When faced with a tragedy, it is common to reflect on what might have been if only we had done or said something differently. This is the theme explored by German author Jenny Erpenbeck in The End of Days. Set in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, the story begins with the sudden accidental death of an infant girl. The tragedy tears the family apart. But what if her parents could have found the baby in her cradle in time, and by some miracle had managed to bring life back into that little girl? What path would their lives have taken if only their baby hadn’t died?
Erpenbeck’s story is written in five parts, exploring the possible paths that this one life could take if only something different had happened. While the first part is her death as an infant, the second part begins with the girl as a teenager in Vienna just after the end of World War I. Her fate stems from her choices made as a rebellious youth, getting mixed up with the wrong boy and paying for those choices with her life. What would have happened if different choices had been made? Each of the following parts explore those possible lives, and by the fifth telling, her life spans almost a century.
Readers who enjoy the works of Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy may be interested in this book for its complex style of writing and bleak, haunting themes. I was drawn to this book because of the thought-provoking subject matter and because I enjoy historical fiction set in Europe. It is human nature to think about what might have been, and Erpenbeck deftly explores this subject with grace.
Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, is a book with a mission, the public face of a project determined to get humanity moving back in the right direction. What direction is that? The direction is big dreams backed by science, a drive unseen since the furious push of the space race. Hieroglyph is built on the idea that scientists and engineers need science fiction writers to dream big dreams for them to chase after. To that end, Arizona State University started the Hieroglyph project to get everyone talking with each other. These debates are open to the public. This book is an anthology of short stories. After every story, URLs are provided to discussions with the hope that the readers read further, and maybe even take up the torch themselves.
The stories run a range. Most aren't concerned with space travel, keeping the science closer to home, and more likely to be reached within our lifetimes. The first story is about the massive architectural shifts that could come from building a tower 20 miles high. Other stories create greener cities, or more peaceful conflict resolution through social media and advanced common literacy. This is an optimistic book, sometimes utopian in its outlook, but often not. There's a lot of pragmatic futurism here, including massive acknowledged debts to Robert Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, which was far less about space travel than it was about the business deals necessary to make space travel possible.
As literature, the stories vary in quality from crisp prose by Cory Doctorow to long descriptions about future cities that aren't really stories. It pitches big ideas and strange ideas, through narrative and experiments. Considering all of the technology we use every day, from medical technology, smartphones and touch screens that came out of Star Trek, sending science after science fiction makes sense. If Hieroglyph gets traction, expect sequels with more dreams.
Cozy mysteries are great books to snuggle up with. Ellie Alexander’s debut novel Meet Your Baker is such a book. While the storyline is quaint and the character development is provocatively drawn out, the book is light enough that it’s a quick and undemanding read.
Jules decides to take a break from her husband troubles and heads home to Ashland, Oregon, where she can bake her troubles away. Ashland is a small tourist town that is known for its Shakespearean outdoor theater. The comfort of her home town is supposed to help Jules sort out her troubles, so when she finds a dead body in her mother’s bake shop, she is completely taken aback.
Instead of the comfort she was looking for, Jules is lured into a murder investigation by her high school boyfriend. Between murder, lying husbands, financial problems and ex-boyfriends, Jules’ respite is anything but refreshing. Will Jules be able to put her life in order while helping the local law enforcement solve a murder?
The combination of murder mystery, family drama, cooking and Shakespearean references are enough to engross anyone looking for a light read that’s not too kitschy. Alexander saves the full recipes till the end which allows for an unbroken storyline, but still provides the details for people whose mouths were watering throughout the enticing descriptions. This book is a great read for those who are fans of Jessica Beck or Joanne Fluke.
It’s no secret that dads can have tremendous influence on their children’s lives. Here are three very different picture books from 2014 which highlight the myriad ways in which dads positively shape their little ones, whether over the course of an hour or a lifetime. Here’s to you, dads!
A rainy day. A bored little girl. A dad who takes time to spur his child’s imagination by asking “If you had your druthers, what would you do?” Flights of fancy ensue. In the space of a few pages, author Matt Phelan demonstrates the impact of a dad who simply takes the opportunity to engage in a little play time in Druthers.
From author Daniel Beaty comes a tale of the strong bond between father and son over the chasm of many years’ absence. Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me begins with one young boy’s loving memories of his father and the knock-knock game they used to play every morning. One day, there is no knock, and a new and palpable absence begins in the boy’s life. Missing his father, the boy writes a letter urging him to come home. In time, he receives a poignant letter in return. In it, his father encourages his son, reminding him of his love and all the ways in which he will always remain with him. As the letter unfolds, illustrator Bryan Collier’s richly evocative images foreshadow the boy’s path to adulthood and his eventual reunion with his father.
Young fans of illustrator James Dean’s Pete the Cat series will warm to his latest Mighty Dads, created in collaboration with author Joan Holub. Sing-song, rhyming text pairs with appealing illustrations of construction machinery in dad and child sizes. Hardworking, protective, patient and encouraging, the mighty dad machines act as teachers and role models to their young companions, who help them over the course of a day at the construction site. Punctuated by satisfyingly repetitive and onomatopoeic descriptors (“Crash, bang, boom!”) and bold, colorful illustrations, Mighty Dads is a deceptively simplistic picture book with an underlying message about the important roles dads can play in their children’s lives.
Keeping secrets is a tricky business and can be the death knell of a relationship. Two new romance novels present characters conflicted by secrets which threaten their happy-ever-after.
Sarah MacLean concludes her Rules of Scoundrels series in spectacular fashion with Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover. Lady Georgiana’s fall from grace before her first season was colossal. Pregnant and unwed, she was cast from society but rebounded with the help of three other ruined women and created The Fallen Angel, London’s most successful gaming club. But life in the fast lane is hampering her daughter’s future and Georgiana needs to marry well to clean up her reputation and re-enter society. Handsome newspaper tycoon Duncan West agrees to assist Georgiana in her efforts by using his resources as an outlet for planting articles shining her in a glowing light. As the two grow close, their chemistry intensifies and readers will be rooting for this dynamic couple to find forever love all while being shocked by the secrets revealed.
Marcus is the dissolute Duke of Rutherford in Megan Frampton’s The Duke’s Guide to Correct Behavior, the promising start to the Dukes Behaving Badly series. Marcus is stunned when 4-year-old Rose, his unknown child, arrives on his doorstep. He hires governess Lily to care for his newfound daughter and finds himself quickly attracted to Lily’s quiet beauty. His feelings are so strong that he vows to change his wicked habits and requests Lily’s help in becoming a proper gentleman in the hopes of one day securing her love. But Lily has a secret that could change everything, especially her future with Marcus. Readers will fall in love with Marcus and Lily who share quick wit, thoughtful conversations and a common love for Rose, all while their physical attraction grows impossible to ignore.
Journalist, novelist and activist Cory Doctorow has teamed up with illustrator and cartoonist Jen Wang to create an unprecedented graphic novel about a girl gamer who discovers real social issues lurking behind the colorful facade of her favorite online world. In Real Life is one of the first books written for the burgeoning audience of self-identifying girl gamers, which is growing at an exponential rate as more girls — and women — embrace their passion for gaming.
Anda, the heroine of In Real Life, enjoys playing Dungeons and Dragons with her friends during their lunch period, kicks butt in her Python computer programming class and walks the high school halls worrying more about surviving a tough boss fight than she does about staying fashionably relevant. With her mother’s blessing (and credit card), she delves into the digital world of Coarsegold Online and becomes totally enthralled, allying herself with a guild of other like-minded girl gamers. Quests call Anda and a feisty guildmate to a hidden verdant enclave lousy with gold farmers — players who repeatedly collect valuable items to sell to other players for real money. Anda and her friend defeat the illicit farmers and take their items and gold to stymie the questionable practice.
Initially, Anda is excited to be completing quests and leveling up her character, but after a gold farmer shows some compassion and helps her obtain a rare item, she begins to ponder the consequences of her actions. Who are the other players behind these foreign avatars? Why do they congregate in droves and move around in secrecy? What does "Ni Hao" mean? And most importantly, what happens when they’re killed and lose their farming progress?
Doctorow’s purpose-driven storyline presents many social issues that may be unknown to people who have yet to be acquainted with online gaming, and Wang’s adorable artwork inspires a world teeming with vibrant beauty and softens the blow of an otherwise rough reality check. In Real Life is a great read for anyone who enjoys young adult graphic novels, and is essential for MMO and gaming fanatics.
One of Shane Burcaw's biggest goals was getting people to see past his disability. It's fair to say he accomplishes that and more in his candid new memoir, Laughing at My Nightmare. Even the title suggests some of the self-deprecating humor that helps shape the amusing but bittersweet tone of Burcaw’s story. Saddled with spinal muscular atrophy at age 2, the 21-year-old has been in a wheelchair his whole life, but that's not what this young man’s story is about. It’s about figuring out how to live a life as close to normal and sharing his daily successes and failures along the way.
There is no cure for Burcaw’s condition. His body does not produce the enzyme necessary for producing and maintaining muscle tissue. His body is failing him, but he refuses to fail his body. Disease aside, the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, native is just a normal guy. He hangs out with his buddies, admits to liking girls and goofs off playing video games. The difference is he depends on others to do everything for him, from dressing to toileting. He has a hard time when it comes to fitting in with others with disabilities. The fact that he doesn’t want sympathy comes through loud and clear.
Burcaw shares his experiences through his blog, (also called "Laughing at My Nightmare"), where humor is an integral component. He figured there were people out there who would want to know what life for a severely disabled person is like. So he starts writing about sex, fear of dying, questions about God. Before he knew it, he had several thousand followers and was soon embarking on a national tour to raise money and awareness for his disease. Burcaw’s story is not without its somber moments. With short chapters, black and white photos and text bubbles, he manages to strike just the right chord for what he is trying to accomplish. “What if we traveled to schools and talked about humor and positivity?” he says, “We could help kids see that life is what they made it.” Teens and adults will find much to like in Burcaw’s heartfelt journey.
Ethics and morality get trumped by passion and ambition in Saskia Goldschmidt's disturbing yet engaging debut novel, The Hormone Factory, translated from Dutch by Hester Velmans. Mordechai de Paauw is the Dutch cofounder and CEO of a slaughterhouse-turned-pharmaceutical enterprise. His new company, Farmacom, becomes a global success for its pioneering of hormonal treatments, including the contraceptive pill. However, it is deeply overshadowed by the flawed humanity of its owner.
Now on his deathbed, Mordechai reflects on his turbulent life, its towering achievements and its darkest failures. He revisits the early days of the family butcher business he and his twin brother Aaron inherited from their father. It is Mordechai who sees the pharmaceutical possibilities of extracting hormones from animal waste, but it is Aaron who pays a dear price. Mordechai seeks and forms an uneasy partnership with an equally ambitious German scientist, Rafael Levine. The two mount one breakthrough after another while Hitler charges toward Holland’s doorstep. World War II threatens Mordechai's interests, as do gross errors in judgment, personal and professional.
Goldschmidt, whose father survived the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen, found material for this story while conducting research for another book. "I came across the file of Professor Laqueur, a famous pharmacologist and clinician, one of the founders of the pharmaceutical company Organon and the man who discovered testosterone. More important, he also happened to be my father's first father-in-law." Professor Laqueur’s collaboration with the Van Zwanenberg slaughterhouse owned by two brothers from the town of Oss, Holland, eventually resulted in one of the country's first multinational pharmaceutical companies. To be sure, Goldschmidt's imagined story of the real players sheds an unflattering light on a young industry on the cusp of discovering miracle drugs. An intriguing book club read, this story will resonate with anyone who has ever swallowed an aspirin.
As the calendar year comes to a close, it’s become common to compile best-of lists to share, discuss and widely recommend. Here are 10 of my favorite fiction titles, in no particular order, published in 2014. What lands a book on my best-of list? All of these novels feature quality writing, stories with an intriguing plot hook and memorable characters. They make the reader reflect on bigger issues, and ultimately on the human condition. We want to read books we can connect with, often in ways that are far from obvious. While I want to be entertained as I read, I want to be thrilled by the author’s craft. I look for a poetic turn of phrase, descriptions that make me pause, reread and reflect. This list reflects a variety of fiction subgenres, including realistic, historical, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic and mystery.
The eye-catching cover of Lily King’s slim novel Euphoria, depicting the inner bark of the native rainbow eucalyptus, slyly reveals the story’s setting of Papua, New Guinea. Loosely based on events in the life of brilliant, pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria’s Nell is a headstrong researcher both aided and hobbled by her partner in life and in the field, her Australian husband Fen. As the book opens, the two are fleeing the brutal tribe they had been observing for a number of months, frustrated and hoping for a new opportunity. Fate connects them with the previously isolated English anthropologist Bankson, who welcomes a chance to work with the dynamic couple in studying a female-centric tribe, the Tam. Intellect, connection and understanding (or lacks thereof) spark passions among the anthropologists and the tribe itself, leading to both internal and external discovery.
“I was strong and he was not, so it was me who went to war to defend the Republic.” Thus begins Laird Hunt’s Civil War nod-with-a-twist to Homer’s The Odyssey, Neverhome. Here Penelope goes proudly off to battle while Odysseus tends to the home fires. Told in a first person narrative, the story follows “Ash” Thompson, a young Indiana farmwife hungry for honor and adventure, who passes as a man in order to join the Union army. Ash soon finds she has a strong taste for battle and a remarkable talent with a gun. Hunt takes readers through the harsh realities of war in the Civil War era, seasoning the story with the kind of small details of daily life that fascinate readers and make history come alive.
Mark Watney has the dubious distinction of being the first astronaut accidentally stranded on Mars in Andy Weir’s The Martian. A biologist and mechanical engineer, Watney was left for dead after a violent sandstorm caused flying debris to pierce his spacesuit and sent him flying down a hill. This event triggers the sudden evacuation of the rest of the crew of NASA’s third manned mission to the red planet. But Watney has suffered only minor injuries, and pure dumb luck and a little science keep his suit from being totally breached. He soon realizes his dire circumstances, setting the survival plot in motion. Author Weir has created a smart, funny, self-deprecating geek in Watney, a guy you can’t help but root for as he solves problem after problem with determination, grit and pure knowledge of math and science. Told in a series of log entries interspersed with chapters that depict the scientists and suits at NASA working on a way to rescue the man whose plight has become an international cause, The Martian is a pure sci-fi page-turner.
A team of four women make the twelfth expedition to Area X, a lush overgrown landscape teeming with wildlife and cut off from civilization for decades after The Event has begun. The team is comprised of our narrator, known only as the biologist; the surveyor; the anthropologist and the psychologist, whose penchant for hypnotizing the others makes her immediately suspect. Annihilation, a smartly packaged original paperback, is the first installment in The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, whose volumes have all been published in 2014. Mysteries abound in this unsettling, intellectual sci-fi thriller, as the party discover a feature of the landscape heretofore undocumented — an underground tunnel (or tower, as the narrator prefers to think of it) that descends deep below the surface. Who or what has left the message on the walls, written in living, pulsating vegetation? How is the narrator changed when she accidentally inhales spores that have been released? And what exactly happened to those who came back from previous expeditions, irrevocably damaged?
“Irrevocably damaged” also serves to describe the characters who populate Phil Klay’s stories of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Redeployment. The winner of this year’s National Book Award, Klay’s stories plumb the emotional and psychological depths of what it means to serve, and the aftershocks that reverberate throughout the bedrock of life after homecoming. Justly compared to Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried, Redeployment will surely maintain its place on must-read lists for decades to come.
The other titles that round out the list have been previously reviewed by my colleagues here on Between the Covers: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia, Station Eleven by Emily St. John-Mandel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas and The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.
"Seven half-bloods shall answer the call,
To storm or fire the world must fall.
An oath to keep with final breath,
And foes bear arms to the Doors of Death."
The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan is the end, the final book in a five year saga, and the fulfillment of prophecy. Roman mythology and Greek mythology have clashed with each other, with Gods, Goddesses, Titans and the very Earth itself. It's been clear since the beginning that someone was going to die. Would it be Jason Grace, son of Jupiter? Piper, daughter of Aphrodite? Maybe it would be one of the five other heroes, including a returning Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase. The action is big, the threats are far out there and the characters are still quipping.
In a post-Potter world, any number of contenders have stepped up to provide fantastic sagas for the young. Riordan has become the Dean of Children's Mythology. Every page in his books are full of reimagined Greek and Roman (and sometimes Egyptian, and soon to be Norse) mythology that can be quickly and easily digested by new readers. It's by turns hilarious, horrifying, action-packed and zooming along with all the speed of a thriller. There's a potency to The Blood of Olympus that comes from being built on stories that have lasted for thousands of years.
This is not a perfect book. Most of the ensemble cast run through their character arcs and just stick around for lack of anywhere else to be. The humor can be patchy. It doesn't matter, because this is smart, imaginative writing that will inspire the next generation. Some of the kids who read this will go on to be archaeologists, mythographers and authors. The rest will have a good time in a world that's grown bigger since they started reading.