In this novel, a 5-year-old girl (whose father is a minor Jane Austen character) makes unexpected discoveries while adventuring through Europe in search of Utopia.
Sofia-Elisabete remembers the unforgettable months of travel and discovery she enjoyed as a 5-year-old in 1815. Sofia-Elisabete is the child of Col. Fitzwilliam, whom readers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will recall as the likable but poor cousin of Mr. Darcy. Sofia-Elisabete’s mother is a Portuguese bolero dancer, Marisa Soares Belles, who abandons her baby at a convent. She’s eventually reclaimed by her father and taken to Scarborough, England. Blessed with a rich imagination and vigorous self-confidence, the little girl thrives; her father sometimes suffers from war flashbacks and drug-induced lethargies but makes a good marriage and is a fond father. Doña Marisa and her escort, Señor Gonzalez, come to Scarborough “to find a special someone”—in fact, to retrieve Sofia-Elisabete. For some time, the girl believes they’re journeying to “la luna.” Sofia-Elisabete hopes to discover, like the Spaniard in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, a paradise where hunger and crime don’t exist. Having many adventures across the Continent and over the Alps, the travelers reach Genoa, where Marisa hopes to find a home. While joyful at her mother’s acknowledgement and reunion with her father, Sofia-Elisabete is left with a difficult choice. Kobayashi (Freedom & Mirth, 2017) captures the magical thinking of young children while anchoring the novel’s peregrinations through repetition of key phrases. Each chapter, for example, begins with the formula “My first [memory, foot-race, etc.], thinks I, was….” Sofia-Elisabete’s perfectly original narrative voice is a delight, as is the girl herself; she’s compassionate, imaginative, and always game to master new skills (drumming, rope-dancing, “jodeling,” dancing the bolero). The glimpses of 1815 Europe, such as Dutch cleanliness and Swiss goiters, are well-observed, yet Kobayashi preserves the childlike point of view. While often very funny, the novel has depth in its concern for humanity’s problems and children’s emotions.
A sparkling, robust young hero with a distinctive voice—a real winner.
Seng’s debut memoir is a portrait of survival, compassion, and triumph of the human spirit.
In 1975, the author was a fourth-year medical student in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge communist army decimated the Cambodian city. He and 23 family members were tortured and forced to work in labor camps, where, writes Seng, historians estimate that more than 1.7 million people died. In 1979, the remaining prisoners were freed, but Seng walked home alone, because—with the possible exception of one sister, whom he never saw again—his entire family had died. This gut-wrenching narrative aptly begins with a quote from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel’s book Night. Much like that story of the Jewish Holocaust experience, this account contains unforgettably nightmarish anecdotes—such as one in which the Khmer Rouge forced children to collect bones from corpses, crush them, and spread them like fertilizer. Also like Wiesel, Seng questions why God would allow such atrocities. However, this story of survival shimmers with hope. Determined to stay alive, Seng ate rats and volunteered for deeply unpleasant work—such as shoveling human feces—that might earn him extra food. Once freed, he and his future wife escaped by bicycle to a refugee camp in Thailand, where an American friend helped them immigrate to the United States. Seng’s page-turning prose is often poetic, as when he describes his family’s conversations about the Khmer Rouge as “rumors passing from person to person like butterflies flitting from blossom to blossom.” Richly detailed, vivid descriptions abound, and several bittersweet family photos add further emotion to already gripping scenes. (Seng includes a photo of his friend from the refugee camp, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who won an Academy Award for his acting in the movie The Killing Fields.) Easy-to-follow footnotes complement the personal narrative for those unfamiliar with the Cambodian genocide; indeed, this book would work well in a college curriculum.
A thoroughly engrossing and deeply moving life story.
In this sci-fi novel, a government bureaucrat learns the strange truth of his parents’ deaths.
The year is 2041, and Jack Tone works for the Federal Security Agency in Manhattan. He’s an exemplary employee, writing detailed assessments on citizens, legal residents, and noncitizens of the United States. He’s miserable, however; one day after work, he nearly walks in front of a delivery truck. When Peter Andronicus, an accountant, saves him, they agree to have some drinks. Jack lies about his sensitive job, telling his new friend that he’s a U.S. Customs inspector. In turn, he suspects that Andronicus is also lying about his profession. Two weeks later, Jack runs into him at Penn Station, and they head to The Cock and Bull for more libations. This time, Andronicus lays some strange cards on the table—including his knowledge that Jack wanted to be an archaeologist in high school. He then reveals Jack’s true position within the “Corporate-Government alliance” and asserts that “America must be re-founded anew, this time on the pure ideals of liberty and life.” He invites Jack to a meeting, in Pennsylvania, of the Friendly Neighborhood Political Discussion Group, aka Faction 9. The bureaucrat is reluctant to attend, but Andronicus says, “I have information about the circumstances of your parents’ deaths.” Jack eventually learns that 17 years ago, his geologist parents discovered a secret so unsettling that its revelation would have reshaped the fabric of human society. Ultimately, Jack must decide if he’s willing to use his FSA position to help these revolutionaries.
For his debut, author Firelocke marries modern politics and the outré to hypnotic effect. In the novel’s opening salvo, he parodies America’s current obsession with surveillance and data collection—and the notion that it can only intensify. Among Andronicus’ Faction 9 colleagues is the chilly, ruthless Karin Polyvox. After she saves Jack from a genetically bastardized human called a Plutocroid, the narrative starts careening across bracingly weird landscapes. Fans of classic authors like Wells and Lovecraft will revel in Firelocke’s tight fusion of strange ideas, including divergent races of humanoid earthlings and giant insects frozen in time. Though his core subject matter is that of a citizenry perpetually distracted by pharmaceuticals and entertainment, Firelocke maintains a tongue-in-cheek atmosphere, like when two recent presidents are referred to as “the Idiot Ape of Texas” and “the Tower Ape.” He saves his darkest critiques for today’s incarceration industry. Prisoners of the Freedom Fortress have an arm amputated upon entrance to reinforce cooperation and eat a nonfood called Ploop. Events remain tense and fascinating as Faction 9’s violent goal—revolving around the megarich Gregory Randolph Reid—crashes against some unexpected emotional subversion. The author also wedges Jack between Polyvox’s fantastic origin and Andronicus’ grounded focus on the mission, which makes for a dreamy kind of madness that sweeps audiences along. There’s plenty of room for pop-culture references, too, including nods to the film Blade Runner.
In his engrossing thriller, Diamond (Impala, 2016, etc.) reminds readers that something as simple as a wrong turn can be the difference between life and death.
Whether in his first career as a boxer or his current one as a private investigator, Freddy Ferguson has always known to trust his instincts, the flares of warning that let him know something is very wrong. So when he’s flying home from San Francisco to D.C. and finds a woman in the security line piquing his interest, he’s sure she’s trouble, but he can’t help looking anyway. She appears to be unduly encouraged by two men to board a flight to Honolulu, but she deplanes at the last second, disguises herself, and hops a flight to Chicago. That, the bruises on her wrists, and the two men who made sure she got on the Honolulu flight would be enough to cause alarm. But when Freddy gets back to D.C. and learns that the Honolulu plane exploded over Santa Cruz, it’s clear why his instincts were triggered. When Freddy’s partner, Ed Hartwell, pulls him into the investigation, it doesn’t take the PI long to find out the woman’s name is Anna Brook and that she’s well-hidden. Just how deep the rabbit hole goes, Freddy can’t say. But he’s sure going to find out. The prose here is strong and solid, giving the reader an immediate sense of place and voice through Freddy’s first-person narration. Plus, it’s rare to see writing that so effectively blends action with characterization. Not only do readers have a crystal-clear vision of Anna right from the start, they’re also provided insight into Freddy’s dog-with-a-bone personality and sense of curiosity. That should be enough to hook most readers, but there are also breakneck twists and turns along with lots of backstory, particularly through flashbacks to Freddy’s past and his regrets.
A consummate thriller with some of the best characterization you’ll see all year.
Two friends help a giant panda challenge Chinese zodiac animals for a spot on the calendar in this latest picture book in a series.
Dinosaurs Gusto and Gecko are best friends who have a time machine. Their random destination: China,where they meet a giant panda who tells them of an upcoming contest featuring the 12 creatures of the Chinese zodiac and newcomers who want to take their spots. Panda decides to try after encouragement from Gusto and Gecko. The challenge takes them around China, where they compete by making Shanghai dumplings and performing Chinese opera, among other things. The final task: climbing a tower to light up the ice sculpture park in Harbin. No single animal can do it, but Panda decides they should cooperate. In the end, Panda gets a prize for “exceptional courage, friendship, and teamwork.” Han (Gusto & Gecko Travel to New Orleans, 2016, etc.) encourages cooperation in a way that’s fun but never preachy, and children may also learn about Chinese culture at the same time. The cast is sweet and amusing and shows real character; although Panda is no warrior, he still bravely protects everyone. Returning artist Hägg’s double-page illustration of a lighthouse is printed on coated paper that sparkles, and the effect is magic.
A Canadian jade sculptor recalls his life and work in this remarkable memoir by Sopel (Sopel: Alluring Presence, 2012).
There is a perceived esotericism surrounding the art of sculpture, particularly when it comes to gemstones. How did the sculptor go about acquiring the precious material? How did the artist “see” the finished work in the mother rock? In this memoir, Sopel, whose work is owned by the Aga Khan and the Duke and Duchess of Westminster, among others, explains his artistic practice and the journey that led him to become a world-class artist. The memoir opens at high octane, recalling the moment when Sopel jumped from a helicopter into a remote location in British Columbia. After discovering the jade mine he was searching for, he was immediately confronted by its owner and his shotgun. Attitudes changed when he revealed his identity as a jade sculptor from Vancouver. This dramatic opening sets the effervescent, enthralling tone for the memoir, which examines Sopel’s early life and a battle with dyslexia, his gravitation toward artistic practices, his time in art school, and the events that motivated him to progress from being an artist sold in high-end tourist shops to one sold in very high-end galleries. This is a richly textured account—Sopel explored Europe as a young man and also traveled to Asia following his success. Moreover, this is a wonderfully forthright examination of what it means to be an artist. Sopel succinctly describes his connection with his work, in this instance, his sculpture of a Buddha: “You know how it is when you first fall in love? How it’s utter joy just to see that person, just to be with them? They don’t have to do anything; they don’t have to be anything other than what they are. You just feel that love for them.” It must also be noted that working on the Buddha almost killed him. Sopel’s dedication to his art is palpable, and his direct, no-nonsense approach to writing proves inspirational: “Being an artist isn’t an excuse for being poor, or laid back, or stoned. Being an artist is never an excuse for anything. An artist makes art. Period.” Written with the transparent desire to encourage others to “celebrate their own nonverbal strengths,” this is surely one of the most motivating, surprising, and utterly endearing memoirs written by a contemporary artist.
An absolute tour de force and a must-read for any aspiring artist.