With two boys at a toy chest, one clutching a shark and the other a train, thus begins the most unlikeliest of competitions. Who will win—shark or train? Well, it does depend on the situation. If underwater, the shark will surely triumph. But at roasting marshmallows? The train beats the shark’s soggy mess every time. From one wacky circumstance to the next, from bowling to hot-air ballooning, there is always a clear winner. Until, suddenly, there is not. Both the shark and the train are not very good at playing hide and seek. They also stink at video games (“Sure would help if we had thumbs”). Just when the competitors can’t bear it any longer, it’s time for lunch. The boys toss them carelessly aside—until next time, that is. Lichtenheld’s snarling shark and grimacing train are definitely ready for a fight, and his scenarios gleefully play up the absurdity. The combatants’ expressions are priceless when they lose. A glum train in smoky dejection, or a bewildered, crestfallen shark? It’s hard to choose; both are winners. (Picture book. 3-6)
Forget vampires vs. werewolves; the hottest feud is between fans of the fiercely magical horses and the shambling, brain-eating undead. Adopting tones from humorous to haunting, tender to terrifying, and settings ranging from the fairy-tale past to modern suburbia to dystopian day-after-tomorrow, twelve YA authors (both up-and-coming and superstar) explore the mythic potential of each otherworldly creature. Team Zombie offers up both sweetly creepy romances between the living and not-quite-dead and chilling examinations of adolescence after the Zombie Apocalypse. Standouts for Team Unicorn include an inspirational tale of the reluctant heroine born to slay monsters and the baby maneater she loves and a poignant, piercing analysis of the corrosive price demanded by the power to heal. A healthy dose of graphic gore and plenty of love and lust (including same-sex and different-species pairings) push this collection into the older teen range. The editors chime in with wonderfully snarky cheerleading and a bit of insightful commentary along the way. Who is the victor in this epic smackdown? Readers, of course! (Fantasy/horror/short stories. 14 & up)
A loosely themed survey of 35 years of American history.
Eminent historian Brands (History/Univ. of Texas; American Dreams: The United States Since 1945, 2010, etc.) elucidates the tension between the U.S. brand of democracy and its version of capitalism through anecdotes starring politicians, diplomats, judges, union leaders and corporate tycoons, with an emphasis on the tycoons. He singles out Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller as deserving special attention because of their dominance over vital industries and their unprecedented personal wealth. The narrative is organized somewhat chronologically from the end of the Civil War to the early years of the 20th century, emphasizing corporate growth, geographical expansion, increasing urbanism, government intervention and various forms of inequality. Within each section, Brands does not always provide smooth transitions. For example, he jumps from the U.S. government's purchase of Alaska to the rise of Social Darwinism among American intellectuals without overtly signifying why one follows the other. Further, the author relies too heavily on previous histories and biographies, including some of his own. The recurring theme of the tension between capitalism and democracy is most stark in Brands’ coverage of U.S. expansion beyond natural boundaries. For example, the capture of the Philippines by American troops could have set the stage for colonial endeavors on every continent. It did not, however, because colonialism nagged at the consciences of many Americans, who believed that democracy should be about a population's self-determination, not about imposing foreign domination on behalf of capitalists lining their bank accounts. After the capture of the Philippines, never again would the United States seek to own another nation.
An educational, briskly written pseudo-textbook aimed at readers outside university classrooms.
Twelve-year-old Izzy Roybal, who loves writing stories, is reluctant to spend the summer in a small village in the New Mexican desert, where she was born. But when she gets there, she is gradually delighted with the landscape’s undeniable beauty and with her grandmother’s cultural and spiritual Mexican-American values. Nana gives a name to each room in her colorful old house, she mixes her perfect English with Spanish words and in her kitchen not only Izzy but her neighbors find a place to share stories while they eat Nana’s traditional Mexican dishes. Socorro, the village storyteller, helps Izzy find the answers to questions she has had about her deceased father all her life. The girl also develops a close friendship with two local kids: Mateo, a 13-year-old boy, and Maggie, a six-year-old orphan. Socorro’s stories suggest ways to navigate the boundaries of life and afterlife, leading to an ill-considered adventure that helps Izzy define who she is. Cervantes evokes the beauty of the setting and develops a memorable cast of characters, brought to life through Izzy’s heartfelt narration. A beautiful and engaging debut novel. (author’s note, tortilla recipe, glossary) (Fiction. 8-12)
Literary author Cronin (Mary and O’Neil, 2001, etc.) turns in an apocalyptic thriller in the spirit of Stephen King or Michael Crichton.
You know times are weird when swarms of Bolivian bats swoop from the skies and kill humans—or, as one eyewitness reports of an unfortunate GI, off fighting the good fight against the drug lords, “they actually lifted him off his feet before they bored through him like hot knives through butter.” Meanwhile, up north, in the very near future, gasoline prices are soaring and New Orleans has been hit by a second hurricane. Wouldn’t you know it, but the world is broken, and mad science has something to do with it—in this instance, the kind of mad science that involves trying to engineer super-soldiers but that instead has created a devastating epidemic, with zombie flourishes—here called “virals”—and nods to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and pretty much every other creature feature. Bad feds and good guys alike race around, trying to keep the world safe for American democracy. In the end the real protector of civilization turns out to be a “little girl in Iowa,” Amy Harper Bellafonte, who has been warehoused in a nunnery by her down-on-her-luck mother. Mom, a waitress with hidden resources of her own, pitches in, as does a world-weary FBI agent—is there any other kind? Thanks to Amy, smart though shy, the good guys prevail. Or so we think, but you probably don’t want to go opening your door at night to find out.
The young girl as heroine and role model is a nice touch. Otherwise a pretty ordinary production, with little that hasn’t been seen before.
“Time’s a goon,” as the action moves from the late 1970s to the early 2020s while the characters wonder what happened to their youthful selves and ideals.
Egan (The Keep, 2006, etc.) takes the music business as a case in point for society’s monumental shift from the analog to the digital age. Record-company executive Bennie Salazar and his former bandmates from the Flaming Dildos form one locus of action; another is Bennie’s former assistant Sasha, a compulsive thief club-hopping in Manhattan when we meet her as the novel opens, a mother of two living out West in the desert as it closes a decade and a half later with an update on the man she picked up and robbed in the first chapter. It can be alienating when a narrative bounces from character to character, emphasizing interconnections rather than developing a continuous story line, but Egan conveys personality so swiftly and with such empathy that we remain engaged. By the time the novel arrives at the year “202-” in a bold section narrated by Sasha’s 12-year-old daughter Alison, readers are ready to see the poetry and pathos in the small nuggets of information Alison arranges like a PowerPoint presentation. In the closing chapter, Bennie hires young dad Alex to find 50 “parrots” (paid touts masquerading as fans) to create “authentic” word of mouth for a concert. This new kind of viral marketing is aimed at “pointers,” toddlers now able to shop for themselves thanks to “kiddie handsets”; the preference of young adults for texting over talking is another creepily plausible element of Egan’s near-future. Yet she is not a conventional dystopian novelist; distinctions between the virtual and the real may be breaking down in this world, but her characters have recognizable emotions and convictions, which is why their compromises and uncertainties continue to move us.
Another ambitious change of pace from talented and visionary Egan, who reinvents the novel for the 21st century while affirming its historic values.
A literary late bloomer blossoms in this collection of personal essays.
“The memoir and the personal essay are crucially different forms,” writes essayist and novelist Gordon (It Will Come to Me, 2009, etc.), who here expresses more affinity for the latter in dealing with some of the material that informed her two volumes in the former genre. The best of these ten essays combine the details of memory with reflective insight and a command of tone that resists cliché, while refusing to settle into simplistic understanding. “What I really wanted to do was to examine my experience, to think aloud,” she writes. These pieces constitute a more or less chronological narrative, from childhood amid the household tension of a professor father and an alcoholic mother, through a “suicidal gesture” followed by an institutional stay and decades of serial therapy, and a marriage that she categorizes as “long, loyal, close, angry,” as it spurred her transition from therapy to writing. “Writing has allowed me…to escape the coils of therapy,” she writes. “I don’t mean that writing has been therapeutic, though sometimes it has been. The kind of writing I do now is associative and self-exploratory—much like the process of therapy, except that the therapist is absent and I’ve given up all ambition to get well.” Whether she’s explaining her affinity for Kafka or exploring the tribal rituals of faculty wives—her husband is a professor, as her father was—Gordon writes with flinty humor, unsentimental precision and a refusal to let herself or anyone else off too easily. In a characteristic twist on conventional wisdom, she writes that “the unlived life might not be worth examining.”
Despite some repetition of detail among the essays, each is a standalone gem.
An unwieldy family memoir that also yields some choice scenes, centering on a brace of grandfathers interned for suspected enemy sympathies, from novelist O’Neill (This Is the Life, 1991).
It is fascinating that both of O’Neill’s grandfathers were imprisoned during WWII on suspicion that they had aided the German war effort. What was the truth to these allegations that so disrupted these families, then and later? O’Neill visits the personal landscapes of the two men: one from Ireland and the other from Turkey, the latter a narcissist and petty tyrant to his family, a bit of a prig and a skirt-chaser, the former a picaresque member of the IRA. In writing that is somber, like a long day of rain, O’Neill conjures a portrait of the men: Joseph Dakad from Mersin, Turkey, a town of verandas and gardens and large stone houses, arrested in the Levant on charges that he was a possible spy, perhaps aiding the Jewish underground—but the more compelling case is that he was interned while on a lemon-buying trip for no better reason than he was Turkish. The cruelty of his jail time is excruciating to read, full as it is of suicide attempts, poisonings, and repeated threats of execution, all detailed in the testimony Dakad wrote after the three-and-a-half-year ordeal was over. Grandfather O’Neill’s internment is set within the context of IRA activity at the time of the war and the fact that he was a vibrant member of the Republicans. Nonetheless, their lives thereafter were shrouded in a secrecy that took a deep toll on the family and served as testament to living “in extraordinarily hateful and hazardous places and times,” one that required an understanding and forgiveness that both spurred and is a result of this book.
The pleasures here are in the slow accretion of detail—albeit too many details on occasion—and awareness that allows O’Neill to create an abiding image of a two places during a moment in history.
A grandmother’s life story centers this welcome depiction of a contemporary Choctaw family. A young boy’s bee sting is soothed when the grandmother calls his hurt “saltypie.” A flashback reveals the origin of the expression: A stone malevolently thrown at a young mother injures her, and her son, thinking the blood is like pie filling, tastes it and pronounces it “saltypie.” When the bee-stung boy discovers his grandmother’s blindness, possibly resulting from the blow, an uncle explains, “You just kind of shrug it off, say saltypie. It helps you carry on.” Years later, the extended family gathers in a Houston hospital, sharing its collective past while the grandmother undergoes eye surgery: “No more saltypie …Mawmaw can see.” The grown boy realizes that his grandmother, “Blind as she was…taught so many how to see.” The term “eye transplant,” the cause of the blindness and the sequencing of events could be clearer. Nevertheless, Tingle provides a corrective view of contemporary Native American life, as his author’s note reveals was his intent. Clarkson’s evocative illustrations bathe each scene in a soft light that accentuates the warmth of the family’s love. (author’s note) (Picture book/biography. 5-10)
A gutsy international journalist narrates life and death along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Former Guardian reporter Vulliamy (Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia’s War, 1994) divides his time between Arizona and London. While writing about America for British readers, the author became fascinated with the mingling of national cultures along the 2,100 mile–long and 50 mile–wide swath he terms “Amexica.” He insists that it is not merely a clever word creation but a historically valid term whose meaning reaches back to Aztec cultures. Because of illegal narcotics moving from Mexico into the United States and more-or-less legal guns for the narcotraficantes moving the other direction, Amexica is a constant battlefield marked by thousands of murders, rapes and business-related shakedowns. However, as Vulliamy documents through hundreds of individuals featured in the book, the battlefield is also teeming with everyday life. The mixture means a minority of residents in Amexica suffer fear and joy simultaneously, with the joy deriving from high income. The majority of residents, however, subsist amid grinding poverty. Those who can find regular employment tend to labor in sweatshops along the border run by exploitative multinational corporations that have transferred many of the jobs from the continental United States, devastating cities north of the border. The author writes lyrically, with the enticing rhythm of his sentences contrasting jarringly with the degradation of humanity found on nearly every page, and Vulliamy generously credits authors who have documented the border in previous books in both English and Spanish. Some sections of the book may be familiar—especially the hundreds of murders of poverty-stricken single women around Ciudad Juárez, their bodies left to rot in the desert while law-enforcement agencies express bafflement—but most of the narrative feels fresh because it is based so heavily on Vulliamy’s own wanderings.
An impressively rendered, nightmare-inducing account.