There are books with racist subtext, and then there are the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Although his books defined the horror genre, Lovecraft was also an unrepentant racist who made xenophobia a major theme of his work. As time goes by, this has become harder for readers to tolerate, and his image was recently removed from the World Fantasy award trophies for this reason. But Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country explores Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos from the perspective of the people Lovecraft deplored, creating a moving story about race and the supernatural in one unforgettable novel.
The book begins in 1950’s Chicago, where Atticus and his Uncle George report for the Safe Negro Travel Guide, a book with real historical roots that guides black travelers through areas of the Jim Crow south where they’re likely to be harassed. The two men also share a mutual love of science fiction that the rest of their family finds hard to understand. But when Atticus’ father Montrose sends him a mysterious letter, they find themselves pulled into a fantasy of their own, a conspiracy of magic and elder gods that reaches far back into their family history.
Never before has a horror book engaged with race in such a thoughtful way, with supernatural evils serving as metaphors for social ones. But none of it would land if Ruff hadn’t crafted characters of such depth and complexity. I could go on about the family’s rich interpersonal relationships, like young Horace who sweetly draws his mother her own comic book series because she wants to read a story about a black woman for once, or the book club discussions between Atticus and George which could’ve filled the entire novel and been perfectly satisfying. These are characters to root for, who never back down from a challenge, whether they’re being chased by a sheriff or a shoggoth (which, believe me, are creepy). Fans of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series will enjoy this similarly pulpy piece of historical fiction.
With the reconstruction of the set for BBC One’s hit show Sherlock now underway, some fans may be fine living in anticipation until January 2017, when Season 4 is slated for release. But for those who are impatient for the detective’s next adventure, there’s Steve Tribe’s comprehensive Sherlock: Chronicles to ease the wait.
The book overflows with facts about the production process of Sherlock and includes interviews from cast and crew alike, giving a broader perspective into how the episodes were created from start to finish. Going in order from Season One’s A Study in Pink, each chapter focuses on one episode at a time, allowing for a depth of detail that would please even Sherlock Holmes himself. The chapters also include other fan treats, including deleted scenes, actor biographies and lots of production photographs. Notorious Holmes fanboys themselves, show creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are known for including little references to various Holmes stories; Sherlock: Chronicles pairs some of these Easter eggs with the corresponding Conan Doyle story title and quote.
It’s not just the televised episodes that get scrutinized; there’s a recounting of Holmes’ appearances in print and on screen, a chapter on the televised teaser released before Season 3, references to the in-character blogs and references to the ever-expanding Sherlock fandom.
There’s enough information here to keep even the most casual Sherlockian fan happy, and it's a good refresher for the lead-up to Season 4. Fans looking for more Sherlock trivia should also check out The Sherlock Files by Guy Adams.
The dysfunctional Plumb family is at the center of The Nest by debut author Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. When we first meet Leo Plumb, the eldest and most successful sibling, he is drunk, high and speeding away from his cousin’s wedding. Leo's intoxicated state and speed result in an accident which necessitates his going into rehab. We meet the rest of the Plumb siblings as they gather to meet with Leo, who is just out of rehab. The topic of this family gathering is The Nest, their joint trust fund, which they are scheduled to receive when Melody, the youngest, turns 40. They all eagerly anticipate receiving their portion of The Nest, as they all need the money.
Melody has two teenage daughters who are on their way to college. She has always wanted the best for them — a house in an area they couldn't afford, private schools and Ivy League colleges. Jack Plumb runs a failing antique shop and is in debt. He also has a mortgage on the vacation home he owns with his partner of more than 20 years, Walker. Then there is Beatrice, who once was a promising writer but now works at a literary magazine. Soon, they discover The Nest is all but gone. They are all counting on Leo to get them out the financial woes they have gotten themselves into, but can he? More importantly, will he?
The story is told from multiple points of view, so you get insight into how each sibling feels and what secrets they are keeping from one another. If you enjoyed Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Emma Straub’s The Vacationers, you will definitely want to meet the Plumb family.
A foreboding manor house is the centerpiece of Eve Chase’s new novel, Black Rabbit Hall. Readers will instantly be sucked into the dual narratives of two women living decades apart, whose fates are tied to the titular hall.
Amber Alton and her family retreat to the house in the Cornish countryside as a respite from the world. The Alton children run wild in the woods and play on their little private beach without a care. Despite the lack of modern conveniences, their parents always seem happiest here as well. One stormy afternoon a tragic accident irrevocably changes the Alton family, and the house seems to change as well. It is less like an idyllic sanctuary and more like a menacing prison.
Thirty years later, the eerie gravity of the house draws Lorna, a modern bride-to-be searching for the perfect wedding venue. While a crumbling estate seems like an odd choice, something about the house captivates her in a way she cannot explain.
She can feel some inexplicable connection to the place and the buried secrets and betrayals. Unraveling the mysteries of the house and the family who once lived there quickly devolve into her primary obsession.
It is rare to find a book with dual plots featuring equally gripping storylines. There is this delicious sense of impending doom throughout the book that makes it impossible to put down. As soon as readers think they know what will happen next, the story turns sharply in another direction. While Chase has woven some complex affairs spanning a great deal of time, she never loses us for a moment. Her attention to details makes Black Rabbit Hall a tangible place as we lose ourselves in the plot.
This book is great for readers who love gothic tales with crumbling estates and dark family secrets, such as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca or the works of Kate Morton like The House at Riverton.
April is National Poetry Month! Check out the work of these local poets.
Black Seeds is the work of poet and activist Tariq Toure, who takes a personal approach as he reflects on the circumstances of the Freddie Grey protests and the discord that followed. You may recognize some of the poems, which were previously published in the Baltimore City Paper. Toure is keenly aware of the societal rifts that caused the incident and seeks to bridge these striations with his writing. The intensity of his call to action is honed with intimate details drawn from Toure’s everyday life, occasionally diverting into simple reveries akin to William Carlos Williams’ work, which drives home how much personal impact such events hold. The poems are interspersed with photos of Toure’s community that are so candid they seem like they belong in a family photo album.
It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful is the latest chapbook from Lia Purpura, a writer in residence at the University of Maryland. Purpura’s poems are intimate reflections on the poignancy of nature and how new technologies have only increased the sensation of ephemerality in life. There is a very scientific approach taken to describing her subjects, honing in on the microscopic details of her impressions like a lepidopterist examining their collection. She revels in introspection, transforming the quotidian details into transcendental experiences.
If you are a prose lover apprehensive of taking on the wilds of poetry, Poetic Meter and Form by Octavia Wynne is a helpful crash course in the medium. Wynne explains the fundamental elements of poetry in two pages and then breaks down how these elements are manipulated with different poetic devices and styles. It is easy to skip to a particular section if you’re looking for information on a specific device or to look up a definition in the glossary. The text is peppered with numerous examples of the terms described, including many works from one of the greatest of poets of all time, Dr. Seuss.
It is a truth in America today that a single woman in possession of good fortune (or little or no fortune) may not be in want of a husband. According to data taken in 2012 from the Pew Research Center, 17 percent of women aged 25 or older have never been married, and the age when women do get married rose from 20 in 1960 to 27 in 2012. Why are so many women waiting to get married, if they even marry at all? The rallying cry of many magazine articles and talk show hosts seems to be: “What’s wrong with these women?”
According to Rebecca Traister’s book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, absolutely nothing is wrong. Traister doesn’t condemn women for remaining single or for marrying; passing a value judgment on a woman’s life is not what this book is about. Instead, she objectively considers the reasons why women make the choices they do, and examines the societal implications of these choices.
Traister examines the way single women now — the never-want-to-be married, the divorced, the widowed and those considering marrying later — interact with the world around them within the context of the centuries that women were restricted to the roles of housewives and mothers to the exclusion of all else. She reviews the economic and social trends as they’ve rapidly changed over the past couple of decades, culminating in women today having more freedom to live their lives as they wish. According to Traister, the way women exercise these freedoms is changing America’s political, social and economic landscape in ways our social and political structures aren't currently prepared to support.
Traister balances the political and socio-economic discourse with her interviews with single women of different ages and backgrounds. These interviews provide real-life examples proving that broadly classifying the single woman experience into one category is an exercise in folly. Not all single women share the same experience — for instance, the experiences of a single white female, in the past and today, are very different from a single woman of color, and the interviews illuminate this in a very real way.
Traister writes with clarity and comprehension, which makes All the Single Ladies an accessible and thought-provoking read perfect for anyone — married or single — looking to better understand the shifting paradigms and needs of our society. Fans of the book may also wish to read Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed for another perspective on the role of women in America.
Ask anyone the question “What is your favorite book?” and you have the beginning of an interesting conversation. But twist that question just a bit, and you get a glimpse into that person’s psyche. Editor Bethanne Patrick does just that in the essay collection The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People. She surveyed a broad range of interesting people, imploring them to share the titles that affected their existence in an important way.
From the poignant to the profound, these two to three page contemplations are fascinating; and just reading them makes you feel an immediate connection to that person. Singer-songwriter Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny, names Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder as her life-changing book. Ma and Pa Ingalls demonstrated the day-to-day routines of a loving, dependable family, making Little House a comfortable reprieve for the modern-day Cash, raised in a spotlight of fame, instability and chaos.
R.L. Stine, known for the popular Goosebumps series of scary novels for kids, reminds us that the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi was the stuff of childhood nightmares and not the charming Disneyfied version. Many of the other essayists also chose a book from their childhood, including such classics as Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Margaret Atwood), The Little Prince (Jacob Hemphill) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Vu Tran).
Others name coming-of-age adult fiction they read as teens, from Gone with the Wind (Jodi Picoult), to The Bell Jar (Meg Wolitzer). Science fiction writer John Scalzi was a precocious reader who discovered The People’s Almanac when he was just 6. The book ignited his love for trivia and curating facts of all kinds, whether or not he understood them.
The Washington Post BookWorld editor Ron Charles’ choice, Straight Man by Richard Russo, was a literal life changer. Then a prep school English teacher, Charles picked up the novel from a table of newly published fiction at a local bookstore and decided to write a review, his first ever. He submitted it to The Christian Science Monitor, with more critiques to follow. He ultimately gave up teaching to become their full time reviewer, ultimately landing at The Washington Post. Charles says that newspaper readers “overwhelmingly prefer to read positive reviews...Of course, they want to know which books they should read instead of books they should not read — because they’re not going to read most books anyhow.” Consider this an overwhelmingly positive review of The Books That Changed My Life. What book changed yours?
Entomologist Justin O. Schmidt shares his lifelong passion for pain-inducing insects in The Sting of the Wild, recently published by Johns Hopkins Press. According to Schmidt, despite a universal, innate fear of stinging insects, only about 50 people a year die from the combined sting of all stinging insects, including wasps, honey bees and fire ants. The first half of this surprisingly entertaining book provides scientific theory and background, while the second gives in-depth looks at particular groups of insects. Schmidt encourages readers to skip around as they read; each chapter can be read as a stand-alone essay.
As a piece of anatomy, the stinger itself evolved from the ovipositor, or egg-laying tube, of the sawfly. Its ingenious three-part design — two sliding channels inside a third immobile tube — allow a tiny insect to impart a wallop of pain to its much larger victim. The addition of venomous fluid provides an additional layer of defense for most species, although sometimes that venom is used for capturing prey. If you understand that the stinger was once an egg-laying tube, you’ll know why only female insects sting. But Schmidt is quick to point out that while male bees and wasps lack stingers, they feature hardened genitalia which they use to “pseudo-sting” would-be threats.
Schmidt has a particular passion for harvester ants, and lucky for him his wife is also a zoologist who helps to collect them by the bucket load so they can study their venom. You really don’t want to be stung by a harvester ant. There are five things that make harvester stings unique: 1) delayed reaction to the sting, 2) sweating around the sting site, 3) hairs in the sting area stand up, 4) the lymph nodes nearest your sting become hard and tender and 5) the pain is excruciating, coming in waves that can last from four to 12 hours.
One of the most enjoyable features of the book is the inclusion of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, developed by the author himself. Schmidt allowed himself to be stung by 78 species of hymenoptera so that he could record the nature of the pain and rate it on a scale of zero to four. Don’t let anyone tell you that entomologists don’t have a sense of humor. The sting of the club-horned wasp, for example, is described as a .5 — “Disappointing. A paperclip falls on your bare foot.” While the warrior wasp rates a 4 for a sting that is “Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano.” Readers who share my fascination with the natural world, and particularly those who revel in unusual animal facts, will love The Sting of the Wild.
Travel with Bill Bryson through this green and pleasant land known as England in The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain. An unabashed Anglophile, Bryson takes us on a tour via an imaginary line he has drawn from Bognor Regis in the south to Cape Wrath in the north, which he declares the Bryson Line. According to the author, if you are asked the southernmost and northernmost locations on the island for the citizenship exam, the British government gets it wrong. Bryson then sets out to prove the greatest gulf between Americans and Brits is the bond of a common language.
Bryson mourns the passing of stately old homes and dedicated gardeners while rejoicing in the new respect for the British landscape. We visit sites as famous as Stonehenge and as obscure as Grimsby’s Fishing Heritage Center. Bryson fumbles with the foibles of the National Trust, tangles with the terror of cow attacks and notes the depletion of his funds for everything from parking to admission tickets. Regardless of the occasional rudeness, lack of garbage facilities and the proliferation of slouchy hats and baggy pants, it’s Bryson’s wit and wisdom that shines through. We are introduced to the uniqueness that is England while reminded that, at the end of the day, we all share our humanness.
Bryson is the author of The New York Times bestseller A Walk in the Woods. His earlier works include Notes from a Small Island, Neither Here Nor There and The Lost Continent. The author and his family lived in England for 20 years. He now resides in Hanover, New Hampshire, and retains dual citizenship.
Looking to hang out with some amazing women? Then you must check out A Few of the Girls by the late, talented Maeve Binchy. A collection of both engaging and entertaining slice of life short stories, showcasing her storytelling prowess.
Each story is short enough to enjoy while waiting for an appointment, yet compelling enough to make you want to devour the next one. All told from the female perspective, subjects include love, marriage, friends, enemies and holidays. Marriages are ending, relationships are beginning, holidays are taken, life is lived. She focuses on true-to-life characters experiencing emotions that we have all felt at one time or another. Who hasn’t had to cope with a cheating boyfriend? Falling out with friends? Facing a milestone birthday? Being hurt by someone you love? Many of the stories include a twist — and sometimes a moral. My favorites include a cat searching for a new owner and a woman losing her meticulously packed luggage on a trip abroad. Her unique telling of a child custody dispute through a 7-year-old’s eyes will stay with you long after you read the last word. You will also learn why you should never hang a mirror in the dining room, no matter how priceless. Trust me, it is eye opening!
Don’t waste this opportunity to read previously unpublished Binchy stories! Fans will relish meeting more of her wonderful characters while newbies will be introduced to storytelling at its best. Are you participating in the BCPL 2016 Reading Challenge? All of her stories take place in another country. Want more Binchy? Read or reread one of her novels, such as Circle of Friends or Evening Class, two of my favorites. Reserve your copy now. A Few of the Girls are waiting for you!