A searching appraisal of contemporary Ismaili philosophy and its relation to modernity.
Islamic thought is famously fissured into Shia and Sunni strains, but that neat bifurcation hardly captures its competing allegiances. In the eighth century, following the death of Jafar al-Sadiq, a set of contentious claims regarding his successor was issued, and those who recognized al-Sadiq’s son Ismail as the true heir were eventually called Ismailis. That group itself experienced its own repeated splintering, but as a whole, it has always been a minority within the Shia followers, and a persecuted one as well, scattered across the globe. Western scholars typically know very little about Ismaili philosophical currents, but this is somewhat ironic, as the core of Ismaili beliefs roundly embraces progressive, liberal principles like democracy, pluralism, multicultural diversity, and social justice. Debut author Miraly explores the curious way Ismaili beliefs have exerted an outsized influence on Islamic thought at large despite historical marginalization. He wrestles with the twin possibilities that either Ismaili historians have appropriated liberal categories and grafted them onto revisionist interpretations, or, in some form, these principles were already contained within the ancient Ismaili tradition. Along the way, the author ably dissects that tradition’s approach toward the interpretation of the Quran and the ways Ismaili scholars locate and even ground liberal values on past religious and ethical thought. Miraly also investigates the work of the Aga Khan Development Network, which is essentially the social activist organization of the Ismaili community. Finally, the author considers the way a transnational community of Ismaili disciples presided over by the 49th Ismaili Imam, Aga Khan IV, has formed and how the cultural and political character of Canada has proven particularly congenial to Ismaili commitments. Miraly’s erudition is breathtaking, and the rigor of his analysis unrelenting; he deftly considers all the reasons why Ismaili theology has been so intellectually agile and politically adaptable. He avoids any facile conclusions; instead, he interrogates the internal coherence of the history presented by Ismaili scholars rather than its rightness. As he writes at the conclusion of the study: “In some sense, all historical scholarship is reinvention.”
A compelling analysis of the relationship between Islamic thought and modernity.
In this thriller, a tell-all about a celebrity novelist examines her most famous horror book, which may be more truth than fiction.
People often recognize 20-something Meg simply for being the daughter of renowned author Frances Ashley. The writer’s bibliography is extensive, but her 40-year-old debut, 1976’s Kitten, is her most revered tale. The story of a shocking island murder has reached cult status, and rabid fans known as Kitty Cultists litter the internet with fan fiction and conspiracy theories. One hypothesis, that Frances based her novel and characters on a real-life killing, is the reason the author’s new assistant, Asa Bloch, asks Meg to write a memoir. Though Asa genuinely wants proof that Kitten is thinly veiled nonfiction, Meg eventually agrees, seeing it as a chance to disclose her volatile relationship with a cold, neglectful mother. She heads to the tale’s setting, Ambletern Hotel, on an island off the Georgia coast. Dorothy Kitchens has since closed the hotel she inherited, having suffered harassment from fans who believe she’s the living counterpart of a murderous Kitten character. But what Meg finds on the island is a bevy of lies—and a killer who doesn’t want the truth uncovered. Carpenter’s (Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, 2016) convoluted but rousing plot piles on an array of storylines. There are soapy bits (a hush-hush lawsuit and Meg eying groundskeeper Koa and his abs); heaps of mystery (cryptic notes in a fan-notated copy of Kitten that Frances inexplicably has at her apartment); and too many suspicious characters to count. Carpenter deepens the intrigue by filling her pages with haunting, sometimes-ominous passages: “The worst thing my mother ever did, her gravest sin, wasn’t something I intended to share with anyone.” Meg’s a novice investigator, giving her first-person narrative credence; she’s just as surprised—reading her mom’s book for the first time—as readers will likely be, and her ideas generally come from TV shows like Law & Order. Carpenter amps the tension by paralleling Meg’s story with Kitten snippets prefacing each chapter—with both building toward revealing climaxes—and ties off the subplots with clarity and thoroughness.
Twists aplenty in this searing murder mystery should leave readers dizzy, in the best way possible.
Based on a true story, this debut novel tells of identical twins separated at birth and the harsh realities of life in Romania under Communist rule.
Spanning nigh on a century, the tale opens during the Depression in rural Romania. Economic strain has taken its toll on the Antonescu family. As heads of the household, Georgi and Olga steadily realize that their farm is no longer producing sufficient revenue to support everyone under their roof. Their ultimatum to their older children is harsh yet necessary: leave or die. So begins a story of heartache and displacement. Harald, who has acted as a caretaker to his younger siblings, packs the group into a cart and, taking the reins, sets out to find a brighter future. Immediately, Ana, his 11-year-old sister, distinguishes herself as the most discordant of the band, given to sulking when she’s asked to walk behind the cart to relieve the burden on their horse. Harald finds land to farm, and over the course of years, the family forges a new life, although Ana is never really happy. After running back to Georgi and Olga, she decides that she never will return to Harald. Instead, she marries a local policeman, Ion Pavenic. After Ana gives birth to identical twin girls, she suffers a chronic illness and is unable to look after both babies. Harald and his wife, Sophia, take one of the twins, whom they name Viki, and raise her as their own. Viki’s life is a remarkable one, raised in the suffocating conditions of Communist Romania under the scrutiny of the country’s secret service; will she ever find true freedom or discover the truth about being a twin? The author skillfully illuminates the family’s lineage, revealing precisely where the members have come from and the events that have shaped them. Their story is told with sincerity and intense conviction, which makes it all the more captivating. Bennett’s observational skills are highly tuned and effortlessly poetic, to the degree that the atmosphere of a room is wholly palpable: “In the weak lantern light, the family’s mingled breath gusted clouds of vapor that floated up and disappeared into the low ceiling’s exposed rafters.” The culmination of such talents is a beguiling, expertly balanced work played out by characters that are easy to care about and root for.
An ambitious and intricate Eastern European tale that reaches across decades and generations.
A freak accident sends a 12-year-old boy to a medieval world, where he’s on a quest to claim the fabled treasure from a dragon’s lair, in this middle-grade fantasy debut.
Seamus Letterman is Sunnyfield Middle School’s cross-country star. He’d “rather be skateboarding,” especially since he’s a stronger runner than his pal Andy Peterson, and the latter’s envy sparks the occasional fight between the two. A thunderstorm hits during practice one day, and Seamus is apparently struck by lightning before blacking out. He’s awakened by Coach Peterson (Andy’s dad), only it’s Sir Peter, dressed as a knight and speaking with a Scottish lilt. Andy’s there, too—well, Andrew; he and Seamus are both squires sporting bows and arrows. They’re part of a group of roughly 30 men on the way to a dragon’s den at Turquoise Mountain, with a reputed treasure inside. Seamus is a natural archer, which makes facing the massive black dragon slightly less terrifying. But when he and Andrew are separated from the others and tending to an injured Sir Peter, Seamus manages somehow to communicate with the majestic creature. Befriending the king’s enemy may be considered treason, however, and gets Seamus no closer to his ultimate goal of getting home to Sunnyfield, Arizona. Lyttle’s story quickly moves the protagonist to the medieval setting and carries over the engrossing drama from the contemporary opening. Andrew, for example, is jealous of Seamus’ archery skills, while Sir Peter, like his coach counterpart, is a paternal figure for the hero, who lost his firefighter dad. The prose is perfectly suited for younger readers, filled with stark imagery: edges of a cliff “so ragged they looked like teeth” and an ailing Seamus, whose “head weighed a thousand pounds.” The invigorating Lacey Stocker, who surpasses Seamus in cross-country, unfortunately has a smaller role, though her medieval version does eventually make an appearance. A strong ending teases sequel possibilities, but the engaging book can easily stand on its own.
A delightful and enthusiastic adventure that should appeal to a wide range of readers.
In this middle-grade series starter, four friends embark on a challenging summer of training to save lives.
Thirteen-year-old Jenna Bowers and her family have deep roots on the Massachusetts cape, and water has always played a big role in her life. She dreams of winning an Olympic swimming medal, but although she relishes “the relaxation of the pace and rhythm, the feeling of power as I slice through the water,” a lifetime of emphasis on times, stats, and drills has dimmed her passion for the sport. Still, she’s intrigued by a poster announcing tryouts for the prestigious junior lifeguard crew—and by the handsome young man pinning it up. Her former babysitter, Molly Cruise, was a lifeguard, and she made the job look like fun. Could becoming a lifeguard herself be the very thing Jenna needs to reignite her motivation? With the help of her coach and, more reluctantly, her parents, she decides to try out, and she convinces her best friends, Piper Janssens, Selena Diaz, and Ziggy Bloom, to vie for slots too. Although one might expect the outcome of the test to be a foregone conclusion, Carey (The Callahan Cousins: Keeping Cool, 2015) delivers believable surprises. She vividly renders scenes depicting Jenna in the water and deftly handles the often tense dynamic between the town’s year-round residents and its summer incomers. She makes sure that all the girls are distinct characters, as well: Ziggy’s family lives close to the land, seemingly without any income; Selena’s are the Ecuadorian caretakers at one of the large estates; and Piper’s divorced parents work out of state, so she lives with her grandmother and tends horses. The girls’ friendship feels authentic, and their easily expressed affection and sensitivity to one another’s foibles should inspire readers. Carey also emphasizes the hard work involved in lifeguard training. This first installment plants numerous seeds for future stories, including the arrival of the glamorous, jet-setting Frankel sisters; a mystery surrounding Ziggy’s grandparents; and the jealousies that arise as the girls vie for the attentions of attractive boys on the junior lifeguard squad.
An enjoyable start to a potentially engaging series for tweens.
A book examines a 20th-century American military campaign and one man who endured it.
In this volume, Hook (Never Subdued II, 2015, etc.) unfolds dual narratives operating on very different scales. The larger, broader one explores modern military history: specifically the course of Operation Just Cause, President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 invasion of Panama to depose Gen. Manuel Noriega. The author grounds this expansive tale in a vast amount of painstaking research into primary documents and contemporaneous reporting, all of it shaped and marshaled with a great deal of dramatic efficiency and storytelling brio. Although the book’s primary focus is clearly on the personal level, its look at Operation Just Cause is absolutely first-rate military history, filled with memorable portraits like that of commanding Gen. Maxwell Thurman, “a bachelor who was said to be married to his profession.” His “reputation often preceded him to new duty stations, similarly to what happened to Gen. George Patton during World War II,” Hook writes in a typical passage. “Much like Patton’s reputation, Thurman’s similar reputation undoubtedly helped him to produce results.” Alongside this vast tapestry is the work’s heart, the story of one soldier: Spc. E-4 Bruce Beard, who received his marine certificate as an engineman on Sept. 23, 1987, and enlisted in the Army just five weeks before the U.S. Senate passed its resolution calling on Noriega to step down. Beard arrived in Panama on Sept. 11, 1989, in what Hook diplomatically describes as “a chaotic situation.” In that widespread disorder, Beard fell into drug use, drew a bad conduct discharge, and found himself cast adrift in civilian life with PTSD and no governmental services to help him. In this entirely gripping account, Hook goes into Beard’s case in great detail, tracing the bureaucratic ignorance among Operation Just Cause officers as to how serious drug use could be (Hook points out that only Vietnam veterans knew the problem firsthand). The blending of the two threads produces an arresting picture of a military episode most Americans have forgotten.
A sweeping and heartbreaking story of modern war and its personal costs.