An ambitious novel about the New World examines a complex historical figure, a master metallurgist.
Stainer (The Lyon’s Crown, 2004, etc.) embraces Tidewater Virginia/North Carolina 400 years ago as her special bailiwick. Here we have an expedition that Sir Walter Raleigh bankrolled in 1585, seeking to unearth copper in Virginia. Thus we find Joachim Gans (aka Dougham Gaunse), the foremost metallurgist of the age, among the Colonial party, along with his 12-year-old apprentice, Reis Courtney. The search for copper ultimately fails, but Reis, a tough kid and in awe of his master, still discovers plenty of adventure. Joachim becomes a kind, willing teacher to Reis. Others in the party, especially the Germans, express no love for Joachim because he is Jewish. The old canards surface: Jews killed Christ; they drink the blood of children; etc. Little Jeremie, another apprentice, believes these stories. Reis doesn’t, but he remains curious about this private man who prays in Hebrew, refuses to eat meat (because it’s not kosher), and wears a silver Magen David. The diverse characters include Erhart Greutter, a bigot who continuously taunts Joachim; the renowned mathematician Thomas Hariot, who tries valiantly to keep the peace; and the Native American chief Pemisapan, who turns against the colonists. At one point, the chief’s forces capture a group of colonists, including Joachim and his apprentice—can the metallurgist save himself and Reis? A fierce battle ultimately ensues, but the real story concerns the gruff affection between Joachim and Reis and the apprentice’s maturation in a world that encourages age-old hatreds. This smoothly written, well-paced novel deftly handles the historical and fictional characters and perennial themes. The empathetic book’s first sentence is “Me master beat me yesterday.” That is said by 9-year-old Jeremie (who later contracts ague). This wonderful dramatic opening, a real heart-tugger, shows in a bleak five words what times were like in the New World, especially for youngsters sold into apprenticeship by their desperate parents. (Reis, in effect an orphan, volunteers for the position.) But Joachim and Reis’ evolving father-son relationship becomes the most touching aspect of the lucid, evocative narrative. When Reis thinks he has made a mistake or overstepped his bounds, he feels deeply ashamed, a mark of adolescent love.
A subtle, sensitive tale about struggling colonists that is a vivid contribution to its literary genre.
A supposedly average boy realizes that he’s not so mediocre after all in this debut middle-grade novel.
James thinks he’s a typical 11-year-old, which suits him just fine. His father is gone, his mother hates him (she commonly wishes he was never born while on the phone with her friends), and he has no siblings. James, who earns C’s in school, looks rather ordinary (he certainly isn’t handsome). Instead of fighting it, he embraces his mediocrity, declaring himself the best average guy the planet has ever seen. One day in a garden, he meets Mayor Culpa, a talking goat. Following the animal, James finds himself suddenly transported to another world. The chatty creature reveals that he’s a Scapegoat (“As long as I’m to blame, no one else can be burdened. It’s what I was bred for”). He tells James that he can become the Kingdom of Average’s new ruler. But to claim the crown, the boy must first complete a mission—find the old king and discover why he abdicated the throne. Mayor Culpa, professional optimist Monsieur William Roget, and Roget’s pint-sized pessimist, Kiljoy, join James on his journey. They travel from Disappointment Bay to Serenity Spa to the Unattainable Mountains, and as their quest evolves, James begins to learn that maybe he’s not quite so mundane. When they reach the part of the kingdom dubbed Epiphany, James finally grasps who he is—someone extraordinary. While James initially believes that he’s mediocre, Schwartz’s novel assuredly is not. This is a volume that kids and parents can read together because it works on two levels—young ones should love the adventure-packed plot and hilarious characters, and grown-ups should chuckle at the wordplay embedded in every page. Schwartz’s characters are more than clever—they’re ingenious. Mayor Culpa constantly apologizes, and Kiljoy represents that little voice inside people’s heads that attempts to invalidate their intentions. These living, breathing allusions effectively push the narrative forward (although Armitage’s sketchlike illustrations fail to enhance the story—such fanciful places and characters should be left to the imagination). Schwartz’s nicely succinct writing style places the focus on the striking worlds he creates. The book delivers an important lesson—be your own hero. With this debut, the author should soon be a hero to readers everywhere.
A skilled and witty tale about a boy who would be king that should appeal to children and adults.
This first installment of a projected paranormal fantasy series chronicles the adventures of a 14-year-old boy who, after dealing with the disappearance of his mother, moves to another state.
Shortly after his mother’s blood-stained jacket is found in the mountains of Colorado, Jason Lex’s life is irrevocably changed forever. The sheriff’s office presumes she’s dead, the victim of a mountain lion attack. Then Jason’s shaken father decides to uproot the family and transport himself and his three children to a small town in Idaho. With no friends or family nearby except his Grandma Lena, Jason is shocked when he discovers that the local crazy guy—who is obsessed with filming the sky—turns out to be his mother’s twin brother. The young protagonist finds his life upended yet again when Uncle Alexander shares a bombshell revelation: namely that Jason’s ancestors have been secret guards charged with sustaining an energy field that maintains the balance between humans and cryptids (beasts like Bigfoot and the Chupacabra, whose existences haven’t yet been proved). Could Jason’s mother still be alive? Soon he is forced to unravel an outlandish mystery involving his mother, his seemingly insane uncle, and a family legacy that involves nothing less than saving the world from cryptids. Terrien’s narrative voice captures Jason’s teen angst perfectly. Insecurities involving forging a self-image and finding one’s place in the world and more serious issues, like losing a parent, are examined with compassion and insight. At one point, Jason muses about suicide: "But is that what kids do when their moms disappear? Or die? Or whatever? Wasn’t it enough to feel like you’re dragging a bag loaded with rocks? Like you’re always fighting to keep from crying?" The cast of authentic and endearing characters is one of the novel’s many strengths, along with the brisk pacing, action-packed narrative, and creation of the fascinating creatures known as Skyfish. The cryptozoological thread, which subtly blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, gives this volume a wonderfully strange undertone. In a subgenre laid low by clichéd characters and conventional storylines, this paranormal fantasy tale is not only wildly entertaining, but also undeniably unique. Both adult and YA audiences should find this book appealing.
A delightful novel that delivers a tightly plotted, character-driven story about a hero confronting wondrous creatures.
In this debut upper middle–grade mystery, several outcast students at a charter school search for their missing teacher.
Twelve-year-old Oliver Teller lives in Raven Ridge, Colorado. His mother works two jobs to keep him attending Raven Ridge Academy, a castlelike school situated above an old silver mine. Oliver has a large birthmark on the right side of his face, making him a target for bullies like Johnny Ricker. He also has a friend named Gio and harbors a crush on the clever Jaclyn Jones. Hoping to start the new school year right—and impress his teacher, Mr. Doyle—Oliver brings his great-grandfather’s pocket watch to history class. When Johnny steals the watch from Oliver, Mr. Doyle confiscates it until after school. Enter Chase Sullivan, new student and self-styled detective, who promises to get the watch back. Luckily, Chase’s specialty is the paranormal. The academy is home to gargoyles, ghostly students, mysterious power surges, and a teaching staff whose conversations seem to point to a conspiracy. When Mr. Doyle goes missing, the young detectives explore every possible explanation, from aliens to zombies. They must act quickly because the U.S. president is coming to honor their classmate Ana Rahela Balenovic, who wrote an award-winning essay on her pride in America. Hoover presents a sprawling world populated by charming heroes, like Jaclyn, and lovable oddballs, like Eduard (an eloquently snooty math whiz). Hoover also creates fragile, heart-stopping moments that launch his narrative above the average kids’ adventure. During art class, Oliver is partnered with the know-it-all Ana Rahela to draw each other’s portraits; he draws her with a big mouth and balloon head, while she portrays him as he longs to be seen—without his birthmark. Daringly, the author also gives readers two versions of America to consider: one that celebrates independence and another that poisons its own soil with chemicals. Though Hoover leaves some things unexplained by the end, his narrative is a concert of striking events and complex emotions.
A remarkable debut enlivened by heroic portions of silliness, spirit, and depth.
A diplomat’s remembrance of his tenure in war-torn Afghanistan.
In the aftermath of the 2001 American invasion, Afghanistan has struggled to convert a national trauma into an opportunity for transformation. To that end, American diplomat Crowther traveled to its southern Uruzgan province in 2011 as part of a provincial reconstruction team. He was charged with the daunting task of building a legal system that upheld the principles of the country’s fledgling constitution. The challenges he faced were many and considerable. Of course security risks were omnipresent, and the author provides chilling accounts of the danger of suicide attacks. The creation of a new legal code required more than just the establishment of new institutions and agencies, so Crowther reflects insightfully on the problems that Afghan culture posed to reform. Laws in Afghanistan have historically been handled at the tribal level, and the seemingly infinite fissures between warring factions made the establishment of a single legal code extraordinarily difficult. Also, Crowther had to contend with the tug of war between rival religious sects, particularly the more modern Sunnis and the revanchist Salafists. The question of gender inequality recurs, and the author writes with credible clarity about the precarious predicament that women found themselves in. Ultimately, Crowther learned some hard lessons about what was necessary for judicial uniformity and national unity: “In the end, the diverse regions will remain autonomous, and whatever government holds power in Kabul, it will be based on a confederacy of self-interests and the art of the deal.” Although he often delves into complex policy issues, he largely avoids technical, wonkish language, but readers may tire of deciphering the book’s stream of bureaucratic initialisms. The personal and the political combine into a seamless whole as Crowther shifts quickly from his expert analysis of Afghanistan to visceral accounts of his particular experiences. Overall, this debut should satisfy readers searching for an empirically rigorous but breezily anecdotal account of one of the most tempestuous nations in the world. It includes a generous sprinkling of black-and-white photographs documenting the author’s travels, including portraits of some of the men and women who figure prominently in his account.
A gimlet-eyed meditation on a troubled country’s progress toward political and legal reform.
Hawaii forms the lush backdrop for a veteran detective’s attempt to foil a grisly murder plot involving priceless looted artifacts.
When Hawaii County Chief Detective Koa Kāne is airlifted to Pōhakuloa, an Army live-fire training area on The Big Island, he faces a mutilated murder victim and the most challenging case of his career as an investigator. The body, found inside a natural lava tube cave, bears the markings of a ritualistic sacrifice. The crime scene also surprisingly unearths a long-buried royal crypt within an ancient stonecutters’ quarry, which fits nicely into Kāne’s suspicions of a grave robbery or an illegal archaeological dig. The investigation ramps up when the son of retired-gumshoe-turned-fisherman Hook Hao is seriously hurt while exploring an unsecured military range on neighboring island Kahoolawe, south of Maui. Having developed personal discipline from years in the Army, Kāne is well-respected in the Hawaiian Island chain as a loyal, hardworking native, and he navigates the homicide with slick precision, undaunted by a string of messy leads and bumbling interlopers quick to jump on the scene. In between all of the diligent police spadework, McCaw, a veteran attorney, softens the protagonist’s hard-boiled exterior with a subplot involving his striking, younger girlfriend Nālani, who struggles with sexual harassment at her job in Mauna Kea. As the mystery deepens, the author masterly displays a finely balanced mixture of detective work, local color, and interpersonal melodrama. This winning combination is typically the mark of a seasoned writer, so this debut novel may exceed the expectations of many readers. McCaw keeps the sure-footed plotline suitably tight. As the narrative plumbs the history of Hawaiian archaeology and incorporates fascinating ancient island regal rituals, the area’s precious artifacts, and indigenous Polynesian customs, a complicated host of co-investigators and various suspects emerge. From a smarmy, ex-Marine archaeologist with good intentions to a secretive prince, a violent black market contraband dealer, and a star-struck astrologer, the suspects present Kāne with an arduous task. The pressure’s on the detective to sift through these individuals to find a common link, or discard them all to uncover the true villain before tragedy strikes again. This book’s vivid, thrilling conclusion is both unique and atmospheric in a whodunit featuring a resilient sleuth successfully defending his native tropical paradise.
A tautly paced, impressively accomplished police procedural marking the beginning of a promising mystery series.