Navigating the trials of fifth grade is tough enough: tough teachers, difficulties with friends, avoiding bullies and trying to stay “cool” in front of all your peers. In Jennifer Richard Jacobson’s new novel Paper Things, 11-year-old Arianna Hazard has all these complications coupled with the fact that she and her 18-year-old brother Gage are currently homeless.
Ari prefers to think that their situation is temporary; Gage had promised when they left their guardian’s house that he had an apartment lined up just for them, but that was over two months ago. Ari has to spend her nights wondering whose couch they will crash on next or where she can hang up her school uniform. Ari had promised her dying mother that she would get into Carter Middle School, a school for gifted children. Unable to find quiet places to study, she’s behind on her schoolwork and hasn’t even touched her application. Instead, she’s trying to ignore the comments from her classmates that her hair is greasy and that she smells bad.
Can Arianna find any stability in a world where she needs to protect her cherished folder of cutouts from catalogues amidst a shelter of preteen girls? Will she gain the trust of the teachers at her school enough to earn a leadership position to get into Carter, even when she’s failing her classes? Will she and Gage get what they want most — a home of their own?
Parents and teachers looking for a good resource for children in difficult circumstances will find this novel to be a great teachable moment about empathy, kindness and perseverance. Two other great novels that shed light on homeless children are Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan and Almost Home by Joan Bauer; both would make great companion pieces to read along Paper Things.
It's one thing to be able to describe a debilitating chronic illness; it's another to do so in language so contemplative that the words seem to hover over the page for their raw honesty. Anna Lyndsey (pseudonym) has written her illness-inspired memoir Girl in the Dark about living with a rare light sensitivity so severe it plunges her into a self-imposed darkness. "How do you write about having to live entirely in the dark?" she asks. Lyndsey does it by sectioning her narrative thoughtfully, giving readers a brief cast into her physical and emotional daily, personal life that is as candid as it is hopeful and full of love.
To say Lyndsey's illness has isolated her would be an understatement. The former British civil servant was fine until one day about 10 years ago she realized she could no longer tolerate light. It starts with the computer screen, which makes her face burn like “someone is holding a flamethrower to my head.” Eventually, her whole body is affected until she is left with no choice but to make her footprint smaller, something easier said than done. She refers to her bedroom as her lair. “I slipped between the walls of my dark room with nothing but relief,” she says. Life is a constant adjustment. Doctors can’t help, nor can her supportive mother and brother. Her rock is her companion-turned-husband Pete who never wavers, bringing her talking books and melding into the new normal.
Lyndsey’s story is not so much about the unusualness of her illness as it is about living as humanely as possible with it. Eschewing strict chronological order, Lyndsey instead delivers up short, poetic essays on various subjects. For readers drawn to the fragility of the human condition, Lyndsey’s remarkable storytelling becomes a fertile ground for resiliency when the impossible becomes possible.
Earlier this year, we lost one of the greats. Terry Pratchett was a satirist worthy of being commented on in the same breath as Mark Twain. The only British author to outsell him was J.K. Rowling. Pratchett wasn't always huge though, and that's how you arrive full circle at The Dragons at Crumbling Castle by Terry Pratchett. It is a collection of the short stories that Sir Terry first published when he was just a starting journalist for the Bucks Free Press.
Most of Pratchett's infamy comes from the Discworld, a world carried on the back of four elephants which naturally stand on the back of a massive turtle. The Discworld gave birth to Rincewind, the least magical wizard ever, an orangutan librarian, a kind but often confused Death, witches, watchmen and dozens upon dozens of novels — and wordplay so brilliant that no one can catch every nuance on the first reading. (Fortunately there's enough in every book to make multiple readings an entirely enjoyable venture.) The Discworld exists as a satire of the world we live in, covering everything from holidays, feminism, religion and a million other sacred cows poked with both anger and understanding. Pratchett came to be known for fantasy that hit close to home. The Dragons of Crumbling Castle is far closer to home.
Meet corrupt small town politicians cooking the local egg dancing competition. There is a pet tortoise that only wants freedom. The book has wacky races and the enduring question of what Santa Claus would do if he wasn't Santa Claus. (Apparently, nothing well.) Two of the stories here went on to lead to Sir Terry's first novel The Carpet People, about tiny, tiny people who live amongst the strands of the carpet fiber and are forced to move when the Fray gets too close. It turns out that even when he was young, Pratchett understood that the world was more than slightly mad. These are light enough stories that I'd recommend them for parents reading to their children, and the entire book has been enthusiastically illustrated by Mark Beech.
We're not done with Pratchett yet. He has at least two more finished books coming out this year.
In Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, Jennifer Chiaverini proves once again that she is an amazing writer of historical fiction. She manages to capture the feeling of a particular era and also give her characters authentic voices. This time her subjects are Julia Dent Grant, wife of Ulysses S. Grant, and Jule Dent, lady’s maid and slave of Mrs. Grant.
Chiaverini’s story spans the years before, during and after the Civil War and is told from both Julia Grant’s and Jule’s points of view. We witness young Julia and Jule growing up together on the Dent plantation in Missouri where they seem to be best friends. However, their relationship quickly changes as the girls become young women and Julia begins to treat Jule more like a servant and less like a friend. Throughout the many years they spend together, Julia never seems aware of how much Jule would like to be her own woman, to make her own decisions and to be free. As Chiaverini portrays her, Julia believes that slaves are happy with their lot in life. When Jule expresses her desire to be a free woman, Julia is incredulous, saying to her, “You had a roof over your head and plenty to eat,” as if these are valid reasons for Jule to remain enslaved. Even after marrying Ulysses Grant, whose Ohio family are abolitionists, Julia still cannot believe that freeing slaves is a good idea.
Whether or not Julia Grant took quite so long to comprehend the evils of slavery, Chiaverini uses her as a representation of what many slaveholders of the day may have felt. After the Civil War ended and all slaves were freed, these newly emancipated people faced a very uncertain future as demonstrated by Jule. She struggles to make her own way in the world, and although it is not an easy path, she reflects that at least she now is free to choose which path to take.
Another great thing that Chiaverini does in her book is include the titles of the sources she used to research her subjects so the reader can find out more about Julia, Jule and the other historical characters that are referenced. As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War draws to a close, this book is a great way to understand how the events during that time period effected both famous and everyday people’s lives.
Jessica Knoll's new adult fiction novel Luckiest Girl Alive is set in the same area where she grew up. Her protagonist also has the same profession Knoll used to hold. It’s probably because of this that her book is so rich with description and such vivid imagery.
TifAni grew up with a mother who always wanted what was best for her, but not necessarily what would make her happy. When in college she met her best friend Nell, who showed her how to manipulate people to get what was in her best interest. It was a combination of these two figures that helped TifAni create the “perfect” life for herself.
It was during high school that TifAni experienced a severe trauma. In order to distance herself from her past, TifAni changed her name to Ani when she went to college. Ani has always tried to fill her gaping emotional gap with possessions and prestige. After college, Ani went on to have a prominent job at a well-known women's magazine, a fiancé with old money and starves herself into a coveted size zero. Despite how perfect her life may seem to someone on the outside, nothing can smother the pain left by her teenage trauma.
This character driven account of one woman's desire to get all she's ever wanted is disturbingly candid. As you follow the bread crumbs through the story, you slowly gather more details of what TifAni went through as a troubled teen – and just when you think you've figured her out, she throws you a curve.
The Golden Age of Hollywood introduced us to luminary icons of the 20th century whose influence radiates to this day; perhaps none more than Audrey Hepburn. Edward Epstein’s new biography Audrey and Bill focuses on Hepburn’s brief affair with the “Golden Boy” of Hollywood, William “Bill” Holden.
Unlike today when we are inundated with facts about celebrities every time we turn on our TV’s, computers or phones, the publicists of the 1950s worked overtime to insure the personal lives of the studio’s stars did not invade the public consciousness. And while Audrey and Bill’s whirlwind romance that blossomed when they met on the set of the Billy Wilder classic Sabrina was well-known in Hollywood circles, it was kept largely out of the public eye.
Epstein sheds light on the fact that their affair, though brief, shaped many of both Audrey and Bill’s relationships and marriages moving forward in their lives. Both actors, however, never really turned out to be very happy in love despite their tremendous professional successes.
There’s plenty more gossip about some of the biggest names of the 20th century in this book that will not disappoint the curious: Humphrey Bogart hated both of his costars! Nancy Reagan tattled to Bill’s wife about his numerous affairs! Bill dated Grace Kelly! Audrey sang to JFK on his last birthday to take away from the intense scrutiny from the Marilyn Monroe version the year before!
At times, the book reads like two separate biographies, following each actor through their career missteps and triumphs, through other relationships, children and illnesses. Holden’s death in 1980 due to liver disease and Hepburn’s death in 1993 due to cancer are also chronicled.
Perfect beach reading for those who are fans of either star, or just interested in the Hollywood glamour of a bygone era, will find this story of Audrey and Bill a compelling look into the romantic lives of two of Hollywood’s greatest stars.
Victorian London was a nasty place to be if you had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of the economic divide. It gets worse, however, if you're stuck in a part of town where there's a bogle – nebulous, unpredictable monsters who eat children left alone. Get stuck while sweeping a chimney? There might be a bogle there ready to eat you. Go down to fetch something from the cellar? Better hope that if you're alone, you're really alone. There is only one way to hunt bogles, and that's to bait a trap with a child who must sing with their back to the bogle until the bogle is exposed enough to be killed by a poisoned weapon. As bogles descend upon London, Catherine Jinks has woven a light but effective bit of period horror in A Plague of Bogles.
Jem Barbary has his sights set on the prestigious job, at least by the level of unlucky London, job of bogler's boy. He wants to be the bait for Alfred Bunce, London's only remaining bogler, semi-retired. After the events of How to Catch a Bogle, Jem has decided to give up crime. He used to be a pickpocket in a Fagin ring, but he hasn't given up playing whatever angle he can think of. Unfortunately, that seems to involve a whole lot of lying and leading publicity back to people who'd rather keep their heads down. He's also out for revenge against his former mistress, Sarah Pickles.
Like a good ghost story, A Plague of Bogles is both scary and fun. London is full of colorful characters trying to survive on a few cents a day. Street patter is used so fluidly that there's a large glossary at the end of the book just to make the dialogue clear. Jem Barbary and all the supporting cast are great characters, wildly flawed but determined. The standout passages, though, go to the bogle hunting. Every single time is a slow boil, impending, but certain, doom creeping up until just the last moment when everything snaps like a mousetrap.
Ten years after an assassin’s bullet takes her husband’s life, Diane Fairmount champions the cause of his fledgling political party, The Common Way, in Brian Freeman’s suspense novel Season of Fear. Attractive, popular and topping the polls, it looks like Diane is destined to become Florida’s new Governor. When an insidious voice echoes from the past, Diane turns to her best friend Tarla Bolton, whose son is former FBI agent turned private investigator Cab Bolton. Cab explores beneath the hype and unearths dirty tricks, long-buried secrets and political machinations. There are right-wing extremists, covert political operations and the murder of a young political operative. Has Cab revealed a right-wing terrorist, or is it a shrewd plot to lead him off target? Teaming with political researcher Peach Piper, Cab must race against time to stop the killer. For there is another havoc on the horizon – a hurricane is bearing down on Tampa, Florida, and it just might permanently bury the evidence.
Brian Freeman has created a cross between Jack Reacher and Richard Castle; handsome, wealthy and dynamic. It’s impossible not to root for Peach, a deeply troubled young woman determined to avenge her friend’s death. Part complex political thriller, part intense police procedural, Freeman weaves a web of intrigue that will leave you gasping for air. Move over Virgil Flowers, and make room for Cab Bolton.
Brian Freeman is the internationally best-selling author of psychological suspense novels, including The Cold Nowhere, Spilled Blood and the The Burying Place. Brian's debut thriller Immoral won the Macavity Award and was a nominee for the Edgar, Dagger, Anthony, and Barry awards for best first novel. Cab Bolton first appears in The Bone House.
There is a certain kind of mad science that takes great joy in things exploding, imploding, melting, burning and otherwise flying around violently. If that sounds exciting, Randall Munroe's What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is for you. The answers are fast, easily understood and amusingly illustrated.
A former NASA engineer, Munroe has made his name as the creator of xkcd, one of the most successful webcomics. Three times a week he releases a strip, or something like a strip, (there have been some really wild experiments on the art form that will never be printable in any meaningful way). He covers science, mathematics, engineering, computer programming, romance, language, pop culture and velociraptors. As a public figure who is recognized as being good at science, he gets a lot of questions on scientific ideas, and has compiled quite a few of those questions into a book.
Questions answered here include:
- Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns?
- If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?
- From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked by the time it hit the ground?
Munroe then proceeds to answer most of these questions with three to five pages of information, full of gleefully horrifying explosions, scientific laws, formulas and an explanation of how he got the answer based on experiments people have done before. Also included are the surprisingly complex stick figure drawings he uses to illustrate his webcomic. The result is quick, smart and guaranteed to make you the life of the party.
And for a palette cleanser, also included are several of the questions that didn't make it into the book, such as:
Would it be possible to stop a volcanic eruption by placing a bomb (thermobaric or nuclear) underneath the surface?
What if everyone in Great Britain went to one of the coasts and started paddling? Could they move the island at all?
Apparently, there are questions so ridiculous that they don't need answers.
“Shots have been fired at the high school. Calmly report to St. Michael’s across Route 5.” When Simon Connolly gets the text message from his children’s school that there’s been a shooting, he wastes no time getting to St. Michael’s church where he’s expecting to meet his son, Jake, and daughter, Laney. As parents are taken one by one out of the church to be reunited with their children or given the horrific news, Simon waits. His wife Rachel escorts a tearful Laney outside. When he is the last person seated, his heart cannot bear the idea that his son Jake is still missing. As rumors start to spread that Jake was one of the shooters who planned and carried out the attack, Simon is desperate to find him.
Bryan Reardon’s new novel, Finding Jake, centers on a tragedy that has become all-too-familiar in news headlines: a school shooting that leaves 13 students dead. Simon’s perspective moves back and forth between the horror unfolding of the present day and his memories of Jake’s birth, childhood and adolescence. It is through these memories that Simon clings to one objective: to mine every detail for a clue that will lead to finding his son. However, as he adds up these details, he cannot help but wonder if he missed signs that Jake could be capable of such a terrible act. As tension mounts, any mundane or trivial memory about Jake consumes Simon and his quest to discover the truth. Compounding his grief is how the media has influenced the court of public opinion into trying and convicting Jake, leaving the entire Connolly family to bear the brunt of the community’s anger and fear.
There is no shortage of novels dealing with school violence: Lionel Shriver’s excellent We Need to Talk About Kevin, Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, and Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed are a few examples. Finding Jake is a sharp page-turner that, similar to these novels, will stay with the reader long after the conclusion.