Life could be greener on the Emerald Isle these days, where Ireland's economic recession has wreaked havoc upon the residents of one small rural town. There are no jobs, no pension, no unemployment benefits. The effect is a domino-like collapse of livelihood and sanity for everyone in Irish writer Donal Ryan's insightful, darkly humorous debut, The Spinning Heart.
The title refers to a battered and flaking red metal heart on a front cottage gate belonging to the father of well-known resident, Bobby Mahon. Despite its beaten condition, the heart continues to spin on its hinge. It becomes a metaphor for Bobby and the other 20 blindsided souls, who each get a brief chapter to tell their story. They, too, need restoration after the town's big employer abandons them.
Pokey Burke is the corrupt, now-defunct builder who absconds with more than his workers' money. Soon everyone is pondering their hand-to-mouth existence and the fissures emerging in their community. The common thread is Bobby, Pokey's tough but well-respected former foreman whom everyone knows and generally respects. But even Bobby is not above reproach, as his possible complicity in his father’s death has people wondering.
Ryan’s snapshot into the recess of weary minds speaks to a wry, vulnerable sensitivity, and his writing in the vernacular hits home. The prose oozes with spot-on observations of the time, while his use of idioms smartly adds to the authenticity of the first-person narratives. Long-listed for the Man Booker prize, Ryan isn't the first author to swirl Ireland’s economic woes into a novel. Tana French did it in Broken Harbor, and closer to home, Stewart O'Nan did it with Last Night at the Lobster. Best laid plans are never guaranteed. “The future is a cold mistress,” Bobby’s father said. Tomorrow is like that.
Countless manga series that have been translated from the original Japanese have appeared in the U.S. over the past decade. After a few years of the market becoming flooded with sometimes mediocre products, publishers have become more selective. They are now focusing on the cream of the crop. Two strong, well-reviewed manga for teens that have been recent hits in Japan are arriving here in the U.S.
Nisekoi: False Love, by Naoshi Komi, tells the story of Raku, the high school-aged son of a Yakuza gangster. Raku’s father has arranged a “false love” match between the young man and a rival gang leader’s daughter, Chitoge. They get off to an inauspicious start when Chitoge accidentally knees Raku in the face, which in turn causes Raku to lose an important locket. This was the only connection he maintained to a childhood sweetheart, and the search for the lost item causes instant strife between the two newly matched teens. Despite the outrageous plot, this works as a sort of wacky romantic comedy, with gangster elements adding intrigue and surprise. Two volumes are currently available, with the third coming in May.
Meanwhile, Arina Tanemura’s Phantom Thief Jeanne is a reincarnation in more ways than one. Originally licensed to another publisher that later went bankrupt, this series has returned with new covers and crisp line drawings reminiscent of Sailor Moon. The other reincarnation is Jeanne herself – a “phantom-thief magical girl” who is the second coming of Joan of Arc. As is the case in many manga, the plot is almost too outrageous and convoluted to summarize, but it involves a battle between angels and devils, chess pieces that unlock the mysteries within the hearts of humans and demons hidden in priceless works of art. All of this is compounded by another story of false love! The second volume of the series will soon be available. Both of these series are good avenues into the outlandish, fantastical world of manga, as well as peeks into Japanese culture.
Damaris Chance feels no compulsion to marry but instead longs for a cottage by the sea. Freddy Monkton-Coombes is enjoying the rewards of his rakish ways, which will be severely curtailed if his mother has anything to say about it. In The Winter Bride, Annie Gracie revisits the Chance sisters and shares the stories of this magnetic and damaged duo.
Damaris Chance’s unhappy past involves a blackguard sea captain who hurt her so deeply that marriage is no longer an appealing option. But her guardian, Lady Beatrice, convinces her to make her debut and enjoy a season of lighthearted fun. Meanwhile, Freddy’s season is filled with all the single ladies tracking his every move and a mother who won’t stop nagging about marriage. He is also determined to honor his promise to his friend Max to watch out for the Chance sisters. When Freddy discovers Damaris roaming through unsavory parts of town at all hours of the night, he demands to know her secret.
Damaris has been surreptitiously selling her painted pottery in an effort to secure her dream cottage. While not a scandalous secret, during the course of their conversation, the two reach a most unorthodox decision and agree to an arranged marriage. Freddy can continue his womanizing ways, and Damaris will have her cottage. As the two spend more time together during their “engagement,” they share confidences and dreams. Is marriage really such a bad thing after all? Gracie continues her Chance Sisters series with another charming romance centered by a charismatic couple while positioning the players to be featured in the next two seasons. Spring and summer can’t come soon enough!
What do a group of computer-savvy youths, a television psychic, a devoted grandfather and a murder spree have in common? Ripper. This is the name of the online computer game that six teenagers use to puzzle out historic murder mysteries, such as the case of Jack the Ripper. Each player has an assumed identity and his or her own particular area of criminal expertise. Ripper is also the title of Isabel Allende’s newest novel, an ingenious whodunit that will baffle readers as thoroughly as it does the police department investigating the series of murders tormenting its city.
After a psychic predicts a bloodbath in the city of San Francisco, the Gamemaster proposes the Ripper players attempt to crack these most peculiar murder cases. Their theoretical game takes a tragic turn when Indiana, the mother of the Gamemaster, goes missing. It will take all of their resourcefulness to try to find her before she is added to the list of victims. Readers will enjoy this plot-driven storyline that progresses steadily even as the body count rises. The story intensifies toward a dramatic conclusion that will have people revisiting early chapters of the book in astonishment.
In a departure from her previous novels featuring magical realism, bestselling author Allende brings her character-rich writing style to this modern day suspense story. According to Booklist, “Allende creates a compassionate and gripping mystery stoked by the paradoxes of family and community and the consequences of abuse.”
This week, Greg Iles fans are celebrating the release of Natchez Burning, the author’s first new novel in nearly five years! Natchez Burning brings readers back to hero Penn Cage, and it marks the start of a new trilogy from Iles. When Penn’s father Dr. Tom Cage is accused of administering a lethal injection to Viola Turner, a nurse who he worked with in the 1960s, Penn is desperate to save him. His investigation sends him on a journey through his father’s past, unearthing long-hidden secrets that may have come back to haunt Tom and put his family in peril. The shocking truth that Penn eventually finds involves a splinter cell of the Ku Klux Klan called the Double Eagles and crimes hidden for 40 years.
Natchez Burning is an unforgettable, cinematic story that Book Page calls “William Faulkner for the Breaking Bad generation.” This is a must-read for fans of John Grisham’s Sycamore Row. At nearly 800 pages long, this novel seems daunting, but the pages fly by. Iles is a masterful storyteller, and this is some of his best work. Before reading Natchez Burning, long-time fans of Penn Cage will also want to read The Death Factory. Iles wrote this novella, which was released exclusively in ebook, to tie up loose ends from The Devil’s Punchbowl.
The road to Natchez Burning was a long and challenging one for Iles. His father, who inspired his character Tom Cage, passed away in 2010. Then, Iles faced life-threatening injuries from an automobile accident in 2011. Iles shares more about how those events impacted his writing process for this remarkable new novel in this video.
Shunned and Dangerous is the third in the Amish Mystery series by Laura Bradford. Claire Weatherly left the corporate world behind and used her nest egg to purchase Heavenly Treasures, a gift shop that sells Amish-made goods in Heavenly, Pa. While on an outing to a local corn maze, Claire happens upon the body of Harley Zook, a kind-hearted Amish man who unfortunately made a few enemies. She quickly calls handsome detective Jakob Fisher, who has been shunned by the Amish community for leaving to pursue a career with the police force. Unfortunately, the man most upset by Jakob’s shunning is his father, Mose, who has become the prime suspect. Claire is determined to help Jakob and begins to investigate on her own. Soon other suspects emerge, and Claire finds herself unraveling a puzzle as complex as a corn maze.
Shunned and Dangerous is a cozy mystery with plenty to keep the reader enthralled. Bradford creates a plucky heroine and pleasant, friendly supporting characters, including her good friend Esther, a young Amish woman who works in her store and makes hand-made gifts to sell. Bradford is familiar with the Amish way of life and includes cultural tidbits about the community that the reader may not know. The mystery is solid, with enough clues and suspects to keep a reader guessing. The novel is quaint and light, never gory or shocking, and readers looking for a gentle read for a warm spring day need look no further. Readers who enjoy this may want to also read Hearse and Buggy and Assaulted Pretzel, the first two novels in the series.
Take a ride 25 years into the past to April 1989, when side ponytails, shoulder pads and acid-washed jeans were ubiquitous amidst a wash of ever-present neon. The “Why Not?” Orioles were rebounding from a terrible year and headed toward second place in the American League East, and Billy Ripken’s obscenity-laced baseball card was the talk of the nation. In theaters, moviegoers were being entertained by Field of Dreams and Pet Sematary. On the small screen, viewers were enjoying debut seasons of Roseanne, Murphy Brown and China Beach and getting ready to say goodbye to favorites such as Dynasty, Family Ties and the long-running American Bandstand. Wonder what was going on in books? Well, readers in 1989 had good taste! The top titles on both the fiction and nonfiction New York Times best seller lists have withstood the passage of time and remain perennial favorites.
The top fiction title was The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. First published in the United Kingdom to positive reviews, this title was a Booker Prize Finalist and won the 1988 Whitbread Award for novel of the year. Major controversy surrounded the book, with some conservative Muslims calling it blasphemous and a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran. Rounding out the list were Star by Danielle Steel, a tale of star-crossed love, and two titles that are now staples on high school reading lists: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.
And who could forget the fervor surrounding the top nonfiction title? All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum contained inspirational essays about everyday matters and struck a chord with readers and gift givers everywhere. Today, there are more than 7 million copies in print in over 90 countries. Also on the nonfiction list were two regularly read titles that have become contemporary classics – A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, which has sold more than 10 million copies to date, and Blind Faith by Joe McGinnis.
Hooman Majd is an Iranian-American, a well-known and respected journalist who is critical of the Iranian government as well as the son of a high-ranking diplomat for the Shah. All of these factors would be good reason for Majd to limit his time in Iran. Majd has travelled in and out of Iran for years, often escorting U.S. journalists. He has published two previous books on the country, which were critical of the Iranian government. Majd grew up in the U.S. and Britain, but like many political refugees, he has always felt the pull of his home country. In his book, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, Majd recounts the nearly year-long stay in Tehran that he and his family embark upon.
This journey begins when his family moves there during a tumultuous time in Iran – on the cusp of the Arab Spring and the failure of the Green Movement reforms. Majd talks about the big issues while also discussing the minutiae of an American family trying to live in a country devoid of Starbucks and organic food stores. His narrative is often humorous, and it is at its best when discussing the average Iranian people, who have an incredibly self-deprecating view, a voracious love of politics and an admiration for American ideals.
Majd looks at Iranian cultural features like “sulking” and exaggeration and shows them in everyday life as well as how they play out in the domestic and international political arenas. What emerges is a portrait of a modern capitalist country that, while still repressive, has a very healthy political dialogue, including reporting on every juicy bit of gossip about leaders like they were the Kardashians. The people desire to stay Islamic but also to become more open and liberal. Majd sees the U.S./Iranian relationship as a version of a Persian “Big Sulk,” with an Iranian government ready to resume ties with the U.S., but only after the U.S. makes a demonstration of apology for past wrongs and expresses a desire for such a relationship. It’s an intriguing possibility, but one that the U.S. would be politically unable to explore. Ultimately, Majd is on a journey to discover the Persian identity, both his own and his homeland’s.
In honor of Earth Day, Green Living Can Be Deadly, the second installment in Staci McLaughlin’s Blossom Valley mysteries, is a cozy mystery that sparks the spirit of the day. While the books can be read as a set, they can be standalone reads as well. In McLaughlin’s series, Dana has returned to her hometown to live with her mother and boy-crazed sister after the death of her father.
Upon returning to Blossom Valley, Dana takes on a job with O’Connell’s Organic Farm and Spa, doing everything from feeding pigs to marketing and even investigating murders in her spare time. While manning the booth at the Green Living Festival, Dana runs into Wendy, a high school classmate and friend whom she hasn’t seen in years. Within hours of their renewed friendship, Dana comes upon Wendy’s blood-covered dead body in the neighboring stall. It’s after learning that Wendy doesn’t have many family members or friends that Dana decides to put her amateur sleuthing to good use, much to the chagrin of detective Palmer.
On account of Dana’s off-beat wit, unique way of looking at things and her wayward detective skills, this book is an amusing and easy read. If you’re looking for something a little more challenging, though, I will say that this book gives you all the clues you need to solve the mystery yourself. McLaughlin even includes Dana’s blog posts for those who may want some holistic living tips and tricks.
Baltimoreans may be tired of winter, but that shouldn’t stop you from reading Jennifer McMahon’s latest book, The Winter People, a ghostly tale of small town legends and entangled tragic family history. West Hall, Vermont, has always been a locus of strange sightings and disappearances. Many of the local legends feature Sara Harrison Shea, a farmer’s wife who in 1908 was found dead shortly after her daughter’s sudden death. The tragedies of the Shea family perpetuated rumors of curses and other odd occurrences that continue to resonate in the town.
In present day, Ruthie, whose family lives “off the grid” in the old Shea farmhouse, is puzzling over the disappearance of her mother and has just discovered an old copy of Sara’s diary hidden in the farmhouse. Katherine, a Boston transplant who moved to West Hall after the deaths of both her son and husband, comes across a copy of the same diary in her husband’s belongings. Slowly, through the chapters that alternate among Sara’s, Ruthie’s and Katherine’s stories, the mystery comes to light, and the shadowy links between all the characters are revealed.
McMahon spins an intriguing and unique story with smart, resourceful characters and whispers of old magic and ghosts. Love and strong familial bonds are at the heart of all three stories, making this a good pick for anyone who likes family sagas as well as mysteries. As each new layer is revealed, readers will be further drawn into the enigmatic world of West Hall and its dark history. Although the story is not overburdened with descriptive details, a harsh early 20th century farming existence and an artsy present-day New England town are skillfully conveyed. In fact, McMahon does such an exceptional job penning a New England winter landscape that you are bound to feel the chill of frozen Vermont while reading. Best to read in front of a fire – or someplace with warm weather if you’re lucky!