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Playing with Identity

Playing with Identity

posted by:
August 16, 2012 - 2:19pm

Playing Dead“Have you ever wondered about who you are?”

 

Playing Dead by Julia Heaberlin begins with a letter Tommie McCloud receives from a stranger, which throws her own identity and childhood into question. This leads the child psychologist and former rodeo competitor on a journey from her native Texas hometown, where she has just attended her father’s funeral, to the Chicago mob scene and meetings with a whole cast of seedy characters. At the heart of the story, though, the question remains: who is Tommie and who are her real parents? Through her journey, she collects little bits of information that eventually come together to reveal a family history far different than Tommie grew up knowing.

 

What sets this story apart from the usual family drama? First is the setting. Heaberlin, a former award-winning journalist and small-town Texas native, evokes a landscape with open ranges, oppressive heat and historical family ties to the land. Second is the plot structure. There is no solid ground. This is a story which continues to unravel, with every piece of the puzzle leading to more questions. Third is a flair for the dramatic. Rodeo competitions, hit men, kidnappings, unsolved murders and a mother with dementia (who of course holds important family secrets) all factor in to the story. A tale of twists and turns, Playing Dead will appeal to anyone who likes family sagas, mysteries or action/adventure stories. 

 

Melanie

 
 

Standout Voices in Contemporary Poetry

Life on MarsSlow LightningCrazy BraveYou wouldn’t think that the expanding universe, the glam-enigma of David Bowie, and the grief for a father could all be explored in one collection of poetry, however, Tracy K. Smith has done just that in her latest collection Life on Mars. In her poem “Don’t You Wonder Sometimes?” Smith contemplates The future isn’t what is used to be.  "Even Bowie thirsts/ For something good and cold.  Jets blink across the sky/ Like migratory souls." Smith addresses pivotal world events with rage and amazement, from Abu Ghraib prison to the D.C. Holocaust Memorial Museum shootings. Each poem is an odd and strikingly unfeigned examination yet, when read as a whole, the collection serves as a journey of intergalactic magnitude.

 

Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral, 2011 recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets award, is a seemingly effortless yet complex interweaving of Spanish and English that challenges both literal and linguistic borders. This undaunted Latino voice contorts the boundaries of sexuality, immigration, and cultural consciousness. Each unexpected word crackles. "My right hand/ a pistol. My left/ automatic. I’m knocking/ on every door./ I’m coming on strong,/ like a missionary./ I’m kicking back/ my legs, like a mule. I’m kicking up/ my legs, like/ a show girl." If you’re looking for unflinching poetry that writhes across the page, this ruggedly poignant collection shouldn’t be missed.

 

Crazy Brave is a lyrical coming-of-age memoir by leading Native American poet and musician, Joy Harjo. Born in 1950’s Tulsa, Oklahoma, Harjo recalls her early struggles with an abusive stepfather, her seminal years at the Institute of American Indian Arts high school in Santa Fe, and her personal journey of inspiration. Harjo, a Muscogee (Creek) Native American, interlaces brute realism with tribal myths to create a haunting variation of the American dream. From the jazz of Miles Davis to transcendental memories of her ancestors, this slim but eloquently raw autobiography has wide readership appeal for those interested in the process of creativity, social injustice, U.S. history, and women’s rights.

 

Sarah Jane

 
 

More Fun in the Magical Car

More Fun in the Magical Car

posted by:
August 15, 2012 - 7:57am

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies AgainIn Frank Cottrell Boyce's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, we meet The Tootings, your average twenty-first century British nuclear family: there's Dad, recently laid off from his job assembling tiny things; Mum, who works at Unbeatable Motoring Bargains; black-clad teenage Lucy; Jem, who tries to keep his head down; and Little Harry, the baby. Dad's sudden joblessness is a bit worrying to the rest of the family, but not to him. He's a very optimistic type, and rejoices in all the time he suddenly has on his hands to fix things around the house. He's a something of an inventor, like Caractacus Pott, the dad in Ian's Fleming's original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, published in 1964. And like the original dad, his inventions do not work very well.

 

He's driving the family crazy, in fact, and so, to distract him, Mum brings home a decrepit pop-top 1966 camper van for him to fix up. A real rustbucket, but a vehicle from back in the days when any reasonably careful adult could figure out how to fix his or her own car. Dad and Jem take the whole thing apart, assess their needs, and then hit up the local junkyard for parts.

 

What they find at the junkyard, and the effect it has on the camper van when they install it, plus the brief wink to Fleming's original inspiration for the story, are pleasures this writer would not dilute for any reader.

 

Although the story is inventive and picturesque, with billionaire crooks and a visit to Madagascar and a guest appearance on a French reality show called Car Stupide, most of the humor in this very funny novel is a result of the family's interactions with each other. Occasional British terms (lift, motorway), while initially puzzling for young readers, are quickly made clear by the context. Joe Berger's lively cartoon illustrations depict each phase of Chitty's reincarnation in loving detail and bring the resourceful Tootings to life.

Paula W.

 
 

Forecast: Adventure with Chance of Danger

The Storm MakersJennifer E. Smith’s first middle grade novel The Storm Makers begins on a deceptively peaceful morning on a farm in Wisconsin. It was early when 12 year-old Ruby McDuff spied the tall, disheveled stranger in a wrinkled blue shirt with silver buttons. With her nosed pressed to the glass of her bedroom window, she watched him yawn before strolling out of the family barn and away toward the main road.

 

Miles away from the nearest town and a day’s journey from the blissfully normal suburb where they used to live, the McDuff‘s tiny farm isn’t exactly walking distance from anywhere. So what could explain the stranger with the long legs and bright buttons ambling away down the lane?

 

Once, Ruby would have leapt to wake her twin brother, Simon. Once, they would have made up stories together about where the stranger had come from, or searched together for clues. That was all before, though. Before they had turned 12; before their parents left their jobs to live off the land; before, when Simon and Ruby had been two parts of one whole. These days Simon has been distant in a way he never was before. Alternately restless and sullen, teasing and resentful, Simon’s moods seem as changeable as the weather lately. Even the dogs seem to avoid him.

 

Yet even as they seem to drift apart, avoiding each other this summer seems impossible. An oppressive drought has settled in and boisterous, heated winds toss dust from one end of the farm to the other, coating all who venture outdoors in a fine, powdery grime.  Little can the twins imagine how this drought, the stranger in the barn, and a coming storm will change everything they have known, about their world and about themselves. For Simon is a Storm Maker, one of a group of incredibly rare individuals with the power to influence the weather. And he just may have flared up in time to stop a disaster of untold proportions. That is, if Ruby can protect them both from the dangerous ambitions of the most powerful Storm Maker.

 

A spirited read, The Storm Makers is recommended for readers who enjoy a blend of adventure, magic and mystery.

Meghan

 
 

Girl's Best Friend

Girl's Best Friend

posted by:
August 15, 2012 - 7:45am

Letters to LeoAmy Hest brings us the new adventures of Annie in her latest book Letters to Leo. First introduced to readers in Remembering Mrs. Rossi, Annie lives with her dad in New York City and is now in fourth grade. Her new best friend, a floppy-haired pup named Leo, is helping her cope with schoolwork, an icky boy, and a best friend who is moving away.

 

Annie writes letters to the dog, and reads them to him at night. Through them, readers learn about her hopes and sorrows, many of which revolve around her widowed father. This epistolary format and chatty tone makes for easily manageable reading segments, good for those kids for whom reading is a struggle. The drawings that decorate Annie's letters were done by Julia Denos, who is perhaps best known as a picture book illustrator, and they reinforce the book's upbeat, chirpy tone. Letters to Leo evokes empathy with a light touch.

Paula W.

 
 

Jane Austen Does The Bachelorette?

Imperfect BlissEssence Contributing Editor Susan Fales-Hill takes on Pride and Prejudice and the result is a delightful summer read called Imperfect Bliss. The Harcourt family of Chevy Chase, Maryland is at the heart of this story. They are a respectable middle-class family featuring a social-climbing Jamaican mother named Forsythia, an inattentive English father, and their four unmarried daughters. Forsythia has big dreams for her girls and even named each after a Windsor royal family member hoping for titled sons-in-law. But love and marriage are the last things on the mind of their second eldest, Elizabeth (Bliss), who finds herself living back home with her special-needs daughter following a messy divorce.

   

When younger sister Diana is picked as the star of “The Virgin,” a reality television dating show, all the Harcourts' lives change significantly. Their home turns into a set and the crew becomes part of their family. While Bliss tries to keep her daughter and herself out of camera range, the show’s attractive host, Wyatt and handsome producer, Dario, are persistent in their pursuit of her. Meanwhile, her other sisters, Victoria and Charlotte are dealing with issues of their own and the whole family must come to grips with their own reality. The humorous hijinks of the television show and the quirky characters comprising this family combine to create an engaging comedy of manners tinged with satire. 

 

Imperfect Bliss is a wickedly funny spin on the pitfalls of modern love and courtship.  This funny romantic comedy is a perfect beach bag book with its homage to Jane Austen and soft pokes at reality television.

Maureen

 
 

The Will to Live

The Will to Live

posted by:
August 14, 2012 - 7:55am

SurviveWhat gives someone the will to live? Often it is nothing within themselves but rather someone else, someone who would not survive without you. In the debut novel Survive by Alex Morel, a teenage girl must overcome her own mental health issues and fight to save the life of another.

 

Jane has it all planned. She has been on her best behavior at the institute. She has not cut herself in months and has been very forthcoming in her sessions. This has earned her a plane trip home to see her mother for Christmas. She does not plan to arrive alive, intending to use a pocketful of pills in the bathroom to join her father and her grandmother, both of whom committed suicide. Fate has a cruel sense of irony, and when the plane crashes in the mountains due to the winter storm, she and Paul are the only survivors.

 

Morel creates an interesting dynamic between Jane and Paul, both of whom have experienced tragedies that left them with distant emotional connections to their parents. On the surface, Survive is simply a survival story—a modern-day Hatchet. The action is swift and will hold the attention of more challenged readers. If the reader chooses to delve a bit deeper, they will find a spiritual and emotional roller coaster that rises and falls as the survivors climb toward rescue.

Sam

categories:

 
 

The End of Days

The End of Days

posted by:
August 13, 2012 - 9:00am

12.21The Maya calendar counts down to the end of the fourth age of man. Doomsayers believe that this means the end of the world is coming in December 2012. The novel 12.21 by Dustin Thomason is a thrilling story that will have many wondering if we all aren’t just a twist of fate away from the end of life as we know it.

 

In 12.21 Dr. Gabriel Stanton is experiencing a typical day in his lab at the Center for Disease Control in Los Angeles when he receives a shocking phone call from a local hospital. A patient has presented with the symptoms of Prion disease, an extremely rare, highly contagious, and rapidly-progressing sickness.  What follows next is a tense and exciting tale as scientists race the clock to determine the origin of the contamination and how it is transmitted. The main symptom is insomnia, which after several days leads to seizures, dementia, and death. Those infected have no hope of survival, as there is no cure. Ultimately the entire city of Los Angeles is quarantined.

 

Meanwhile Chel Manu, an expert in Mayan antiquities at the Getty Museum, is made custodian of an ancient codex. The dealer who acquired this artifact also develops symptoms of the disease and Gabriel and Chel work together to determine if there could be a connection to the devastating outbreak. With so much technological advancement, could the answer to the epidemic be found in a fabled lost Mayan City?

 

This is Thomason’s second novel, having co-authored the international best-seller The Rule of Four with Ian Caldwell in 2004. Thomason has also been the executive producer for multiple television series including Lie to Me. 12.21 is a fantastic story that readers will not want to put down until the last captivating page.

 

Jeanne

 
 

The French Chef at 100

DearieAuthor Bob Spitz spent several weeks traveling through Sicily with Julia Child in 1992 and admits that he developed “a powerful crush on her,” which inspired him to write Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. The book’s release coincides with the 100th anniversary of her birth, and it’s the perfect way to celebrate the rich life of this culinary legend, television pioneer, and cultural icon. Both the author’s admiration and Julia’s larger-than-life personality shine through in this in-depth new account of her life.

 

In 1942, Julia wanted to join either the Women’s Army Corps or the Navy WAVES. She was rejected by both organizations because at 6’3” she was considered too tall. Instead, she began to work for the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA). While working for the OSS, she met Paul Child, and they married in 1946. Paul and Julia moved to Paris in 1948, and Julia had a life-changing experience eating sole meunière on her first day in France. Food became Julia’s passion. She attended the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and began to teach cooking. She also co-authored Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is now considered a classic cookbook.

 

In 1962, Julia was featured on a segment of People Are Reading on Boston's WGBH to discuss her cookbook. She shocked the host by making an omelet on a hotplate on live television and unknowingly launched a revolution.  That first television appearance led to her successful cooking show The French Chef, the growth of educational television and what later became PBS, and the current popularity of the Food Network and celebrity chefs.  Julia was fearless in the kitchen and had a unique ability to make cooking seem completely accessible and fun. She made America wanted to cook along with her. Julia passed away in 2004, but her ground-breaking work will always be remembered. She changed the landscapes of both American food and television.  In the words of the lady herself, “Bon appétit!”

 

Beth

 
 

Where Joy and Sorrow Meet

In the Shadow of the BanyanGrowing up in a wealthy Cambodian family, seven-year-old Raami enjoys a privileged life until a civil war rips from her the only existence she has ever known. In an elegant autobiographical literary debut, In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner brings to life the 1975 Khmer Rouge capture of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, and one family’s extraordinary fight to live.

 

Told through the curious, fearful eyes of a young girl, Ratner’s story is more than the atrocities of revolution. Rather, it is about not losing faith in life’s beauty and goodness. With Raami’s tender, lyrical voice, the reader is introduced to pre-revolution Cambodia, as well as the new reality of forced labor and other unspeakable horrors. It’s a confusing world where being intelligent can mean death. Silence is the key to survival, and family members become lost. Before they know it, Raami, her beautiful mother and younger sister are forced into a peasant’s life. Raami becomes "koan neak srae," a child of these paddies. Her solace is remembering stories told to her by her stoic Sisowath prince father, who once said he writes because "words give me wings."  

 

Rattner's prose is as mellifluous as the Mekong River that Raami longs to see. Rich with similes, Rattner's images are as magical and lovely as they are harsh. In their fullness, the reader sees a Cambodia that is much more than a war-torn landscape and heartbreaking characters who reflect the human tragedy. A small child when the Khmer Rouge took over her country, Ratner strives to honor the lives lost during the genocides. "Sometimes we, like little fishes, are swept up in these big and powerful currents,” Raami's father tells her. Rattner's personal story describes their journey.

 

 

Cynthia