Diane Cook’s stories in her debut collection Man v. Nature are similar to Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic book series in that they depict an end of the world in which conflict is more survivor-centric than cataclysm-centric. Cook accomplishes this feat repeatedly throughout her stories, with multiple instances of apocalypse serving as mere backdrops while her characters continue their lives unabated by cordiality. While Kirkman’s tales ooze with gore, Cook’s exude wonderment and danger in dazzling prose.
Premiere in Man v. Nature is “Moving On,” the grim telling of a widow internment center that functions like an adult orphanage. The mood around the grounds is bleak enough that reality becomes overpowered and contorts to make room for places like this to exist as if they’ve been institutionalized. “Meteorologist Dave Santana” pits a woman against her own sexual desires as she tries everything to seduce her neighbor, a homely and less than upstanding weatherman. “The Mast Year” portrays a woman who is chosen by fate to share her good fortune with those in need, no matter the personal cost. She grapples with notions of sacrifice, unable to separate charity from obligation until she no longer recognizes her own life. Lastly, the titular “Man v. Nature” is the account of a man and his two friends who are stranded in a tiny lifeboat adrift on a vast lake. As exposure besets and their bodies atrophy, they reminisce and eventually curse one another for past transgressions until their misdirected anger threatens to become their undoing.
Man v. Nature’s stories are all so convincing in their heavy fictitiousness that the reader never questions the altered existences. Emotions are so poignant that doubt never surfaces; rather, fingers are crossed, eyes are squeezed shut and knees are taken in supplication to will the characters to safety. But in Cook’s worlds, safety may no longer exist, and instead readers are given deliciously unsettling new normalcies.
Debut author Rebecca Scherm has embedded her new psychological suspense thriller Unbecoming with the ambiguous moral cracks of a femme fatale-like character, complicated and difficult to package. Grace keeps her life simple for a reason. The part-time antiques restorer can't return to her Garland, Tennessee, home because too many people know her story. Or do they? There is an art heist gone wrong, but this story is also about the interior journey of a 23-year-old woman whose past and conscience shape her into what she needs to be.
Grace is no longer Grace. Now she's Julie from California, working in the gritty outskirts of Paris. At Zunuso et Filles, she fixes broken old things and is not above switching out gems given to her by an unscrupulous boss. Her only friend is Hanna, a 34-year-old Polish woman, who sits across from her. She, too, has escaped her past. It's been three years since Grace's hometown artist husband Riley and his friend (and Grace's one-time lover) Alls broke into and looted the historic Wynne House Estate at Grace's suggestion. Now both men have been released from prison. Julie can't help but look over her shoulder. Will they come looking for her? What about the missing Dutch painting?
Things are never as they seem and so it is with this story. Scherm, who grew up in the South, was inspired by the Hitchcock movies she watched in her youth. She decidedly mines her protagonist's psyche to see where it falls in a plot that unfolds steadily and mainly in flashback. Rather than focus exclusively on the suspense of the crime, Scherm chooses the continuum of Grace's choices. With plenty of lying and double-crossing and lively, detailed descriptions of objets d'art, readers will find an entertaining read in the distant shades of Gillian Flynn and Patricia Highsmith.
Mobile Library is David Whitehouse’s second novel and a beautifully written and deeply expressive work of fiction. Whitehouse has a way of using unique and well thought out metaphors that seem to catch you off guard with their exquisite accuracy.
The novel follows Bobby as he struggles through life as a socially awkward 12-year-old boy. His father doesn’t seem to care for him, his mother is out of the picture and his peers bully him. Sunny is not only the one person he can call a friend, but is also his bodyguard of sorts. It’s when Sunny moves away that Bobby becomes completely lost and disheartened until the day that he meets Rosa.
Rosa is a girl to whom Bobby feels almost instantly connected to, and when he meets her mother Val he realizes that families aren’t just people who share your blood. Val happens to get paid to clean a mobile library and this is where Bobby, Val and Rosa spend many hours each week learning about life through the books they read.
Bobby’s abuse and neglect, combined with the termination of mobile library services, creates a sense of foreboding in Val that leads her to take drastic measures. She can see no option for keeping the family together other than spiriting them away using the mobile library as their transportation. Though Val’s intentions were honorable, her methods were less than discreet. Will Val be able to keep her eclectic family together?
Pick up a copy of this title to see what happens to these well-developed characters engulfed in vivid imagery. Whitehouse is an award-winning author who created a profound and delightful read in Mobile Library.
For eight seasons on Saturday Night Live, Phil Hartman’s comedic genius delighted audiences. Known as “The Glue” among his castmates, Hartman’s many impersonations and broad characters revitalized the show after one of its darkest periods. Beyond SNL, Hartman was a beloved voice on The Simpsons as well as the bombastic Bill McNeal on the critically lauded show NewsRadio. Poised to make a superstar breakout in several summer films of 1998, life was great for the comedian.
But in the early morning hours of May 28, 1998, police released the shocking news that Phil Hartman had been killed by his wife, Brynn, in their home while their children slept. For such a funny man to meet such a tragic end seemed unbelievable as fans, friends and costars tried to make sense of the loss to the comedy world at large. In You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, biographer Mike Thomas stresses that what a person thinks of when she or he thinks about Phil Hartman isn’t his death, but the life of a performer whose talent gave laughter to so many.
Chock-full of interviews with family and famous friends, the book delves into Hartman’s childhood — as one of eight children, he often had to “perform” to be noticed. It also highlights his early career as a successful graphic artist (he designed album covers for bands like Poco and America) to his breakthrough with The Groundlings. From helping Paul Reubens hone the character of Pee-Wee Herman to developing his own popular character Chick Hazard, Phil Hartman seemed an enigma: someone committed to performing without really wanting to stick to it for long. He was someone waiting for the next big thing, but only if the next big thing fit in with the lifestyle he wanted.
You Might Remember Me paints a picture of a man searching for an identity: one that he could never quite completely cover with wigs and prosthetic noses. It is a great read for fans of Hartman’s work and for those who enjoy biographies of complicated, delicate genius, both in the moment and ahead of its time.
An absorbing study of a timely subject, Right Color, Wrong Culture is an allegorical tale focusing on the challenges and rewards of cultivating a multiethnic organization. In his thoughtful, carefully composed new work, author Bryan Loritts analyzes the specific kind of leadership needed to make connections and build thriving multicultural organizations.
Loritts’ central theme explores the premise that in each ethnic group there exist three faces of cultural expression: C1s, those who assimilate entirely from one culture or ethnic group into another; C3s, who are culturally inflexible, resisting assimilation of any kind; and in the middle, C2s, who are culturally flexible and adaptable without losing their ethnic identity. Personifying these faces, Loritts cites Carlton Banks, Ice Cube and Denzel Washington, respectively.
Careful to note the ties between culture and ethnicity while recognizing that one is not de facto the other, Loritts proceeds to examine the specific leadership principles vital to the success of a multiethnic, culturally diverse organization. In the case presented, it is an ethnically and culturally homogenous church that the principal characters are striving to transition toward a multicultural identity. Nevertheless, Loritts’ lessons about balanced, intuitive leadership and the practical challenges present in such a transition are applicable to any organization.
One of the most compelling aspects of RCWC is the narrative format Loritts has shrewdly chosen to deliver his message. Though a work of nonfiction, RCWC reads more like a novella. His use of a cast of characters to explore the challenges and viewpoints surrounding the case presented is an effective vehicle for what could otherwise be a polarizing subject. Recommended for readers seeking to promote multiculturalism within their own organizations as well as those readers who are simply interested in engaging in a deeper understanding of multiculturalism overall.
Poet, playwright and novelist Greer Macallister inspires intrigue with The Magician’s Lie. While Macallister’s plays have been performed at the American University and she has been published in periodicals such as the North American Review, this is her debut novel.
The Amazing Arden is one of the few female magicians in the early 1900s, which is controversial enough without her being wanted in question for her husband’s murder. Virgil, a down on his luck police officer, stumbles upon Arden and, though he is able to restrain her, he is unsure of her. As the capture would substantially boost his status, Virgil is conflicted about how to proceed.
After bringing the magician to his office and restraining her with several pairs of handcuffs, he allows her to recount her story before deciding how to move forward. Arden’s story is so captivating that Virgil can’t help but be taken in by her resilience and attention to detail. It’s in the midst of the narrative when Virgil learns that Arden may just have something to offer Virgil that he can’t get elsewhere, leaving him with a tough decision to make.
Macallister is able to use Arden’s story to pull the reader into history and what life was like for a young woman with few options in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With Arden’s success she is able to challenge the traditional gender roles for woman of the time, transforming her character into an inspiration. If after reading this you are looking for another historical fiction novel with a strong female protagonist, look to Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar.
Jane Austen apparently got the idea for Pride and Prejudice from an 80 year old minister named Mansfield. At least, that’s the general premise in Charles Lovett’s novel First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen which delves into possible connections between Austen and Mansfield. Told in chapters that jump back and forth between Austen’s time and the present, Lovett’s modern day heroine, Sophie Collingwood, is part Austen scholar and part amateur sleuth.
Sophie’s world has centered on her beloved Uncle Bertram who introduced her to great writers such as Austen. When Bertram dies of an alleged accidental fall down his stairs, Sophie begins to suspect that someone may have wanted her uncle dead. It all seems to be related to an obscure book in her uncle’s collection written by Mansfield that may shed some light on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice. However, as she digs into the mystery of her Uncle’s death and the missing manuscript, Sophie puts herself into a very dangerous situation.
Lovett is at his best when he is engaged in the modern day writing of the conflicts and crises in Sophie’s rather than Austen’s world. While this book is a work of fiction, there are some historical facts mixed in. After finishing this book, readers may want to do some research on their own to discover which parts are invented and which parts are true.
Rolling up your sleeve for your flu shot this season, you probably did not think about the zoonoses you are keeping at bay. A zoonosis describes an infection that is transmitted from animal to human. The flu falls into this nasty category, as do other scary things like West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, rabies and, yes, Ebola. Science writer and explorer David Quammen is not trying to scare us in his slender but potent new book, Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus. Rather, he provides much needed perspective on the 2014 epidemic in West Africa that dominated the news here and abroad.
Where did Ebola come from? That's the question everyone wants answered about a disease whose first recognized emergence dates to 1976. Quammen takes us back to that point and the consequences of interconnected ecosystems. He writes in layman's terms about early efforts to sequester various species for testing only to be disappointed each time. "It was Zorro, it was the Swamp Fox, it was Jack the Ripper — dangerous, invisible, gone," Quammen says. This is the problem with a disease that moves, or spills over, from animals to humans. Identifying the reservoir host animal is key to understanding how the virus wreaks havoc, then disappears again, for perhaps decades. The need for containment is great for fear that it will eventually adapt. For scientists, the hunt is on.
Quammen, who extracted and updated material from his 2012 book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, spent time in the jungles of Gabon, where he first encountered the "peculiar, disconcerting disease." Through interviews with laboratory sleuths and Ebola victims' families he fills in as many blanks as possible, writing in a highly readable journalistic style. Readers of Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, whom Quammen gently takes to task in his book, will find a fast-paced science mystery that urgently begs solving.
With infinite care, deep detail and vast meteorological knowledge, Adam Sobel recounts the events leading up to one of the most destructive storms in history in Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future. Sobel, an atmospheric scientist and Columbia University Professor, recounts the growth of the storm and the predictions leading up to the disaster which were relied upon by elected officials, civic leaders and the general public.
Studies have shown that there is an approximate four to one benefit to cost ratio of investing in preventive measures, yet we lack the imagination to foresee the potential for disasters such as Sandy. Historically, we experience a disaster and then plan for the next event. However, with global warming gradually making its effects known, we may not realize the disaster in time to take effective measures. With this scenario, Sobel argues, “buying insurance after the flood will not work.” Development of low-lying areas, a rising sea level and climbing global temperatures will produce great environmental challenges. This will require broad cooperation between local, state and federal agencies and the private sector. Through clear-headed science, Sobel argues that we cannot afford to politicize an issue of such profound international importance as climate change. Storm Surge is a highly thought-provoking, engrossing tale of nature at her most destructive. It is also a story of human nature, and how we react, or fail to react, to our environment and its demands.
Dr. Sobel received his PhD in meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a tenured professor at Columbia University. He has won several major awards, including the David and Lucile Packard Fellowship, the Meisinger Award from the American Meteorological Society, the AXA Award in climate and extreme weather and the Ascent Award from the American Geophysical Union.
It’s not often that a book cover really captures the essence of the words contained within, but J. Robert Lennon’s collection See You in Paradise is complemented perfectly by its paradisal suburb set against a split pea soup sky. Lennon’s stories share a theme of familial dissolution, which makes the pop art a choice of scrumptious irony. It's always easiest to smile and embrace delusions of complacency.
See You in Paradise's opening story "Portal" is a clever spin on the concepts of growing up and growing apart and sets the tone for the book. A young brother-sister duo discovers a portal in the woods behind the family house and rushes to tell mom and dad. After a cautious inspection, the family decides to venture through together and reappears on the other side of town. Portal trips quickly become a familial ritual, until one goes awry and has lasting consequences for everyone. "Zombie Dan" is what happens when scientists develop a revivification process for the rich, but haven't quite perfected their techniques. Each newly restored corpse exhibits unintended complications; in Dan's case, he develops mind-reading powers after reminiscing with former friends and uses his new powers to exhume buried truths. "The Wraith" is the story of a manic woman who is able to separate her negative energies into a sullen, lifeless copy of herself, which she does before each workday. Her husband works from home and is left alone with his husk-wife until curiosity eventually gets the best of him, and their relationship is forever altered.
Lennon's stories depict the repressed tragedies of suburbia in a witty, imaginative manner, which makes the slightly melancholy mood feel more like reverie than depression. Readers who enjoy See You in Paradise should also check out Kevin Wilson's Tunneling to the Center of the Earth.