Often, the second entry in a trilogy — film or book — is the low point. It's the halfway point between the excitement, plot and world-building of the first book and the resolution, justice-meting out, comeuppance-slinging grand finale. That is not the case in The Crimson Campaign, the second book in Brian McClellan’s grand flintlock fantasy series, The Powder Mage.
The action in this sequel starts several months after the end of the first book, Promise of Blood. Tamas, McClellan’s analog for Napoleon, is facing a massive invasion on his country’s southern flank, but he has devised a counterattack that might turn the tide of the war. Tomas’s son, Taniel Two-shot, is just coming out of a coma after shooting the returning god Kresimir through the eye. Adamat, one of the few magical protagonists, is still looking for Lord Vetas, the man who holds Adamat’s wife and son hostage after unsuccessfully blackmailing him.
These three narratives soon explode and set off in separate directions, although with definite consequences for the others. Tamas and part of his army are cut off and presumed dead deep in enemy territory. Without supplies or reinforcements and constantly hounded by enemy forces, they must make a long, difficult march home. Taniel reacts to his father’s apparent death by traveling to the front to stop the enemy invasion and to face a General Staff that has already given up on the war. He will also face an angry, out-of-control god that he failed to kill. At home in the capital, Adamat finds himself outgunned, outmanned and facing powerful forces; meanwhile, he tries to unravel a conspiracy that may leave the capital city defenseless to political intrigue and foreign invasion.
McClellan turns the heat up in this second outing, raising the stakes even higher for the book’s protagonists. He has broadened his world by geographically separating the point of view characters. The pacing is frenetic, and the setting is derivative of the crisis period that faced France post-revolution. Yet, while there are many historic similarities, McClellan has gone in new exciting directions by creating a unique world much like a musician using familiar chords in a different progression. While some plot points are resolved and a tantalizing conclusion is in sight, McClellan has pulled off a bit of magic, making the reader hope the last book of this trilogy won’t be the last we see of this world or his characters.
It has happened to most of us at some point. You’re reading a book on a plane or on the beach. Suddenly, there is a heartbreaking plot twist or a beloved character dies. You try to fight it, but it’s a lost cause. You’re crying in public, and it’s not pretty. These sad stories highlight the deep emotional power that books have over us.
• Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls is one of the first books that made many of us cry. This novel about the friendship between a boy and his two hunting dogs is a modern classic.
• Narrated by Death, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is an unforgettable story about a girl named Liesel living in Nazi Germany. The novel was recently adapted into a movie, but this is a book that you simply must read.
• Me Before You by Jojo Moyes follows Louisa Clark, a young woman who takes on a job as a caretaker for Will Traynor, who is a quadriplegic. The two of them quickly grow close, but Will’s plans for his assisted suicide loom ahead of them in this tragic, romantic tale.
• Ian McEwan’s Atonement is an elegant exploration of guilt and forgiveness. During the summer of 1935, 13-year-old Briony accuses the family maid’s son Robbie of sexually assaulting her cousin. The consequences of her testimony haunt her for the rest of her life.
• Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia is a beloved childhood favorite for many readers. Despite their differences, Jess and Leslie become inseparable friends. When tragedy strikes, Jess must use the lessons that their friendship taught him to heal.
• Set in a post-apocalyptic America, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the story of a father and son who walk through the desolation, depending only on each other while they try to make their way to the coast.
• Gail Caldwell’s Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship will make you want to call your best friend. In this poignant memoir, Caldwell chronicles her friendship with her best friend Caroline Knapp from their first meeting through Knapp’s death of lung cancer at age 42.
Ten-year-old Jack Foster has never been the center of his parents’ universe. Spending much of the year at boarding school, Jack’s infrequent trips home to smog-choked Victorian London are fraught with awkwardness, boredom and his own guilty anticipation of returning to school.
So when on one visit home Jack spies Mr. Havelock, his mother’s mysterious new spiritualist, opening a door where no earthly door should be, he jumps at the chance for adventure and follows...
...into a magical world that so closely mimics our own, the line between what is mechanical, what is magical and what is alive has long been blurred. Here the air is thick with smoke, and many residents are obliged to wear goggles and nostril grills to shield them from the noxious atmosphere. Whole, flesh-and-blood children are rare and prized by Londinium’s ruler: the Lady. Now, the Lady requires a new, perfect son and she’s set her sights on Jack.
As keen as he was for adventure, Jack isn’t so sure he’s ready to be adopted, and the Lady’s previous son, Mr. Havelock (aka Sir Lorcan), isn’t happy about being replaced. This new world is not without friends though, including Beth, a wind-up doll with an attitude, and Dr. Snailwater, the scientist who created her. If Jack wants to escape back to his own world, he’ll need the help of his new friends and that of the Gearwing, a powerful, mythical creature that no one has seen in years.
Emma Trevayne paints an atmospheric and eerily entrancing landscape in Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times, her middle-grade steampunk debut. Boasting excellent world building, characteristic of the steampunk genre, gorgeous cover art and an independent protagonist with amusing supporting characters, Flights is best suited for younger middle-grade readers.
For all the narrative merit displayed in much of the story, Flights does suffer from some underdeveloped and ultimately unresolved plot devices. Among these weaker elements are the obscure motivations of the Lady in continually craving perfect, eternal sons in the first place, as well as the underdeveloped mythos of the Gearwing itself. As a standalone novel these flaws are prominent, however, in the larger context of a series (should Ms. Trevayne continue to expand Jack’s horizons) these shortcomings might be camouflaged.
The Geography of You and Me, the latest romance novel from teen author Jennifer E. Smith, is sure to capture the hearts of both teen and adult romance fans. The novel begins on a sweltering day in New York City when Lucy and Owen get trapped in an elevator in their apartment during a blackout. Lucy has lived in the apartment building with her jet-setting parents for years, and yet again finds herself alone as they travel the world. Owen, on the other hand, has just moved to the city because his dad took a job as the apartment building’s new superintendent. Though their paths have crossed before, it’s not until this fateful day that they truly meet.
After being rescued from the elevator, the two spend the night together talking about their lives. But when Lucy wakes up, Owen is gone. She looks for him for the next few days, but must quickly leave when her parents decide they want her to come visit them in London. After learning that her parents want the family to move away from New York, Lucy knows she has to find a way to contact Owen again. She decides on sending him a postcard, which he receives as she returns to New York to pack up the family apartment. Thus begins their long-distance relationship through a series of postcards, as she moves to London and Owen moves around the states with his father.
Readers are taken along on the journey of Lucy and Owen’s relationships — across continents, through scattered correspondence and the promise of the pair one day reuniting. Their relationship is hopeful and romantic.
Warm days, long nights, the beach and a new novel from Elin Hilderbrand equal summer perfection! This year, the Nantucket resident and bestselling novelist with over four million copies of her books in print returns to her beloved island to bring us The Matchmaker. Dabney has always had a magical gift for matchmaking, which her husband and daughter view as merely meddlesome. But with over 40 happy couples to her credit, none of whom have consciously uncoupled, it’s hard to question her instincts. However, the one person she may have failed is herself. So when Clendenin Hughes returns to the island, she comes face to face with the man who stole her heart so long ago. Readers will relish the romance at the heart of The Matchmaker, an engaging story about losing and finding love.
Get to know Elin as she answers questions about her newest blockbuster, the food and books she brings to the beach and reminisces about her time in Baltimore.
Between the Covers: Dabney Kimball is the matchmaker in your latest book who has an almost mythical gift for creating perfect pairs. Have you ever successfully matched a couple? Would you ever attempt to interfere in your children's or other family members' love lives like Dabney does?
Elin Hilderbrand: I have never matched anyone myself, no. I basically take a non-interventionist policy across the board, and always have. I do believe that in matters of love, luck reigns. Some marriages work for no apparent reason and some fail for no apparent reason. Love, in my opinion, is a crapshoot.
BTC: Dabney is a woman with secrets at a crossroads. While her matchmaking ability is unique, she is still such a relatable character in the same vein as your previous heroines. How do you create such distinctive, strong female characters? Are they modeled after real people?
EH: Dabney came to me in pieces, and as with my other characters, I started with her flaws. She has a strange phobia about leaving the island...which caused her to lose the only man she ever truly loved...which left her in her current predicament of being married to one man and in love with another. I love all of Dabney's idiosyncrasies, her way of dressing, her habits, her rituals — but none of this matters without her darling, pure, sweet heart. Dabney is older than me, but I love her like she's my child.
BTC: You bring Nantucket to life so vividly in The Matchmaker and in almost all of your other novels. What is it about the island that captured your heart?
EH: When my ferry first pulled into Nantucket harbor, I knew I was a goner. I like to paraphrase John Denver and say it was like coming home to a place I'd never been before. The historically preserved downtown and the 50 miles of pristine beach combine in a way that makes me ache. I love authenticity — and there is no other place in the world that is like Nantucket Island.
BTC: Before settling in Nantucket, you spent time here in Baltimore where you graduated from Johns Hopkins University. Did you enjoy your time in Charm City? What do you miss most?
EH: I have wonderful memories of Baltimore, most of them Hopkins-centered. My roommates and I used to hang out at PJ's Pub across the street from the library. Fifty cent pizza slices on Sundays! I adored the Baltimore Museum of Art, which was on campus, and Fells Point, especially Bertha's Mussels. One of my favorite memories was moving our couch out onto our front yard during Opening Day, back when the Orioles played at Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street — our house was at 33rd and Calvert so everyone walked by us, including Richard Gephart. I think what I miss most is the lacrosse. As a 1991 graduate of Hopkins, I saw the best lacrosse anyone can hope to see — it was the era of Dave Pietramala and Quint Kessinich verses the Gait brothers — Paul and Gary — from Syracuse.
BTC: You’re a long-suffering Philadelphia Eagles fan. Do you think this is going to be their Super Bowl year? Do you have a favorite baseball team? How do your family and friends feel about your non-New England football fandom?
EH: I am a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan from childhood, but I don't think they will ever win a Super Bowl. In the tradition of Philly fandom, I have been disappointed too many times to hold out any hope. In baseball, I root for the Red Sox — that is a tremendous ball club, and Fenway Park is phenomenal. My kids root for the Sox and the Pats, although they also cheer on the Eagles, but probably only because they feel sorry for me.
BTC: Share some of your process. Do you write every day? Where? Who do you use as a sounding board?
EH: I write every day that I'm able — which, as my career soars, gets harder and harder. I also have three children who need to be driven around the island to their various sporting events. But I normally take three to four days a week to dedicate to my composing, and in this way, I have managed to finish a book a year. The only people who read my work are my two agents and my editor, Reagan Arthur. Reagan and I have a relationship based in extreme respect. She tells me what to do to fix a book, and I do it.
BTC: You’ve said you write at the beach in the summer, do you also take time to read while surf-side? What books will be in your beach bag this summer? More importantly, what are the must-haves in your picnic basket?
EH: I am constantly reading. For me, reading is working, because immersing myself in other stories inspires me. Right now, I'm reading Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler, which I love. Also on my list are Thirty Girls by Susan Minot and The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman.
Now, in my picnic basket: my own grilled zucchini dip and chips, lobster salad, corn salad, watermelon and Bing cherries. I'm also a big fan of chilled soups. I make a yellow tomato gazpacho that has fresh orange juice and a little bit of cream in it. It's a drug.
BTC: Readers will be delighted to learn that the wait for your next novel is short, as this fall you share the snowy side of Nantucket with Winter Street. Can you give readers a sneak peek of what to expect from this holiday story?
EH: I've never read a Christmas novel myself, but I can say the most fun I've ever had writing a novel was the two and a half months I spent writing Winter Street. It's about a family named the Quinns who run a bed and breakfast on Nantucket, and two days before Christmas, their lives sort of communally fall apart. In addition to family drama, there are nutcrackers, Byers Choice carolers, homemade ornaments, carols banged out on the piano, shots of whiskey, private jets, engagement rings, plum pudding, fires in the hearth, Santa Claus suits and champagne and caviar. If you're an Elin Hilderbrand fan, Winter Street comes highly recommended.
With over 4.5 million copies of her books in print, Jennifer Weiner’s career is at an all-time high. Her new novel All Fall Down will almost certainly be on bestsellers lists this summer. The story follows Allison Weiss, a hardworking wife and mom who seems to have it all. In reality, she is crumbling under the pressure of her stressful life and has become addicted to prescription painkillers. With her trademark wit and relatable style, Weiner takes the reader through Allison’s downward spiral into addiction and then in her journey to recovery.
Weiner recently answered some questions for our Between the Covers readers. Read on to learn more about what inspired her new novel and where she writes. (Hint: It’s Carrie Bradshaw-inspired!) She also shares her picks for your summer reading list.
What inspired you to write this story?
When I turned 40 – lo these many years ago – I started thinking a lot about happiness. I think it’s in everyone’s nature – certainly it’s in mine – to set goals, and to think, When this happens, I’ll feel happy, or, as soon as I’ve achieved this, I’ll never be sad again. Writers, in particular, fall prey to this kind of thinking: When I get a book published, I’ll be happy and I won’t care if it gets a million bad reviews, or, if my book’s a best-seller, I’ll never let anything bother me again.
Of course, life doesn’t work out that way. No matter what you achieve, there’s always someone who’s done more, or done it faster, and no achievement guarantees perfect peace of mind. So the question becomes: What does happiness look like? How can people find it? What if it’s not what we’ve always believed?
I wanted to write about a character who’d hit all the mile markers, whose life looked like it should have been perfect, and to have that life not feel perfect to her. Allison’s got the handsome husband, the beautiful child, the big house, an interesting job that she likes…but none of it has silenced that voice inside of her, a voice I think so many women have, asking, Is that all? Is this it? And if it is, why do I feel so empty?
All Fall Down really highlights the fact that addiction impacts people of all ages and walks of life. Will you tell us a little bit about the research that you did while writing this book?
I spent time at several different facilities, I read a lot of books and blogs, I talked to lots of people…and then I spent a lot of time inside my own head, thinking about Allison. One of the things I heard from a counselor that really stayed with me was that addicts don’t have a problem with substances; they have a problem with feelings. They never learned how to handle sadness, or anger, or frustration, or disappointment, and the drugs or the alcohol are a symptom, not the disease itself.
Allison is a very relatable character. She’s a busy wife and mother who is struggling to keep the pieces of her life together. Do you see any of yourself in her?
Of course there’s some of me in all of my characters, even though my specifics aren’t exactly like Allison’s. I wanted to make her like me, but I wanted to make her like any mom you’d meet at Little Gym, or in the preschool parking lot. She’s funny, she’s stressed, she’s interesting, she’s overextended…she’s all of us.
Will you share a little bit about your writing process? Where do you write? Do you write every day?
I’m lucky not to be one of those writers who hate writing – I actually really enjoy it, and have ever since I learned how! I write pretty much every day, although sometimes I’ll skip the weekends if I’m busy with my kids. I do most of my writing in my closet, which sounds pathetic until I explain that I basically have Carrie Bradshaw’s Sex and the City closet. Alas, I do not have Carrie’s wardrobe. Possibly because I do not have Carrie’s figure, and a lot of those designers of dresses she wore around Manhattan do not serve my kind.
So I have this gigantic closet which has turned into an office-library-storage space, with my daughters’ artwork hanging on the walls, and my big girl’s old clothes in boxes waiting for my little one to grow into them, and there’s a desk with a big light-up mirror. If Carrie lived in my house the vanity would be her makeup station, but that’s where I do my work.
Throughout your career, you have maintained a strong online presence on your blog and social media, and that has really allowed you to connect with your readers. How has that impacted your writing?
Again, I’m a lucky writer because I enjoy being online. I don’t regard it as a penance or a punishment. I like being quick and quippy on Twitter [follow her @jenniferweiner], I love interacting with readers on social media, and I love using it to get instant feedback – about a character’s name, about a book cover, about what my kids are up to. My suspicion is that readers like feeling that there’s a connection with an author they like.
What is the best book you’ve read recently? Are there any authors on your personal must-read list?
I loved Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. It’s about a kidnapping in Haiti, and it’s a very unsettling book, but oh, so good. And I’m counting the days until Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, the third book in his trilogy about young adult hipster magicians that attend a college for magic (his work has been described as Harry Potter for grownups, but I think it has more in common with the Narnia books). Baltimore’s own Anne Tyler and Laura Lippman are both automatic purchases for me – I love both of their styles!
Weiner's fans will also be pleased to know that she’s visiting Baltimore soon. She will discuss All Fall Down at Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Central Library on June 18.
In 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic had such a profoundly devastating impact that drastic measures had to be taken to stem the infection, Elizabeth Fama’s new young adult novel Plus One covers this period in history. To keep up with the additional demands brought on by the pandemic, many more medical professionals were brought in and worked in shifts divided by night and day. This dual system worked so well in the medical field that it was integrated into other industries and finally the government.
Though the system was first designed with equality in mind, over time things changed. Day became the sought after curfew, offering better jobs and more economic advantages. Sol wanted nothing more than for her grandfather to see his first grand baby, but with her brother being day and she and her grandfather being night, the task was almost insurmountable.
Sol had almost no plan when she set out on her mission, so it was no surprise that an adventure ensues. This young adult novel follows Sol as she is betrayed by someone she’s supposed to love, loves someone she’s expected to hate and finds strength in unlikely places. Fama creates a fast-paced and compelling story with compassionate characters and an unexpected ending. Fans of the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth should check out this standalone dystopian novel.
Don’t forget dear old dad’s special day is this Sunday. In the spirit of the day, enjoy this list of some of the most fabulous father figures in literature. If you have a favorite we missed, share in the comments.
Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch is the gold standard of fathers. He is handsome, honest, a sharpshooter and just the world’s greatest dad. Harper Lee’s iconic character was given life by Gregory Peck in the film adaptation which prompted the American Film Institute to call Atticus the “greatest movie hero of the 20th century.”
Horton in Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss. Horton the elephant is tricked into sitting on a bird's egg while its mother, Mayzie, takes a permanent vacation. Horton overcomes a variety of challenges, but remains committed to his task, stating, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful, one hundred per cent!"
William in Danny, The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. Danny has the best life. He lives in a gypsy caravan, he works on cars and his best friend is his storyteller father, William. When the two embark on an adventure of a lifetime, their relationship deepens. This story of father-son love highlights a dad who Danny calls, "the most marvelous and exciting father a boy ever had."
The Man/The Father in The Road by Cormac McCarthy. An unnamed father and his young son journey across a grim post-apocalyptic landscape. As the duo search for safety, the father realizes he is dying, yet still struggles to protect his son from the constant threats of attack, exposure and starvation.
Will Freeman in About a Boy by Nick Hornby. Will Freeman is a 36-year-old bachelor focused on wine, women and song. Marcus Brewer is an introverted middle school boy whose mother is suicidal. While their initial friendship is based on deceit, they come to respect and genuinely like each other, and a real relationship is formed.
Harry Silver in Man and Boy by Tony Parsons. Harry’s one-night stand starts a chain reaction of events immediately prior to his 30th birthday. His wife leaves him, he loses his job and he is suddenly a single parent to a 4-year-old. As Harry navigates the daily details of parenting, he focuses on the important relationships in his life – his son and his father.
Be sure to check out two new nonfiction titles which tackle the tricky world of fatherhood with humor and honesty. Good Talk, Dad by Bill and Willie Geist is a hilarious tribute to the special bond between fathers and sons, and Dave Engledow offers a hysterical photo-centric parody of one clueless dad and his adorable daughter in Confessions of the World’s Best Father.
Bill and Willie Geist have a great deal in common. They are both TV personalities: Bill on CBS News Sunday Morning and Willie on The Today Show. They both have a deep love of sports. They are both raconteurs with a wickedly insightful sense of humor. As a father and son, they have shared, and sometimes not shared, many of life’s milestones, and in Good Talk, Dad we are lucky they have decided to share those milestones with us.
The book is designed to feel like an ongoing conversation between a father and son as well as to serve as an oral history for generations of Geists yet unborn. The extremely well done audiobook is especially a treat as both Bill and Willie do the narration. Each section of the book is divided into a topic like sports, parenting or sex. Each Geist weighs in with his thoughts and their shared experience or recollections on the issue, and they take the opportunity to fill each other in on the parts the other might not have known about. The two points of view are clear and unique. Bill is a Midwestern, who served in Vietnam and spent much of his career in print journalism. Willie grew up in New Jersey and had easy access to New York City; he was accomplished in sports and practically fell into a series of jobs in broadcast journalism. These differences play extremely well off one another like discordant syncopation in a jazz number. The feel is like Bill Bryson meets Sh*t My Dad Says. It is funny, real and heartfelt.
Good Talk, Dad, above all else, feels genuine. In your mind’s eye, you can see these two men who clearly love and respect each other hunched over a computer rapidly emailing each other back and forth. They share laughter and feelings in a way that men in our society are not often comfortable doing in person. The resulting image is of a family where laughter is more common than anger, where people like and support each other, and where they are just plain comfortable around each other. It might just leave you a little bit jealous that you have not experienced life as a Geist.
Two memoirs hit the library shelves recently. One is tender, the other brash, but each author writes with much love. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart by Virginia author Carol Wall is a poignant account of her friendship with Giles Owita, a Kenyan immigrant. Celebrity gossip blogger Elaine Lui writes about her Chinese mother in the blunt and brassy Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When a Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter to Do? A Memoir (Sort Of).
Carol Wall looks at her Roanoke neighbors’ verdant gardens and lawns and knows her shabby yard needs help. Wall hires a friend’s gardener, Mr. Owita, and hands him a list of her gardening desires which Owita politely ignores. Wall and Owita cross racial and cultural boundaries as their relationship morphs from one of employer and gardener to student and teacher and eventually, dear friends. Wall is frank about her emotional struggles as a breast cancer survivor, and the support provided by Owita as both a gardening mentor and fellow traveler becomes increasingly important to her. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening is a lovely and spiritual homage to Giles Owita, whose guidance and example allow Wall to see the beauty in life despite its fleeting nature.
Elaine Lui opens Listen to the Squawking Chicken with a description of her petite mother as a “China Woman Elvis” dressed in a rhinestone-studded, denim popped-collar pantsuit, massive visor and sunglasses. Ma’s Cantonese nickname is Tsiahng Gai, meaning Squawking Chicken, and when she speaks, her daughter compares her voice to a siren. Ma is loud, pushy and controlling, and embraces the use of guilt and threats as parenting tools. Lui ‘s recollections often portray her mother as harsh and judgmental, holding cruel court in her mahjong rooms, but a different picture emerges as Lui shares stories of the atrocious deprivation and brutality of Ma’s childhood. Ma’s methods may be unorthodox, but Lui recognizes her mothering is done out of love and the desire to protect her daughter from the horrors which shaped her. Lui talks about her book and posted an absolutely adorable picture of Ma on her website.