Jo Baker’s engaging new novel Longbourn focuses on the life of housemaid Sarah and her fellow servants for a behind-the-scenes retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Fans of Austen’s novel will be intrigued by the lives of the underclass in Regency England, no less intriguing and dramatic than those of the gentry they serve.
Sarah, orphaned and raised almost as a daughter to housekeeper Mrs. Hill, fills her days from early morning to late night with the strenuous labor it takes to run a country household. Baker fills her novel with detailed accounts of the housemaid’s chores, from emptying the chamber pots to heading to town in the rain and cold to purchase ornamental roses to decorate the Bennet girls’ shoes. Readers will learn fascinating period housekeeping hints, like the fact that cold tea leaves sprinkled on floors will bind with dust, hair and insects, making sweeping easier.
Even as she supports the sisters in their complicated courtships, she dreams of a life of her own. She becomes flustered in her dealings with Mr. Bingley’s handsome, flirtatious footman Ptolemy, the man charged with delivering letters. His goal is to open a tobacco shop one day. Mysterious James Smith, the newly arrived servant with hazel eyes and a secret cache of seashells, intrigues her as he lightens her daily work burdens and takes an interest in her. Sarah wonders “Could she one day have what she wanted, rather than rely on the glow of other people’s happiness to keep her warm?” Longbourn is a book to savor almost as much as its inspiration.
Fannie Flagg’s new novel The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion will remind readers of why they originally fell in love with her writing. The story’s wit, wisdom and colorful cast of characters are utterly captivating.
Having just survived her three daughters’ four weddings in less than two years, Sookie Poole is ready to enjoy some peace at last. She is looking forward to spending her days tending her birdfeeders, relaxing, traveling with her long-suffering husband Earle and caring for her eccentric mother Lenore Simmons Krackenberry. Her biggest concern these days is that one day she will go crazy like all the Simmonses do. There’s a fine line between eccentric and crazy, and in the Simmons family they all end up in the Pleasant Hill Sanitarium eventually. Then, Sookie receives a certified letter and learns a shocking family secret. She begins to search for answers and learns much more about Lenore’s past. Layers of the story unfold and Flagg takes readers back to 1943, Fritzi Jurdabralinski and the women who ran the Phillips 66 gas station in Pulaski, Wisconsin.
This story is a perfect fit for readers who enjoy novels by Adriana Trigiani, Rebecca Wells and Ann B. Ross. The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion is an absolute delight. Like Flagg’s bestselling Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café, this story moves between past and present, telling a family’s story with effervescent humor and irresistible Southern charm.
Just One Year, the sequel to Gayle Forman’s teen novel Just One Day is the conclusion to Allyson and Willem’s whirlwind love story, told this time from Willem’s perspective. Picking up from when Allyson and Willem were separated in Paris, Just One Year follows Willem as he wakes up there, alone, confused and missing Allyson. After their day in Paris, Willem only knows Allyson as Lulu, a nickname he gave her based on her resemblance to actress Louise Brooks. Despite the small amount of time they spent together, their feelings for each other are strong. Just as Allyson searched for Willem, tried to get over him and find herself in Just One Day, Willem does much the same in Just One Year.
As Willem travels the world, readers are taken along on his physical and emotional journey. Those who read both books will see the number of close misses Allyson and Willem had during the year following their single day together in Paris. But most of all, readers will enjoy learning who Willem really is. His secretive nature in Just One Day kept readers and Allyson second-guessing his motives. However in Just One Year, Willem’s character and his struggles are shown, and Forman makes him a relatable character.
For those who have read Just One Day and patiently (or not so patiently) waited for the conclusion, Just One Year will not disappoint. Forman writes a heartfelt end to Allyson and Willem’s love story, which romance fans will enjoy. As an added bonus, readers will feel like they have traveled the world with Allyson and Willem by the end of the two books. As she previously did with If I Stay and Where She Went, Forman does a fabulous job telling one story from two perspectives.
Nick and Maxine are off on another adventure with their babysitter in Mrs. Noodlekugel and Four Blind Mice by Daniel Pinkwater. In this delightful sequel to Mrs. Noodlekugel, the four mice friends make a terrible mess at tea-time, causing Mrs. Noodlekugel to realize that it is time to have them checked by an eye doctor. Nick and Maxine keep Mrs. Noodlekugel and Mr. Fuzzface, her talking cat, company on the bus trip to the oculist’s office. It is a story loaded with whimsy (talking cats), eccentricities (the mice can’t talk, but they do need glasses), and a little bit of mystery. The absurdity of a monkey waiter, mice riding on hats and eye doctors who treat mice will make the reader giggle. An unexpected family reunion ties the story together and provides a neat conclusion.
The charming narrative is broken up into easy-to-manage chapters with large print, making this series a perfect choice for the new chapter book reader. Engaging illustrations by Adam Stower add to the overall appeal. Reminiscent of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, but without the character building lessons, the Mrs. Noodlekugel series is pure fun.
In Sharon Creech’s latest book, The Boy on the Porch, a young couple find a boy asleep on their front porch one day and decide to take him in. The child has a note in his pocket stating: “Plees tak kair of Jacob. He is a good boy. Wil be bak wen we can.” With that little bit of information, John and Marta begin to care for the boy who does not speak, yet communicates to them by tapping and painting pictures such as they’ve never seen before. As the bond between the three of them grows stronger, they all realize that any day someone may take Jacob away from them and tear apart their newly formed family.
Newbery Medal winner Creech effectively uses short chapters and sparse descriptions to draw a wonderfully fleshed out story and characters that are quirky yet totally believable. Jacob stands in for the child that John and Marta never had, but he is also able to bond with the animals on the farm better than the couple ever could. As the story unfolds, all three main characters go through changes that are heartwarming yet never maudlin. The different ways that Jacob is able to share his innermost thoughts and feelings without ever saying a word is both inspirational and eye-opening.
Life on the run might appear glamorous. Travelling to new places, assuming new names and identities, and trying out new living arrangements all seem like obvious perks. But as the young heroines of two new teen novels learn, the truth is far from that.
In The Rules for Disappearing, by Ashley Elston, “Meg” (her latest identity) and her family have been in the Witness Protection Program for eight months, and have already lived in six different places. She is tired of the subpar housing and lifestyle, but mostly she is worried about the toll the program is taking on her family: her mom is drowning her anxieties and depression in alcohol, her little sister is a shell of her former self, and her father seems oblivious to it all. Mainly, Meg just wants to know what her father did to land them in the program in the first place. Elston creates grounded characters, realistic depictions of small-town high school life and a suspenseful mystery that draws the reader in.
In Elizabeth Kiem’s debut novel, Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, Marina is a young dancer living in the lap of luxury in the Soviet Union, thanks to her famous ballerina mother’s connections. But when her mother disappears, Marina and her father must defect to the United States to protect themselves. As Marina tries to continue her dance training, she must also juggle more practical responsibilities, navigate Manhattan and Brooklyn and adapt to the new capitalist culture. At the same time, Soviet secrets are casting a long shadow from halfway around the world, and what her family knows about the government cover-ups becomes the crux of this dark tale. Kiem brings the 1980s landscapes of gritty Brooklyn and frozen Moscow to life with a suspenseful story of overprotected teenager meets international intrigue.
Few writers can jump from one form of media to another and still produce award-winning work, but with his 2013 Hugo Award winning series Saga, Brian K. Vaughan has proven he is one of those rare writing talents. Vaughan is no stranger to accolades; his previous comic book series, Y: the Last Man and Ex Machina, not only won awards but were both optioned for films. His heart-wrenching graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad, looks at the non-human consequences of war.
Vaughan, who has been writing for TV shows like Lost and Under the Dome, and artist Fiona Staples have created a family drama that is half Romeo and Juliet and half Firefly. Saga, Vol. 1 is the tale of two worlds and two species at war. In the midst of the conflict, a man and a woman from opposing sides meet and fall -- slowly and painfully -- in love. They escape their families and their worlds and have a child together. That’s when things get interesting for them. Neither side in the conflict likes what their love and their child represent and make the elimination of the trio a priority.
Saga, Vol. 1 is full of interesting worlds and species, like a slew of bounty hunters out for blood and cash. If the story sounds vaguely familiar, it is given fresh life by Vaughan’s writing and Staples’ art. Vaughan is known for his snappy and often funny dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in a Joss Whedon film. A great deal of the charm of the series is the characters and their interactions, which always come off fresh and, well, human. The first volume follows the initial pursuit and escape.
Vaughan has again found a way to take an unusual concept and tell an incredible story.
Saga is for mature audiences only, due to violence, language and adult situations.
Witnesses. Accomplices. Killers. One thing is clear from Wendy Lower’s chilling new book Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. Regardless of the prism through which German women viewed the Third Reich’s maddening quest for racial purity few escape Lower’s dogged search for the answer to “why?” Why did this “darkest side of female activism” rear its head and consume a generation of women that found themselves thrust into a war they did not want but nonetheless embraced for their own selfishness and ambition.
For the thousands of women coming of age in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the dividing line between home front and battlefront was practically nonexistent. While most women found ways to distance themselves from the violence of the war, a third of the female population was actively engaged in a Nazi Party organization. Many volunteered to be sent to the Eastern Front where some of the worst atrocities against Jews were documented. Clerical, teaching and nursing jobs became the sinister underpinnings of the Nazi machine, where new career tracks beckoned young women seeking a steady paycheck. How these women, some barely out of their teens, others young mothers, evolved into indifferent bystanders or cold-blooded killers, is the thrust of Lower's dramatic account.
Lower sorts her 13 "main characters" into three categories: witnesses, accomplices and killers. It is the latter perpetrators of genocide that evoke the most study. Women like Johanna Altvater, a secretary who lures Jewish children with candy only to shoot them, or Liesel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander who shoots Jewish slave workers from her balcony with her child in tow, are impossible to fathom. Lower, who is a Holocaust historian, explores shocking behaviors like these in this 68-year-old story of one of the most disturbing puzzles of women's behavior. Hitler's Furies has recently been named a finalist for the National Book Award.
Sir Sidney runs a very unusual circus. Children are admitted free, everyone is given complimentary popcorn and lemonade, and he manages to keep his ticket prices to $1 for adults. While this may seem like an odd business model to adults, children will be delighted by The Show Must Go On!, the first book in the Three-Ring Rascals series by Kate Klise. Klise and her sister M. Sarah Klise, who draws the whimsical illustrations, have collaborated on other children’s books including Letters from Camp and Regarding the Fountain and their teamwork makes for a fast-paced story with plenty of pictures.
Sir Sidney loves his circus, but he decides he needs to take a break and advertises for someone to take over for him. Enter Barnabas Brambles, a somewhat shady character who presents his certificate from the University of Piccadilly Circus in London, England to prove he is a “certified lion tamer.” The wary Sir Sidney decides to let Brambles take over the circus for a week on a trial basis. Soon it becomes apparent that Brambles is up to no good, and the plucky performers must act quickly to save their beloved circus. Children who love animals and circuses will find plenty to like, even adults will enjoy the silly humor that is a trademark of the Klise sisters.
Marta has stopped taking her pills. After years of following a routine the way her husband and mother-in-law expect her to, she wants to do something differently and see what happens. She desperately misses her adult son who recently announced his engagement and fears losing him forever. Emma Chapman’s debut novel, How to Be a Good Wife, sends readers down a path of uncertainty where every move Marta makes leads to more questions and even less answers. When her husband dispenses her medication to her, she hides them underneath her tongue, then sneaks them into a grate in the floor. Her days become strange as she frequently finds herself in rooms she doesn’t remember entering, feeling as if she has lost pockets of time and seeing a young, dirty, blonde girl named Elise who seems very, very real. When it appears as if Marta has attempted to abduct a little girl in broad daylight, her family has her committed to a psychiatric facility.
Chapman’s story is unnerving and readers are just as in the dark as Marta. As tiny sprinkles of light begin to open up the secrets of her hazy past, the possible truth of how she came to be Mrs. Marta Bjornstad is shockingly incomprehensible.