In Kerns’ (Standard of Care, 2007) latest novel, a student learns much more than obstetrics during a baptism by fire on Chicago’s West Side in the fateful spring of 1968.
Every med student in Northwestern University’s program must spend two weeks at the Chicago Maternity Center, whose mission is to serve a deeply poor, predominantly African-American area of the city, overseeing pregnancies and delivering babies. The students are pushed to their physical limits, and some are scared about working in a potentially threatening neighborhood—and about their own competence as doctors. Nick Weissman, a Jewish-American student, is flush with idealism and liberal political views; he’s tested while earning the trust of Blossom Amos, a sullen, withdrawn 14-year-old African-American girl pregnant with twins. A parallel storyline follows the notorious James Earl Ray, who escapes from a Missouri prison, travels all across the South and eventually to Memphis—the site of his assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which sets off horrific riots in Chicago and elsewhere. In this chaos, Nick and the others are about to evacuate for their own safety. Then comes word that Blossom is in labor, and Nick makes a fateful decision to help her, against all odds. Kerns is an engaging writer who gives the story such momentum that it fairly gallops to its conclusion. He also effectively draws on aspects of his own life, including two weeks that he spent working at the Chicago Maternity Center in real life; all of the novel’s gritty details ring as true as they should. Some elements are fictional, though, such as the Abrafo, which is said to be the most terrifying of the local African-American gangs. Also, Nick and James Earl Ray never meet—but the fact that they serve as vectors of good and evil makes for an inspired plot device.
A highly recommended historical tale that will make readers hope that the good doctor has more novels in him.
A boy manages to keep a huge secret in this chapter book.
This engaging tale about a black family explains how Ardwick “Ardie” Edward Smith concealed an important secret. Ardie knows he must stay busy to deflect his parents’ suspicions. But when soccer practice in the yard and his porch-rail balancing draw their attention, he realizes he needs a different strategy. He confides in a helpful teacher, who suggests he concoct a project. After choosing one, he collects supplies from around the house, distracting his parents by pretending he’s a detective on a case. A subplot about how he finds it hard to share with his younger brother provides readers with their first clue. Ardie has a big brother who lives far away—and it’s this sibling who told him the secret. As the clues mount and Ardie finishes his project, readers should be as delighted as his family about the big surprise and happy to see how the supplies came into play. Seay’s (The Girl Who Loved Pots, 2017) frequent computer-generated illustrations of the family are perfect in tone and provide extra details and plenty of clues for beginning readers. Siblings are sure to identify with Ardie, and the author’s use of suspense in slowly revealing hints about the secret should keep the audience guessing.
A charming day-in-the-life adventure for newly independent readers.
When a CIA operator’s assignment puts her life in danger, a Green Beret may be her only hope for survival in the third book in Grant’s (Catalyst, 2017, etc.) Flashpoint series.
Savannah “Savvy” James is working with the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command at Camp Citron in Djibouti in Africa, but members of the team, especially Sgt. 1st Class Cassius Callahan, are suspicious of the spy’s activities. Green Beret Callahan, however, is exactly the partner she needs for her latest op. Jean Paul Lubanga, a government minister in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is planning a coup. Callahan, with his fluency in French and Lingala, can help her make the contacts she needs to get close to Lubanga. Callahan is attracted to James, although he doesn’t fully trust her, and he agrees to the assignment. Posing as a wealthy businessman and his mistress, Callahan and James gain an invitation to a party hosted by a Russian oligarch. Lubanga, who never travels anywhere without his laptop, is the oligarch’s guest, and James takes the opportunity to access the minister’s computer files. When she reads them, she’s shocked to discover that her mission has been compromised. And when she and Callahan fall in love, the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Grant expertly braids together action and romance in a propulsive, page-turning suspense thriller. James and Callahan, first introduced as secondary characters in 2017’s Tinderbox, are dynamic, multilayered heroes here. Grant laid the foundation for their relationship in the two previous books, and this installment deepens their attraction in scenes that underscore the erotic tension between them, despite Callahan’s initial mistrust. Grant also explores James’ background in detail, revealing her true identity and a vicious assault in her past at the hands of her trainer at the CIA. The intricate, tightly plotted story takes James and Callahan deep into the Congo as they pursue a dictator and the person responsible for blowing James’ cover. Grant deftly connects the central narrative with characters and events from previous installments while keeping the narrative lively and fast-paced.
Another impeccably crafted installment that will satisfy fans.
The blurry line between strangers and intimates is drawn, waveringly policed, and transgressed in these short stories.
Walker (At Danceteria and Other Stories, 2016) confronts his mostly female protagonists with new and disturbing relationships that lead to upsetting renegotiations of their lives. A wife discovers that her vain, unmarried mother gave up another daughter for adoption, and that sister reappears to reclaim a family life that never happened; a socially phobic woman weathers agonizing parties and then has to choose between a gorgeous new boyfriend and her trusty Toyota; a mother finds that she has more in common with her bitchy teen daughter than she would like, including their taste in men; and a Japanese salaryman in Singapore has his life destroyed when his lover’s roommate catches him using the ladies’ room. In addition, dowdy secretaries at a PR firm bristle at their hot new office mate and plot to hoist her by her own sex appeal; a woman restarts her life repeatedly in different corners of the world but is dogged by violent relationships with men; and a blocked writing professor rustles up material by stealing the ideas of her best student and starting an affair with a colleague whose wife is dying of cancer. Several tales feature gay men immersed in rough trade: A high school locker-room rape gets reprised later in a porn star’s edgy scenes; a male prostitute describes the prosaic realities of his job as the tricks turn darker. Walker’s scintillating stories crackle with frank sexuality and deadpan comedy. There’s a satirical edge to many of them, but they are always grounded in prose that’s realistic but extraordinarily vivid and even nightmarish. “When the nurse handed her the wrinkled little thing, its skin so much darker than hers and Takahiko’s, the baby opened its mouth and emitted a horrible shriek like a preening beastling, its eyes stapled shut with lines of mucus,” Walker writes in the eerie “Why Burden a Baby with a Body?” In this story, a young Japanese mother neglects her squalling newborn to obsess over a pretty, twinkling fantasy child in an online role-playing game. The result is a deep dissection of lives where the barriers to human connection can take on sometimes-comic, sometimes-monstrous proportions.
A fine collection of tales, as unnerving as they are entertaining.
A Jewish American working in the United Arab Emirates fears hostility but finds humanity in this debut memoir.
Fleeing divorce and midlife crisis, journalist Eden leftOhio in 2008 to take a teaching job at the United Arab Emirates University in the Emirati oasis town of Al Ain. There was much in the desert oil monarchy on the Persian Gulf for him to get used to: searing heat; arrogant but inept bureaucrats (who assigned his first class to meet in a women’s bathroom); and female students who were almost impossible to tell apart due to their similar names and their identical, all-covering black sheylas. There was also pervasive anti-Semitism in the Muslim country, he says, and a deep enmity toward Israel; his students, not realizing that he was Jewish, blithely penned anti-Semitic cartoons for his approval. But Eden’s driver, Noor, a devoutly Muslim Pashtun tribesman from Pakistan, proved surprisingly receptive when Eden revealed his secret religious identity to him; Noor became his “Pashtun Rabbi” when the two men engaged in long theological discussions. Noor’s explication of the concept of “insha’Allah”—Arabic for “God willing”—attuned the author to the virtues of trusting in Providence. Eden was also able to turn a confrontation with a bitter Palestinian student into an occasion for mutual respect, and he was made an honorary member of another student’s clan. Throughout, Eden keeps the book’s tone light, filling it with colorful travelogue and amused double-takes about culture clashes: “Mahasba lowered her head, flicked her long eyelashes, moved in, and gently set her lips, her hairy lips, on mine,” he writes of a Bedouin ritual that involves kissing a camel. At the same time, he undertakes a poignant exploration of identity and belonging as he and Noor bond over their shared experience of exile and outsiderhood. As he tells of being plunged into an unfamiliar and daunting society, Eden manages to uncover and celebrate ordinary kindness and common feeling in the most unlikely places.
An entertaining fish-out-of-water (and gasping-in-the-desert) saga, with an inspiring message of inclusion and understanding.
In Meserve’s (Perfectly Good Crime, 2016, etc.) mystery, a scientist looks for her missing husband but may not like what she finds.
Astronomer Dr. Sarah Mayfield returns from her NASA presentation in D.C. only to discover her husband, Ben, isn’t at their LA home. There’s a chance he worked late at his popular restaurant, Aurora, but no one, including the couple’s 14-year-old son, Zack, knows where Ben is. His legal team is immediately concerned; he was set to testify against his allegedly thieving Aurora partners, who may have wanted to keep him quiet. Detective James Dawson, however, has another theory: Sarah is behind Ben’s disappearance, as she stands to inherit his family fortune and collect on a primo life insurance policy. Sarah, meanwhile, realizes someone has intentionally wiped footage from their home security system. Believing Ben is hiding something, she keeps the system’s hard drive from authorities and asks Aaron, a co-worker at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, to recover the data. Evidence slowly trickles in, from the drive as well as the FBI, which soon joins the case. Unfortunately, none of it disputes the implication that absent Ben is guilty of a recent murder. Meserve churns out a stirring mystery that rarely lets up. The three main theories regarding Ben’s fate, for example, all have merit and aren’t easily debunked. These are complicated by the characters. Sarah, who narrates, is withholding a few details from authorities, like her restrained attraction to Aaron. At the same time, others are concealing info from Sarah. Chiseled prose gleefully weaves the protagonist through bombshells (where did that handgun in the drawer come from?) and dangers (an unknown intruder creeping onto the Mayfields’ property). A later plot turn puts readers ahead of Sarah, but watching her untangle the mystery remains gripping until the end.
A labyrinth of plot and character motivations makes for a thoroughly enjoyable novel.