Puff the Magic Dragon conjures up a saccharine image, kind of like a winged Barney. A dragon named Melted Face with hide like Kevlar is more a feature of nightmares. Unfortunately for herpetologist CJ Cameron, Melted Face and his cronies have her in their sights in the rip-roaring action thriller The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly.
CJ is flying to China. The Chinese government is sparing no expense to bring her, along with influential politicians and reporters, to premiere their nation’s newest attraction: a phenomenal zoo designed to make the Disney’s amusement empire look rinky-dink. As they arrive at the park, located in a remote no-fly zone, CJ is stunned to see Greyhound bus-sized mythical creatures soaring through the sky. The official announcement? “Welcome to Great Dragon Zoo of China.”
Like a surreal Sea World, the visit starts with the equivalent of a dolphin show. A cute handler prompts dragons through tricks, explains they were were hatched from ancient eggs buried miles beneath the earth’s crust and ends by saddling up a sweet yellow dragon and flying into the clouds. CJ, however, sees both grim intelligence and simmering resentment in the lizards’ eyes, and this public relations visit quickly turns into a blood-soaked battle for survival as hordes of angry dragons turn their captors into prey. Furiously paced and laced with reptilian scientific factoids, The Great Zoo of China is an adrenaline-charged adventure of a tale.
Author Wes Moore, not yet 40, is already quite accomplished. A graduate of Johns Hopkins and a Rhodes Scholar, an army officer with combat tours in Afghanistan, a Wall Street banker, a White House fellow and author of a bestselling memoir, Moore surely exceeds any standard measure of success. Moore’s newest book, The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters, reflects upon his varied experiences which have impressed upon him the importance of work which one believes to be meaningful.
Baltimore readers may already be familiar with his first book The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, which Moore was motivated to write after reading a newspaper article about a young Baltimore man who grew up a few blocks from Moore’s childhood home, imprisoned for his part in the shooting death of a security officer. That man’s name, too, is Wes Moore, and author Moore struggled to understand the difference in the life journeys of the two men. In The Work, Moore acknowledges his lifelong fascination with “fate and meaning…success and failure.” He goes on to highlight what he views as lessons learned from his myriad workplaces and shares stories about people who’ve inspired him and are also practitioners of work, paid or otherwise, aimed at serving others.
John Galina and Dale Beatty are the founders of Purple Heart Homes, which aims to provide disabled veterans with affordable and accessible housing. Liberty Elementary School in Baltimore City, where nearly all the students live below the poverty line, is led by Principal Joe Manko who cut the administrative budget in favor of bringing in technology and resources directly benefiting his classrooms. The Aley siblings formed American MoJo, a for-profit manufacturing company meant to employ struggling single moms. Moore also finds role models in every day folks who may not be as visible but exemplify passion and service, such as his grandfather or a NYC office cleaner. The Work includes an appendix of questions which, though introspective, could be used for triggering a book club discussion.
Missing children show up on milk cartons. What happens to missing adults whose disappearance may not trigger the same sense of urgency from law enforcement investigations? Novels The Missing Place by Sophie Littlefield and Descent by Tim Johnston combine taut suspense with a look at the family dynamics at play when an adult child vanishes.
Descent opens with Grant and Angie Courtland lazing in a Colorado hotel room bed while their son and college-bound daughter are out on an early morning mountain trail jaunt. A ringing telephone conveys the news to the parents that their Rockies summer vacation is now officially a nightmare. Sixteen-year-old Sean was found on the trail, unconscious and with a shattered leg; his older sister Caitlin has disappeared without a trace. Johnson examines the remaining Courtlands’ unique reactions to the tragedy while unraveling the mystery of Caitlin’s fate. Part family drama, part dark psychological thriller, Descent will keep the reader on tenterhooks to the end.
In The Missing Place, suburban Boston housewife Colleen Mitchell is flying to North Dakota armed only with a handful of text messages from her son Paul, who’s gone missing after he dropped out of college to work as a roughneck in the booming hydrofracking industry. Colleen ends up sharing lodgings with Shay, mother to a young man who went missing along with Paul, and the two women from opposite sides of the tracks form an uneasy alliance to search for their sons. Colleen brings her corporate lawyer husband’s financial resources to their quest while Shay brings tech savvy and street smarts, but is that sufficient to breach the cone of silence engineered by gas companies intent on guarding their bottom line? Littlefield, an Edgar Award nominee who writes for both adults and teens, deftly portrays the anguish of mothers determined to find their sons who end up uncovering some unexpected adult secrets, too.
Sometimes the Wolf: A Novel by Urban Waite is about a small town sheriff and his son. Thinking about Andy Griffith? Only if Andy is in jail for dealing drugs, Opie’s married and a deputy himself, Barney Fife is in charge and Aunt Bea doesn’t exist. In other words, this isn’t Mayberry.
Bobby Drake, deputy in Silver Lake, Washington, has a lot on his plate. He is tracking a rogue wolf through the Cascade Mountains, his marriage is strained and his father Patrick, a former Silver Lake sheriff, is newly free on parole after serving 12 years for his part in a drug smuggling ring. He is also moving in with Bobby. Add in a DEA agent who is determined to pin an unsolved murder and theft of a few hundred thousand dollars on Patrick, as well as a chilling pair of escaped convicts who are chasing after both Patrick and the money, and Bobby is stressed. Trying to understand why his father, an officer of the law, became a criminal strains the relationship between the two men to the point of breaking.
Waite’s writing is sometimes compared to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, with his matter-of-fact prose and tense stories which march along a seemingly inevitable path of increasing violence, creating a sense of both dread and anticipation for the reader. Loyalty and vengeance propel this father and son thriller as Sometimes the Wolf reveals that redemption can come when least expected.
Ask parents to share their deepest fear and, inevitably, it involves something tragic happening to their child. In Diogo Mainardi’s The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps, Mainardi writes about the intersection of grandeur and error which led to his son’s disabling cerebral palsy. On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss examines modern medicine’s sometimes controversial practice of vaccination.
424. That’s the number of footsteps taken by Tito Mainardi as he and his father walk to Venice Hospital where he was born, and where physician error resulted in his brain injury. It’s also the number of brief passages that make up this small memoir in which Mainardi finds connections between art, architecture, music and history, and relates them back to Tito and his illness. Profoundly moving and structured by concentric links, The Fall demonstrates that tragedy and beauty may not be such a dichotomy after all.
Red-faced and screaming or silently stoic: either way, it can be tough as a parent to put a child through the often painful series of recommended inoculations. Even more difficult would be wondering if your child’s autism was triggered by a vaccine or passing on those shots only to see a child hospitalized with whooping cough. Biss looks at the varied reasons behind a parent’s decision to decline immunizations, which include African and Middle Eastern Muslim fears of a western plot to harm their children via the polio vaccine to American concerns about greedy pharmaceutical companies or political agendas pushing unnecessary and invasive medicine — all of which compromise the “herd immunity” protecting communities from disease outbreak. On Immunity provides a thoughtful view on the impact of vaccines on contemporary public health.
With the arrival of the winter holiday season comes a much mocked tradition: the dreaded holiday newsletter. Hello from the Gillespies by Monica McInerney is a novel that explores the consequences when a truthful account of a family’s past year unintentionally hits the presses.
Angela Gillespie is weary. She lives on an expansive sheep ranch in Australia’s isolated outback with husband Nick and young son Ig. In order to bring in extra money, she takes in bed and breakfast guests. When the time comes to write her annual cheery Christmas email which depicts her family as a cross between “the Waltons and the Von Trapps,” the words just won’t come. Her marriage is strained, the family farm is failing, Ig’s imaginary friend is becoming all too real and her three grown daughters are returning home with their lives in shambles. But wait, there’s more — Nick’s tart-tongued Aunt Celia is coming for an extended stay and Angela’s beset with debilitating headaches. Sitting at the computer, she dashes off a stream of consciousness letter intended to let off steam. Instead of deleting the rough draft, which details the failings of each Gillespie, she gets distracted…and Nick and Ig think they are being helpful when they click “send.”
While her husband and children are reeling from the realization that Angela doesn’t think their lives are peachy keen, she is in an auto accident which leaves her with an unusual form of amnesia known as confabulation. She no longer recognizes her own family, but thinks her “real” life consists of a long-ago boyfriend as her husband and one perfect daughter. Can Angela’s family band together behind a woman who now thinks she’s a guest in her own home? Like fellow Aussie writers Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies) and Graeme Simsion (The Rosie Project), McInerney is an engaging and droll storyteller in Hello from the Gillespies.
Two little boys growing up in America; one an urban Jersey boy, the other raised in the small towns of the deep South. Both are African-American, poor, with strong, determined mothers and absentee fathers, each a young witness to violence. Both are identified as highly intelligent and both went to college and graduated. One became a reporter and appears on network television news shows; the other is dead, murdered. Journalist Charles Blow tells his own story in Fire Shut Up in My Bones: A Memoir while Jeff Hobbs memorializes the life of his Yale roommate in the bestselling The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League.
Charles Blow looks to be sitting in the catbird seat. Op-ed columnist for The New York Times and a commentator on CNN, he is a man who projects confidence and success. His memoir, however, reveals a rural Louisiana childhood of poverty where he saw conflict settled with weapons and one of the greatest insults a boy could endure was to be a called a “punk,” meaning homosexual. Blow was twice the victim of sexual abuse by older male relatives, leaving him wondering what it was about himself that attracted predators. Fire Shut Up In My Bones is Blow’s sensitive and introspective reflection on how his past created his present.
Young Robert Peace idolized his father, a man who seemed to know everyone in Newark’s rough suburbs. Convicted of killing two women, Peace’s father was incarcerated when Peace was in first grade. Rob’s mother Jackie worked in institutional kitchens to afford a private education for her son, determined that Rob would escape the ghetto. Indeed he did, landing a fully funded spot at Yale thanks to his prodigious intellect, focused hard work and leadership qualities. The quick and sad version of Peace’s story is after college, he gradually drifted back to his old neighborhood and slid into the criminal activity leading to his murder. Hobbs chooses to honor his friend fairly by writing The Short and Tragic Life which presents Peace as a complex man who struggled under the weight of opposing expectations and experiences.
Nature preservationist and Sierra Club founder John Muir is considered the father of the United States National Parks system, thanks to his influence over President Teddy Roosevelt. Muir’s philosophy permeates author Garth Stein’s newest novel, A Sudden Light, which pits the Riddell family members against each other alongside the backdrop of a fortune built of trees.
The year is 1990. Thirteen-year-old Trevor Riddell’s parents are bankrupt, their marriage crumbling under the strain. In a last ditch effort to lure back his wife, Trevor’s dad Jones hauls Trevor to the Pacific Northwest where demoralized Jones hopes to reunite with his estranged sister and their father while tapping into his family’s enormous wealth. Trevor finds himself on the Riddell’s vast estate populated with old growth woods, living in a decaying timber mansion and becoming acquainted with his disconcertingly sexy aunt and a grandfather succumbing to dementia. Grandpa Samuel hears his dead wife dancing in the ballroom at night; Jones and Aunt Serena’s conversations have a disturbing subtext which leaves Trevor unsettled. As Trevor begins to explore the manor, he uncovers (with a little help from a long dead uncle) evidence of a tragic family history which reaches back to his great-great grandfather, Elijah, a lumber baron, businessman and eventual philanthropist.
Stein is the author of the bestselling book The Art of Racing in the Rain, in which the story is told from the perspective of a dog. In A Sudden Light, trees and the notion of preserving undeveloped land are mute characters whose looming presence shape the Riddells’ fate over generations. Stein has surely written another book club favorite with this modern gothic coming-of-age story.
“Between 2001 and 2012, 63,300 American factories closed their doors and five million American factory jobs went away.” Author Beth Macy quotes these figures in her best-selling new book Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local and Helped Save an American Town. Macy writes about the impact of free trade and globalization as it affects rural Henry County, Virginia, and its century old furniture manufacturing industry. Think this sounds a bit dry? Meet the driven factory man of the title: John Bassett III.
J.D. Bassett built his first furniture factory in his front yard around 1902. Twenty years later, his Bassett family furniture dynasty, with multiple factories employing hundreds of workers, was thriving thanks in part to the native “assets:” cheap southern labor and Piedmont forests ripe for lumber harvest. With Bassetts building churches, banks and schools, Bassett, Virginia, became the quintessential company town and the Bassett family its royalty, marrying its sons and daughters to scions of other local manufacturers. John Bassett III, grandson of J.D., seemed destined to inherit the Bassett Furniture throne until family politics and imported Chinese-made bedroom suites intervened.
Elbowed aside in favor of a brother-in-law, John Bassett III was determined to succeed on his own merit, and eventually settled at Vaughn-Bassett Furniture in nearby Galax. In direct competition with his own family, he found the larger threat to his business to be the growing stream of wooden furniture imported from Asia, priced well below what American companies could charge for their domestic product. With Virginia factories shutting down and double digit unemployment figures skyrocketing, Bassett struck back. Taking on foreign manufacturing, United States economic policy and the Furniture Retailers of America trade group, Bassett fought to enforce fair trade regulations while reinventing his furniture company over and over to remain viable. Factory Man is not just John Bassett III’s story but an eye-opening account of small towns dependent on blue collar industry in a changing global economy.
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