heeds the call of a new, romantic worldview. The story is highly engaging, with a varied array of nostalgic touches from different countries and periods. As a result, though, it’s sometimes difficult to gauge exactly when the story takes place, although it appears to be set in modern times. This nostalgic tone is clearly the author’s intention, and she even has characters allude to it in dialogue: “ ‘Reminiscences,” said Cornelia, rolling her R. ‘Nostalgia. What we do best.’ ” The various players are quietly but richly delineated, and their conversations ring true; James and Cornelia’s relationship is particularly strong. Indeed, the plot often takes a back seat to character development and exploration of the travelers’ secret world. This is a welcome choice, however, as Gallagher often handles it deftly. That said, readers may find themselves slowed down at times by the liberal sprinkling of pidgin English, Gaelic, Latin, and French words, used for color and literary effect.
A young girl tells of life in a small French town toward the end of World War II in this historical novel.
Debut novelist Obolensky lets Tina, who’s 9 going on 10, tell this story set in the spring of 1944. Because of health problems, Tina has been sent from Paris to the town of Dormans in France to live with the Marchands—mother Nanette, father Bébert, their son, Guigui, and grandmother Mémé. Dormans is under occupation by the Nazis, so fear, tension, and resentment abound. But already, rumor has it that the tide has turned in the war and it will be only a matter of time before the Americans come to liberate the town. Meanwhile, life goes on, and readers get to know and love the Marchands and several other characters in the area—some suspect, some quirky, and some generous; the Germans (known as “the Boches”) are, of course, deeply despised. This is a story of Tina learning fearful truths and navigating the darker recesses of life while also being cherished by the Marchands. (Her tale is bookended by that of a mature Tina’s return, years later, for the funeral of one of her relatives.) The author makes sure that tragedy stalks the story, as when one key character is shot dead by a German squad on patrol. Tina also witnesses the love between a German soldier, Oberleutnant Redlich, and Odile Rouleau, her schoolteacher, and no good comes of that situation, either. Overall, Obolensky writes very well—lyrically, in fact, and with acute understanding. For example, Tina explains her happiness in the Marchands’ house this way: “I was a chameleon and joy was the color of the moment.” The author’s description of the hysterical hilarity of the town’s eventual liberation is also spot-on, and characters’ deaths can be heart-wrenching. There are some distracting typos, including missing commas, but the beauty of the prose overwhelms these flaws.
One of America’s supposed secrets becomes the backdrop of this thriller.
It has long been rumored that the CIA used raw opium to finance covert operations against the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. In this tale, the CIA recruits botanist Bill Murphy, just out of college, to help the agency produce opium in the area of Southeast Asia known as the “Golden Triangle.” When the policy of Vietnamization catches Bill by surprise, he gets rescued by Special Ops soldier David Anderson, the man who will become his partner for life. After the CIA leaves Bill high and dry a second time, in Afghanistan, he and David become “producers,” converting the raw opium into 99 percent pure China White heroin, which they supply to the triad network in Hong Kong, to be distributed worldwide. Bill handles the product while David takes care of the finances. But after a time, it becomes obvious that someone in the triad wants to displace them from the supply chain. The pair ends up on the radar of the U.S. military’s drug-eradication mission as well. The two decide to strike back after friends and loved ones are killed. They pit the triad and the military against each other and escape. But their plan to sail off into the sunset on their superyacht fails because there are too many people who still want them dead. As David tells Bill: “Every time we relax and start to feel normal, we will constantly be looking at our sixes, because they will always be one step behind us and forever in our shit.” So they undertake one last mission. Grant (Mahdi, 2016, etc.) impressively brings readers inside a dark, dirty world of drugs and money. The author has created likable antiheroes in Bill and David, who belatedly grow consciences. The danger-packed novel is well-researched with plenty of details, especially about the military gear being employed. One drawback is the book could have used more thorough editing, with capitalization and punctuation errors throughout inhibiting the generally smooth-flowing narrative (for example, “He loved anything related to plant life was already accustomed to the humidity in Michigan and he didn’t ask a lot of questions”). But overall, this is an absorbing, heart-wrenching tale.
An engrossing look at two morally ambivalent men confronting foes who are greedier and deadlier than they are.
A deeply personal account of the imprint Germans left on New Mexico and the United States at large.
Schelby (Liberating the Future from the Past? Liberating the Past from the Future?, 2013, etc.) was born in Germany but on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain following World War II. She eventually made her way to New Mexico, a diverse, sprawling land with a colorful history that enchanted her. The author embarked on an eccentric quest to hunt down whatever traces of Germany had been left on the unfolding of the state’s history, a hunt that often focused on the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, a prodigiously talented Prussian who traveled extensively through the United States. Schelby’s tour of New Mexican history is quirkily impressionistic. She provides lengthy discussions on the birth of the state’s cultural diversity. When she reaches the first and second world wars, the author’s focus turns toward the depredations Germans suffered at the hands of its American hosts. She meditates affectingly on the peculiar discomfort such a multicultural nation experiences with otherness: “How can it be that the U.S., such a great country populated with resilient, hard-working, and mostly decent people, is so insecure?” Humboldt emerges as the star of the story: an impossibly erudite scientist who mapped and researched the American Southwest, dined with Thomas Jefferson, and won the praise of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Schelby openly intends her account to be a personal one sketched from an idiosyncratic perspective, and this has its limitations. In 1850, Germans made up less than a half-percent of New Mexico’s population. However, what she surrenders in comprehensiveness is made up by a historical miniaturist’s sensitivity—she delves nimbly into the cultural nuances of this protean polity, unearthing elements of New Mexico’s identity often overlooked in more formal portraits. Also, her vision for a more inclusive—and cosmopolitan—country is more heartfelt than bitter, the tough love of a genuine admirer.
A delightfully eclectic history told with charm and thoughtfulness.
In this work of historical fiction set in the Midwest during the Civil War, Sioux warriors seize a woman and her children.
Sarah Wakefield lives in southern Minnesota in Sioux territory—her husband, John, is a government-appointed doctor assigned to the reservation. The regular annuity paid to the Sioux is yet again delayed, and already strained relations between them and their often cruel white counterparts become even more acrimonious. Finally, when it becomes clear an outburst of violence is imminent, John sends Sarah and her two young children away, but her escort is murdered and she is captured by two Sioux fighters. One of them, Hapa, is eager to kill her, but his brother-in-law, Chaska, protects Sarah from harm and vows to remain her faithful guardian. While in captivity, Sarah is in constant danger, but Chaska and his mother, Ina, vigilantly watch over her, help her blend in, and hide her when necessary. She even flirts with the possibility of becoming one of them: “If I knew I would never be rescued, I think I could be content among the Sioux. Ina has become like a mother to me—certainly, a better mother than the one I left in Rhode Island. And Chaska is one of the most honorable men I have ever known.” When finally rescued, she has to save Chaska’s life by testifying to his admirable behavior and repair her own tattered reputation as a sympathizer and traitor. Chatlien (The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, 2013) writes with nuanced sensitivity, nimbly cataloging the horrors each side visits upon the other. Even Sarah’s marriage is depicted without yielding to facile simplicity—her husband can be sweet and chivalrous but also petty and cold. In a few spots, the author seems tempted by the desire to impart a didactic lesson—there is good and bad among all kinds—but resists even these minor concessions to moralistic judgment. In addition, Chatlien’s mastery of the historical period—especially the life and culture of the Sioux—is notable and creates a fictional atmosphere of authenticity.
A subtle dramatization of the conflict between white settlers and Native Americans in the 19th century.
A thorough memoir of a flight surgeon’s adrenaline-filled experiences in the Vietnam War.
Debut author Clark describes himself as a man with a great “thirst for knowledge” and “passions for high adventure,” characteristics that led him to pursue medicine and become a flight surgeon for the United States Air Force. During the Vietnam War, he was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay in 1966 and “experienced more adventure than most men experience in ten lifetimes.” As a flight surgeon, in addition to his regular medical duties on base, he flew more than 90 missions in a Phantom F4-C, which strafed, bombed, and napalmed targets. Clark details these missions, such as destroying way stations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail over Laos: “The scenarios of anti-aircraft artillery reaching skyward to destroy us with red and white fingers of liquid-lead and explosives were typical and characteristic of every mission.” He shares his informed perspective on the political circumstances of the time, including some of the major flaws of administration as well as the destitute conditions of the Vietnamese and the spirit of both camaraderie and occasional tension among Air Force personnel. Clark eloquently recounts tending to pilots’ injuries and handling the aftereffects of disastrous crashes. He writes intelligently, illuminating events and the insights they evoked. Long stretches of dry, technical descriptions, however, may overwhelm readers (e.g., his 10-page introduction to the history and capabilities of the Phantom F4-C). This isn’t a fast-paced memoir; instead, it’s more of an excavation of the many particulars of military life and is interspersed with thrilling adventure in the skies of Vietnam.
Heavy on the technical details but rich with vividly recalled episodes of aerial warfare.