Cars on top of boats on top of roofs. Mountains of debris in flattened urban landscapes. Sea-salty inland lakes miles away from the Pacific coastline. These were all fairly common scenes after the March 11, 2011 earthquake off of the northern coast of Japan caused a series of massive tsunami waves that decimated the eastern coast of the Tohoku region. Only months after the disaster first struck, Gretel Ehrlich, an American travel writer, came to personally view, experience, and record the wreckage and the perseverance of the people and places impacted most by the quake and tsunami. Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami is the insightful, poetic, personal chronicle of her expedition.
After she arrives, Ehrlich makes her way slowly up and down the devastated coastline, stopping by villages, cities, temples, and emergency shelters along the way. She comes to see the depth and variety of responses to the catastrophe in the people she meets and those she travels with, especially her drivers and translators, and their families. Through her conversations, the reader gradually realizes how profoundly Japan’s long acquaintance with the tsunami as a natural phenomenon has permeated its culture and worldview. Impermance, uncertainty, and acceptance of what cannot change are rooted in the Japanese character that Ehrlich’s portrayal reveals. Still, moments of happiness and joy punch through the sorrow and anxiety that the author and those she meets experience.
Wrenching, inspiring, and compelling, Facing the Wave is an emotional reminder that even though we may no longer see it mentioned on the nightly news, the aftermath of a disaster of this scale lingers for those who lived through it and those who care enough to remember.
Joan Crawford, move over. Kathi Ruta is here, and her daughter, Domenica “Nikki” Ruta, has penned a memoir every bit as disturbing as Christina Crawford’s. In With or Without You, Ruta recounts a childhood devoid of innocence, as she is both witness to and victim of numerous crimes. Nikki is the only child of single mother Kathi.They live on the Ruta family compound in Massachusetts. Unlike another family compound in wealthy Hyannisport, the clannish Rutas reside on marshland in blue-collar Danvers in dilapidated housing. Kathi is a manicurist, at one point a prosperous car service owner, but most regularly a drug dealer who liberally indulges in her merchandise.
Ruta shares horrifying tales of growing up with Kathi. The squalid living conditions are punctuated by a revolving series of drug-buying customers who serve as surrogate family; one “uncle” is a known pedophile. Kathi promotes drug use, providing Nikki with her first Oxycontin and stuffing her Christmas stocking with a nickel bag. She keeps Nikki home from school to watch classic movies on TV (ironically, a favorite was Mommie Dearest) and harangues her daughter with language that could blister paint off the walls. Yet Kathi knows her intelligent, book-loving daughter deserves more and cobbles together a private school education which includes boarding school and college, partly funded by drug money. During an especially flush period, they travel to Europe.
Dysfunctional parent-child relationships are complicated. Ruta conveys her mother not as one-dimensional, but larger than life and complex; intensely loving and capable of pushing her daughter to succeed conventionally while simultaneously sabotaging her efforts. With her mother’s demons dogging her along the way, Ruta struggles to launch her own adulthood while deciding what role her mother can continue to play in her life. Recent memoirs in this same vein include Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok.
Newbery Award-winning author Karen Cushman has returned to children’s literature with an exceptionally well-crafted tale. In Will Sparrow’s Road, Cushman departs from her characteristically self-sufficient heroines, instead casting a young boy into the role of survivor/protagonist. Will’s is a story of survival, of unlikely friendships and self-discovery and what it means to find one’s place in the world. Runaway Will Sparrow wasn’t always a liar and a thief. There’d been a time when he’d been the village schoolmaster’s son, with a mother who smelled of lavender. That was before his mother abandoned him and his drunken father traded him to an innkeeper for ale. Escaping the innkeeper and his threats, Will finds himself on the road, penniless, hungry and alone. But the road, as life, is not a solitary one and Will soon finds himself in the mixed company of scoundrels and tricksters, the marginally honest and the roughly kind.
When chance brings him to the Oddities and Prodigies tent at a local fair, Will finds himself in a most peculiar company. A disgruntled dwarf, a girl with the face of a cat, a pig named Duchess, and other individuals strange to Will’s experience round out the motley band. Things are not always as they seem however, and soon Will finds himself discerning villains and friends from the most unlikely of quarters.
Devotees of Cushman’s previous historical fiction for children, such as Matilda Bone and The Midwife’s Apprentice, will not be disappointed in this spirited new coming of age story set in Elizabethan England. With her keen eye for detail and meticulous historical research, Cushman paints a realistic depiction of that world, never attempting to sugarcoat the hard-won lot of her characters. Recommended for readers who have enjoyed Avi’s Crispin series, and similar historical tales.
Books about shy children often fail to hit the mark. They treat shyness as something to be overcome, or as a reaction to stress. Eileen Spinelli’s When No One is Watching takes an opposite, celebratory position – a funky little girl tells us how she acts when she is alone “I sing like a bird and I swing to the sky,” and when she’s not: “I hide like the cat alongside the big chair” in rhyming text that swings along with her. Her family and friends don’t appear to be pressuring her to interact, and while she is subdued in the middle of a crowd, she is certainly a happy child. Her “best friend Loretta’s shy, too” and she describes the ways that they have fun together.
If this were merely an affirming, positive book about a shy child, it would be a nice find. However, illustrator David A. Johnson’s pen and ink and watercolor art makes each two-page spread a dance of mood and expressive gesture. His elegant lines describe movement with economy and grace, and show off every exuberant contortion of our shy little girl’s active inner life.
Many adults say that reading Judy Blume’s novels was a rite of passage during their adolescence. Her books are known for being authentic to the experiences of children and teens. She has never shied away from writing about real issues, and she has won numerous prestigious awards throughout her career. Blume is a cultural icon whose books have sold more than 80 million copies and have been translated into 31 languages, but they had never been adapted into a feature film. That will change this June when a film version of Tiger Eyes, which was originally published in 1981, is released in theaters. After 15-year-old Davey’s father is killed in a convenience store robbery, her mother decides to move the family to New Mexico. There, Davey meets a mysterious boy named Wolf, who seems to be the only person who understands Davey’s anger and pain. Slowly, Davey begins to deal with her grief and learns to live this new life. At its heart, Tiger Eyes is a story about the Davey facing the sudden loss of someone she loves. Blume, who related to the story because of the sudden loss of her own father, brings authenticity to Davey’s experience.
The film version of Tiger Eyes was directed by Blume’s son Lawrence, who also co-wrote the screenplay with his mother. Both Judy and Lawrence were recently interviewed by Chelsea Clinton on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams. Fans will be excited to learn that in that interview Blume revealed that she is currently working on a new novel for adults.
Trust is the often the hardest thing to give to someone, and choosing the wrong person to trust can lead to a loss of power and even danger. Sharon Draper looks at teens and trust in Panic, the latest novel from the award-winning and best-selling author. Diamond is a dancer who wants to become a star. When a friendly man looking for his teen daughter approaches her in the mall, she is quickly drawn in by his openness and admiration of her grace and beauty. He tells her he is a movie producer and invites her to audition for him. She hesitates at first, but the bitterness of losing a recent lead role to another dancer prompts her to go with him. This one bad decision may cost her everything. Diamond's family, friends, and fellow dancers are all shocked at her disappearance, and each deals with it in different ways. Many take a look at their own choices, realizing that they are not always as smart or as safe as they think they are.
Draper has created a compelling story, equal parts mystery and introspection. Relationships between characters—parent and child, boyfriend and girlfriend, and between sisters—are varied and ever-changing. The message is clear: Giving your trust is equal to giving your power away to someone else. When it is given to the wrong person, what can be done to get it back? Fans of realistic teen fiction will enjoy this thought-provoking novel.
Alice Munro is often described as “one of the best living writers of short stories in the English language”. While that may be said to avoid too many comparisons as to who is truly the best, the qualifiers are really not necessary. This is proven with her latest collection, Dear Life. In interviews, Munro states that a few of this set of stories are her most autobiographical.
One of the most striking aspects of Munro’s stories is the misdirection she frequently provides. Just as the reader is settling in on what is believed to be the main character or main idea of a story, a tangent takes one off into a myriad of different directions. Often taking place in the area Munro knows best, rural Ontario near Lake Huron, these are mostly slice-of-life stories about regular people. In “Haven”, for example, a young girl goes to live with her aunt and uncle, two very different people from her missionary parents. Her eyes are opened to another way of life, and her childhood ends. Another story, “Pride”, describes two small-town misfits who eventually forge an uneasy friendship. The male protagonist explains his female acquaintance as having a “strange hesitation and lightness about her, as if she were waiting for life to begin. She went away on trips of course, and maybe she thought it would begin there. No such luck.”
The author tucks those sorts of breathtaking lines throughout the fourteen stories. Travel, especially by train, takes on a large role, likely a metaphor for our lifelong journeys. The final, titular story, certainly one of the most autobiographical, has many interwoven themes. But above all, the wordplay of Munro’s own dear life, while she has witnessed so many holding on for dear life, leaves readers in awe of her writing powers.
In Becky Masterman’s chilling debut thriller Rage Against the Dying, heroine Brigid Quinn spent her FBI career hunting the worst sexual predators. She is tough and self-reliant. After Brigid was forced to take early retirement from the FBI, she left that world behind entirely. Now, she now lives a quiet life with her new husband Carlo and their two pugs. Former priest Carlo knows little about that life or the person Brigid was before they met. Everything changes when Brigid’s past comes crashing into her present. A man named Floyd Lynch is arrested, and he confesses to being the Route 66 Killer. That case was one of the worst of Brigid’s career, resulting in the disappearance of her protégé Jessica. Lynch knows some key details that were never publicized, and he leads authorities to Jessica’s mummified remains. However, Brigid has reason to believe that his confession is false. Soon, Brigid realizes that she is being stalked, and she must find the killer to save herself.
Rage Against the Dying, which Masterman originally titled One Tough Broad, brings an exciting new character to the thriller world. Masterman says that her debut novel is “in some respects like a coming-of-age novel for an older woman.” Although 59-year-old Brigid is very confident in her strength and abilities, she is still learning about being a wife and friend. Masterman, whose previous career was in forensic textbook publishing, brings a level of realism to the brutal crimes that Brigid has seen. Rage Against the Dying is the kind of thriller that keeps readers up late at night and might make them sleep with the lights on.
The renowned author of African literature, Chinua Achebe, has died in Boston at the age of 82. He is best-known for his seminal 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, read by millions worldwide, and featured in the curriculum and reading lists of countless high schools and universities. This novel follows the life of Okonkwo, a proud Igbo man living in turn of the 19th century Nigeria, and the cultural changes that he must face and accept as British colonialism takes hold of the area and the only life he knows. Achebe also wrote a number of follow-up novels to this groundbreaking story. Confined to a wheelchair for the past twenty years following a car accident, he lived in the United States for the last two decades of his life, and was a professor of African Studies at Brown University in Providence.
Achebe also was a strong proponent of the rights of the people living in the once-breakaway Nigerian state of Biafra. His book There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra was published last year. Explaining the Nigerian civil war that took place in the late 1960s, this mélange of memoir and history reminded the world of an oft-forgotten war. Achebe also wrote an allegorical folktale which was republished last year with Mary GrandPré's illustrations. How the Leopard Got His Claws tells the story of a short-lived coup and the resulting return of the original power players, in terms that are understandable for all ages.
In his first novel, Ghostman, Roger Hobbs creates an exciting world of double dealing, casino heists, crime bosses and an intriguing main character caught in the middle. The Ghostman goes by many aliases and stays separate from the rest of the world. He is careful not to live in one location for very long, has no close associates, and doesn’t maintain a phone line or a personal email. He refuses to use his real name, but when a message comes to him for the persona Jack Delton, he knows that someone is contacting him to collect a debt. Years ago, the Ghostman made a fatal error during a heist in Kuala Lumpur, and Marcus, the mastermind of the heist, was sent to prison. Now Marcus has discovered a way to contact the Ghostman and he demands to be repaid with a very dangerous proposition involving stolen money from an Atlantic City casino. The money was newly printed by the Federal Reserve and contained a dye pack that will explode within the next two days. Marcus needs to find the thief and the cash, and contacts Ghostman with the general schematics of the plan. But plans with criminals can easily go awry, and soon our hapless anti-hero attracts the attention of a crime boss known at the Wolf as well as a rather tenacious FBI agent. It will take a great deal of nerve and every trick at his disposal in order to come out alive.
The story is fast-paced and exciting. It unfolds in present day Atlantic City with the current plan of action, but interspersed are chapters told in flashback and the reader learns the history behind Ghostman’s debt to Marcus. Ghostman is a fantastic thriller that looks into the heart of the criminal world and examines what it takes to survive in such a hostile environment. Roger Hobbs is a new writer to watch, and is sure to please fans of nail-biting suspense.