The cover of Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals leaves little doubt that this is a novel about partying. In fact, most of the book involves drinking and debauchery in engrossing detail. But what isn’t readily apparent from the cover is that this novel is a moving love letter to our best friends and their lasting impact on our lives. It also begs the question: Can our best friends and our significant others peacefully co-exist in the biggest spaces of our hearts?
Laura is engaged to Jim, a concert pianist. When Jim drops the bombshell on Laura that he’s stopping drinking forever, Laura tries to temper her partying ways. She is largely unsuccessful thanks to Tyler, her roommate and best friend. Tyler is a one-woman tornado of hilarious in-jokes, jaw-dropping nerve and quite a recreational drug habit. Laura finds it difficult to resist Tyler’s siren song of endless good times and, although her upcoming wedding hangs in the balance, she finds her late-night capers with her best friend a hard habit to break.
Animals explores the definition of what it means to emerge into one’s 30s and more solid adulthood. Laura’s choices about her career as a struggling writer, her relationship with Jim and her friendship with Tyler are in a state of flux; instead of moving forward, she refuses to move anywhere. This is not a novel for the squeamish, but one for those who can relate to Laura’s struggle in realizing that in her desperation to keep the party going, she may be erasing her best times ahead. Once we get on with the societal expectations of marriage and family, is the party truly over?
At the same time brash and literary, Unsworth’s writing style is an exciting treat for those looking for something a little different in 2016.
Paradise City by Elizabeth Day introduces us to four characters leading seemingly disparate lives: a businessman, a journalist, a maid and a widow.
Howard Pink owns a successful fashion brand in London. He immerses himself in his work and various sexual escapades to distract himself from his inward grieving — his 19-year-old daughter Ada went missing years ago, and at this point he has no choice but to presume she is dead. Stories of Howard Pink’s personal life are often splashed all over the pages of various London newspapers, as journalists are eager to show a glimpse into the tragic self-made millionaire’s life.
Esme Reade is one such journalist, though after years of unfulfilling work she lacks the motivation and passion she once had for her job — until her editor gives her a rare opportunity to take Howard Pink out for a formal lunch. Esme unexpectedly connects with Howard and learns that other journalists have barely scratched the surface of his tragic personal life.
Beatrice Kizza is a maid at the hotel where Howard Pink is staying. She fled her home in Uganda out of fear of being persecuted for her homosexuality. However, when she is assigned to clean Howard’s room, their interaction causes her to reevaluate her life, her misery and the opportunities she could take advantage of.
Recently widowed Carol Wetherington finds the loneliness unbearable. Carol wants to set up her daughter, a single mother, with her next door neighbor Alan in the hopes that her daughter will find the same love and companionship she once had. When Alan asks Carol if she can water his plants while he is out of town, she finds that he actually is far from the type of person her daughter should be with, and makes a discovery that changes the course of her grieving entirely.
Day weaves her characters’ stories together with universal themes of love, loss, fulfillment and redemption, showing innate connections of human experience that surpass outward appearance. Despite the differences in Howard's, Esme's, Beatrice's and Carol’s backgrounds, their stories each have a similar emotional resonance to them. Day’s character-driven novel has light mystery undertones, and becomes steadily more engrossing from start to finish.
Looking for a good mystery filled with offbeat characters and British wit? Then you must read The Man on the Washing Machine by Susan Cox. Winner of the 2014 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Novel Competition, this story hooks you from the very first page and continues to keep you guessing to the very end. Not dark or brooding in the least, this story is lighthearted and definitely fun to read.
Life in the quaint San Francisco neighborhood of Fabian Gardens, with its friendly neighbors and shared private garden, is just what Theo Bogart needs. So she thinks. Having fled her socialite life in England after a family tragedy, Theo lives under an assumed name as a partner in a toiletries shop. Just what the doctor ordered — life filled with the mundane tasks of running a business, while enjoying the company of her neighbors. Normal people with normal problems, including a jewelry designer with thinning hair, an overconfident surgeon, a depressed bakery owner and a garden designer obsessed with compost. But then local handyman Tim Callahan falls to his death from a third story window. Was he pushed? Why and by whom? Then, a man mysteriously appears on Theo’s washing machine. Who is he? Why did he not attack her? Odd behavior for an intruder, to say the least. As Theo becomes obsessed with finding this mysterious man, yet another murder occurs. Meanwhile, her business partner disappears and strange crates belonging to her business emerge. What is going on in Fabian Gardens? How involved are Theo’s friends? Who can she trust? Perhaps she is not the only one with a secret.
Fans of Agatha Christie novels and British comedies will enjoy Cox’s debut offering. She fills her pages with characters who keep you guessing and wit galore. Figuring out the mystery is only half the fun of this read. Learning about the residents of Fabian Gardens is definitely the other half.
In his engrossing new novel The Great Forgetting, James Renner takes us on a part sci-fi, part-conspiracy, part-thriller journey with Jack Felter, a 30-something-year-old history teacher who tries to have as little to do with his family and hometown as possible. Jack doesn’t want to see his father, who is suffering from severe dementia. He feels guilty for not helping his older sister, who has become their father’s primary caretaker. Most of all, he doesn’t want to see his ex-girlfriend Sam, who just dumped him for his childhood best friend Tony.
However, when Jack gets a phone call from his sister saying that their father’s dementia is getting even worse, Jack feels that he has no choice but to return home and help out. Once there, Jack finds some surprising news: not only are Sam and Tony no longer together, but Tony has gone missing and is presumably dead. Sam refuses to believe the police’s claims that Tony committed suicide and pleads for Jack’s help in solving the mystery. Sam claims that Tony was behaving oddly just before he went missing, and through looking at Tony’s journals and notes as a psychologist, Sam realizes that Tony may have been more than just a little influenced by one of his last patients. Jack investigates further and decides to meet with this patient, a 15-year-old teenage boy who believes the government has been brainwashing citizens and altering their memories to forget certain historical events they would rather keep secret.
Through Tony’s journal entries, his meetings with Tony’s last patient and flashbacks to his childhood, Jack slowly starts learning about the conspiracies Tony believed and starts wondering if the impossible is actually possible. If the government was brainwashing us in an elaborate conspiracy to make us forget what would have otherwise been a major historical event, who would be able to confirm or deny it? How much can we even trust our own memories, when our brains can be so selective about what to remember and what to forget? Renner’s book is fast-paced and intriguing as it answers these questions, seamlessly blending history, psychology and science fiction into one compelling read.
A Wild Swan is Michael Cunningham’s new collection of reimagined fairy tales, and though they may look familiar at first glance, Cunningham offers a completely new angle. He examines the flat characters who have been doing the same things for centuries, and gives them motives, neuroses and secrets.
In the chapter “Beasts,” Cunningham offers up a very different interpretation of Beauty and the Beast. In this version, Beauty is not some impossibly selfless ingénue. It is her vanity, her sense that she is too good for her village, and in fact her family, that leads her to the beast’s castle. She believes that anything that happens to her there can be no worse than the tedium of her daily chores and the dull assortment of village men she is expected to choose a husband from. When she finds that the beast means to ignore her, she becomes bored with life at the enchanted castle. Released, she goes back to her village only to find that everyone believes she has actually been away to hide some sort of disgrace, and she is treated like a social pariah. This is truly what makes her decide she can love the beast. Once transformed, we discover the beast hadn’t been the unfortunate victim of a horrible curse by an unreasonable old shrew either.
Cunningham peels back the layers behind each character to offer up a completely different kind of tale for modern readers. He delves a little deeper, beyond the happily ever after and into the hasty marriages, the toll a wish granted can take and the occasional need for a curse.
Like the originals by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, there is an enchanting combination of hope and horror in each tale. The stories take place in a hybrid of folktale villages and the modern world. The characters face old-world problems with modern sensibilities to delightful effect.
The prologue, aptly titled “Dis. Enchant,” reminds readers that at least a part of fairy tales’ timeless appeal is the cruel justice in them. They are often about terrible things happening to those who have been too lavishly blessed with beauty or good luck. In that sense, there is a certain kind of balance restored when these characters are cursed with wings and whatnot. This collection is wickedly fun and will appeal to fans of fairy tales or simply well told short stories.
The illustrations by Yuko Shimizu are a perfect accompaniment, both lovely and haunting.
In her debut novel Cleopatra’s Shadows, Emily Holleman took it upon herself to focus not on the mythological and lauded Cleopatra herself, but rather her two sisters — one younger, one elder. One her beloved, one her father’s enemy. The two focal characters are the usurping queen Berenice the Shining, and the small, almost entirely neglected Arsinoe. Weaving back and forth fluidly in alternating chapters named “Elder” and “Younger,” Holleman tells the tale of a tense three-year period in the fading Ptolemaic dynasty as Berenice orders a coup on her own father in order to claim his throne as her own and rule Egypt as she believes is her right. As Berenice reigns, she takes on every luxury and every horror her station can provide, all with determination to be seen as a strong and unwavering ruler. Meanwhile, 8-year-old Arsinoe attempts to make peace with the fact that anyone she ever loved abandoned her during the coup, reaching out at first meekly and then with desperation to the few caretakers and friends still within the palace walls. Despite her efforts, her nights are dogged with dreams that seem to predict not her own destruction, but the destruction she may cause.
Holleman has done a fantastic job focusing in closely and personally on characters that history leaves mostly to our imagination. Her efforts to bring humanity and empathy to these two lives lived and actions committed in such an era are remarkable. If you’re looking to indulge in some Game of Thrones-esque dramatic history led by two strong female narrators, Cleopatra’s Shadows is an excellent choice.
After his success with What If?, Randall Munroe is back to tackle yet another aspect of science in everyday life — exactly how is the world around us constructed? In Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, Munroe delves into the workings of our world, from the insides of our cells to our solar system and a lot of what’s in between.
Munroe states in the introduction that “…there are lots of other books that explain what things are called. This book explains what they do.” So this book won’t help you pass a vocabulary test or memorize the terminology, but it will explain in simple terms how a lot of the world around us functions. And this is on purpose — Munroe crafted a list of the “ten hundred” most used words in the English language and then restricted himself to only using those words in the book. So instead of the Curiosity Rover diagram or Human Torso diagram, Munroe breaks down the Red World Space Car and Bags of Stuff inside You (by the way, this book has forever changed how I view bags).
It may seem slightly ridiculous or humorous to be discussing boats that go under the sea (submarines) and food-heating radio boxes (microwaves), but Munroe is known for balancing scientific fact and innovation with humor, and this book is no different. His blue and white sketches of the items he’s discussing include funny little asides from his stick-figure illustrations on almost every page.
Even still, his depictions of these engineering marvels are anything but ridiculous. Thing Explainer is a fascinating and stimulating read for all ages, letting us remember to appreciate the world around us because it’s a lot more complicated than it may seem on the surface. Even if we can explain it in ten hundred simple words.
Shawn Stout takes a break from her popular Penelope Crumb series to introduce young readers to Frankie Baum in her engaging new middle grade novel A Tiny Piece of Sky. It is 1939 in Hagerstown, Maryland, and Frankie Baum, the youngest of three sisters, is wondering if her German-born father really is a spy. Newbery Honor and National Book Award-winner, Kathi Appelt raves about this captivating coming-of-age story, “At turns hilarious, at turns heartbreaking, Shawn Stout’s story shows us the damage that a whisper campaign can do to a family and a community, and at the same time shows us, each of us, a way to find our hearts.”
Between the Covers: What was the inspiration behind A Tiny Piece of Sky?
Shawn Stout: A Tiny Piece of Sky was inspired by the lives of my grandparents, Albert and Mildred Beck, and their three daughters, in the 1930s. My grandfather, the son of German parents, was a restaurant owner and businessman in Hagerstown, Maryland, and amidst the post-WWI anti-German hysteria, he was falsely accused of being a Nazi spy. Following those accusations, there was an organized boycott of his restaurant, which sent him and my grandmother into a financial crisis and contributed to my grandfather’s early death.
I grew up listening to my mother’s stories about her family’s restaurant, about the rumors of espionage and about the boycott. Many decades later, after my grandmother died, we were cleaning out her apartment and found letters dated 1939 from local civic organizations, which voiced their support for my grandfather and his restaurant, and denounced the accusations that he was a German spy. I held onto those letters and knew that one day I would write about their story.
BTC: Frankie is Number Three, the youngest of three sisters and yet she is spunky and fun. Is her character autobiographical in any way? The sisterly relationships are so real. Did you draw on real life experience from your own family?
SS: Like Frankie, I’m a Number Three, so I do know what it feels like to be the last to do everything. (It doesn’t feel so great, let me tell you.) I certainly heard a lot of “No, you’re not old enough,” when I was a kid, so I can relate to Frankie’s frustrations. But that’s where our similarities end, I think. Frankie is much more adventurous than I was at her age, and she has a lot more gumption. Gumption. I love that word.
The relationship between the Baum sisters was really fun to write. I don’t think I consciously drew on any experiences from my own life, but it’s hard to say where things come from when I’m writing. Having an older brother and sister, though, has definitely helped shape who I am and made me sensitive to the dynamics between siblings.
BTC: You did an amazing job of capturing the feeling of life in a small city during the war. What kind of research did you do to create this authentic setting? What is your writing process like?
SS: Before I wrote a single word, I read a lot of books about pre-WWII era in the United States, and about anti-German sentiment and the super-patriotism of the time. I listened to radio broadcasts from the 1930s like “The Shadow” and dug up newsreels and local newspaper articles. I also interviewed family members and those few still living who worked at my grandparents’ restaurant in the 1930s. To get a feel for the place, I was able to find photographs dated 1938 of the restaurant and staff, as well as advertising postcards, matchbooks and an original menu.
My writing process is different for each book. For this one, I started out with the research and tried to immerse myself in the period. Then, once I felt as though I had enough of a handle on the time and place, I started writing. I knew I wanted to tell the story mostly through the youngest Baum’s eyes — Frankie’s — so I started with her character until I could find her voice. When I found it, the story started to take off.
BTC: One of the most impressive feats in this book is your ability to address injustice through Frankie’s eyes without preaching. So many children’s books seem to feel a need to teach a lesson and become didactic. How do you let the reader come to his/her own conclusion and avoid lecturing?
SS: That’s a great question. I try to stay inside my characters’ head as much as I can and let them react to what happens in the story as it unfolds. Honestly, as I’m writing, I’m rarely thinking about the reader — my focus is on the story and the characters — so the idea of teaching lessons or morals doesn’t ever occur to me. I learn so much about the world through my characters as I’m writing, so there’s no place for me, as the author, to preach to anyone.
BTC: What were some of your favorite books as a child and what do you tell children who ask for advice on how to be a writer?
SS: My favorite book as a child was The Secret Garden, but I read everything I could get my hands on. I was also in love with Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. I still am, actually.
BTC: Will you share with our readers some of your favorite things about living in Maryland?
SS: I grew up in Maryland and continue to love living here for many reasons — watching the seasons change, being close to both the mountains and the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, and enjoying its eclectic cities. Maryland has so much to offer. I’ve lived here all my life and still haven’t explored everything.
BTC: What can your fans look forward to next?
SS: I’m working on a new middle grade novel, but it’s too early in the process to talk about it in very much detail. I will say that it has to do with a lonely girl, an unkindness of ravens and a bit of old magic.
Jo Franklin’s book I’m an Alien and I Want to Go Home begins with Daniel Kendal’s sister telling him, “You’re an alien, abandoned on Earth by your alien parents.” It’s a typical nasty remark that siblings say to each other but to Daniel, the statement makes sense. He is tall and lanky with brown hair and eyes. His parents and siblings are all short and stocky blonds with blue eyes. There are no baby pictures of Daniel, and the final bit of evidence comes from a paper clipping his mother saved regarding some sort of unidentified object crashing to earth the day Daniel was born. All of these factors make Daniel feel certain that he is an alien and needs to go home.
With the help of his two best friends, Eddie and Gordon, Daniel figures out that he must be from a distant planet known as Kepler22b. The problem is how can he contact his ‘real parents’ and get back to his home planet. Through a series of hilarious misadventures including a bizarre encounter with a group of self-proclaimed alien abductees, the trio set out to find a way to send Daniel to Kepler22b.
For any young people who have ever felt like they didn’t fit in, Daniel’s quest to get back to where he thinks he really belongs is both relatable and humorous. Franklin’s short chapter punctuated with clever dialogue and Marty Kelley’s quirky illustrations make this book a great choice in particular for reluctant readers.