February 11, 2015

War’s Long and Multi-Figured Shadow

Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World that It Made, by Richard Rhodes, (Simon & Schuster), 320 pages, release date 3 February, 2015

Hell and Good Company is much more than a history of the Spanish Civil War. Rather, it’s a study of the impact that war had on multiple fields: art, literature, medicine, and war itself. Richard Rhodes offers his usual crisp, engaging prose.

Over the course of this book we meet members of the different international brigades that fought alongside the Republicans. We see significant shifts in medical care, particularly in the storage and transfusion of blood. We follow Picasso’s process composing and painting Guernica. We spend time with George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway.

The Spanish Civil War was, in many ways, a prelude to World War II. The Nationalists received support from Nazi Germany, which both let the Germans experiment with new equipment and tactics and provided a distraction from Nazi maneuvering in Eastern Europe.

If you’re looking for a chronological history of the war, this book will disappoint—but that’s not what it’s intended to be. It’s a book that reflects on the impact of war on many efforts of human endeavor, that examines the war’s influence long after it ended.

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February 10, 2015

Two Sisters, Many Kinds of Courage

The Nightingale: A Novel, by Kristin Hannah, (St. Martin’s Press), 448 pages, release date 3 February, 2015

The best way I can sum up The Nightingale is to say that it’s the novel Sarah’s Key should have been, but wasn’t. Both books depict the horrors of life in Nazi-occupied France. Both lean toward romance. What makes them different is the agency of the women in The Nightingale, as opposed to the women in Sarah’s Key, who seem to have their paths shaped by outside forces. There are outside forces aplenty in The Nightingale, but the central characters make decisions about how to respond to these forces. They can’t change their circumstances, yet they still manage meaningful choice of a sort.

The Nightingale focuses on a pair of sisters: Viann and Isabel. As the Nazi occupation begins, Viann focuses on protecting her family, while Isabel longs to be a heroine like Edith Clavell, whose biography she read as a child. The sisters have never been close, and the war increases tensions between them. Viann sees Isabel as impetuous, eager to take dramatic action that may have life-threatening consequences for those around her. Isabel sees Viann as a traitor to her nation, a woman making unacceptable compromises for the sake of her own safety.

In a way, both women are correct—but they’re also wrong. Over the years of the occupation, we see each woman surprising herself and coming to see the value of the other’s path, as well as her own.

This is one of those books for which I don’t want to provide too much summary. The novel is best read without knowing the course it will follow. I can, however, advise sticking with it through the occasional clichéd moments, which occur largely in the first few chapters. I can also advise reading it with tissues near to hand. This is the kind of book that leaves a reader in tears that mingle joy and sorrow.

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February 09, 2015

It Is the Deaf Who Hear the Ghosts Most Clearly

The Silence of Ghosts: A Novel, by Jonathan Aycliffe, (Night Shade Books), 192 pages, release date 3 January, 2015

Dominic Lancaster, son of a wealthy British importer of Port, has returned from World War I minus half a leg—and with a conviction of his own worthlessness: “The loss of my leg has diminished me so completely, I scarcely think of myself as a man now, a proper man, well formed, active, not the partial thing I have become.” His parents seem to agree with him and send him off to convalesce in a country manor that hasn’t been used by the family in years. His young sister, Olivia, who lost her hearing as a result of a childhood illness is sent with him. A local nurse, Rose, is charged with supervising Dominic’s recovery.

The reader can predict much of what will come: everyone in the local village warns them against settling in Hallinhag House; strange children appear in the woods; strange noises come from the second floor, which has such an unnerving atmosphere that Dominic and Olivia limit themselves to the ground floor; Olivia begins to hear voices; ultimately a vicar and a priest become involved; meanwhile Dominic and Rose fall in love, a situation of which Dominic’s parents do not approve.

Yes, the reader can predict much of the storyline from the get-go, but that doesn’t mean The Silence of Ghosts isn’t an enjoyable read. Aycliffe creates a background of menace that’s hard to shake off. I had to go to bed before finishing this book, and slept with the lights on and the stereo playing until I could get up in the morning and finish it. When the story of Hallinhag House is fleshed out, it contains real surprises.

When you want a fun, fast, chill-inducing book, The Silence of Ghosts will make a great choice.

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February 05, 2015

Laura Ignalls Wilder and Asian Buffets

Pioneer Girl: A Novel, by Bich Minh Nguyen, (Penguin Books), 304 pages, release date 27 January, 2015 (paperback edition)

Pioneer Girl is a quick, engaging read. The central character, Lee, is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who have spent their lives in the US managing a variety of Asian restaurants across the midwest. Her father died when she was young, but her mother and grandfather continue in the restaurant business, fully expecting Lee and her brother Sam to make this their life’s work as well.

Lee has broken with family expectations and earned a PhD in Literature with a dissertation on Edith Wharton. Her brother has rebelled in another way, fleeing the family home and maintaining only minimal contact with his sister, mother, and grandfather. PhD in hand, Lee is unable to find a job in academia, so she returns for a temporary stint in the family home and restaurant, hoping this won’t become permanent.

Most of this is back story. The novel really begins when Lee decides to investigate a gold bar pin left at her Grandfather’s restaurant in Vietnam during the war years by a female reporter named Rose. The pin reminds Lee of one briefly described in one of Laura Ignalls Wilder’s novels and Rose was the name of Laura’s daughter who was a writer and journalist so….

Lee’s unlikely quest for the origin of the pin and the real story of Rose Wilder Lane is compulsive—for the reader, as well as for Lee. We travel the U.S. with her visiting archives and spots from Wilder history. This is a wonderful novel to read when you’re longing for something simultaneously contemporary and nostalgic. Most readers will have some memories of the Little House books (or at least the television series based on them), so one is on familiar territory even while pursuing literary mystery.

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February 04, 2015

Waiting for the End of the World

No Parking at the End Times, by Bryan Bliss, (Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins), 272 pages, on sale February 4, 2015

Bryan Bliss’s No Parking at the End Times is one of those books that pulls you in by virtue of its title alone. And it largely lives up to the various promises embodied in that title.

Abigail and Aaron, teenaged twins, have had their lives horribly disrupted. Their parents have always been religious, as is Abigail, but when her father loses his job, then sees a billboard advertising the end times, things get complicated. He takes the billboard as a message from God, sells their North Carolina home, packs everyone into the family van, and drives cross-country to San Francisco, so they can be with the billboard-erecting pastor when the world ends.

Most of the money the family has goes to the pastor, and Abigail and Aaron find themselves living with their parents in that van, attending endless church services, lining up at soup kitchens, making do with the clothes on their backs. The end times don’t come as predicted, but their father remains loyal to Brother John, embracing each new disappointment as proof that God is choosing their path.

Abilgail keeps hoping for a solution to their dilemma, some new revelation that will take them back to North Carolina and life she once knew. She wants to keep her family whole, their faiths intact. Aaron, always less religious than Abigail, assesses the situation differently: they’ve been abandoned by their parents (even if they’re still crowded into the same van), and he and Abigail are going to have to set out on their own and find a way to return to North Carolina without their mother and father.

The story is told in Abigail’s voice, so one begins reading identifying with her, but as the novel progressed, I became less patient with her. I wanted Abigail to see their situation as clearly as Aaron does. However, I think it’s to the author’s credit that he has her cling to her faith so tightly. In a world without moorings, she needs some hope of resolution, of love, even if the faith she’s turning to is the very thing that set her family adrift.

I won’t say anything about how their situation does/dosen’t get resolved, but I will say that watching this sister and brother work their way through these challenges makes for interesting and engaging reading.

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February 03, 2015

A Quiet Novel with Remarkable Sweep

The Evening Chorus: A Novel, by Helen Humphreys, (Mariner Books), 304 pages, release date February 3, 2015

The Evening Chorus opens in 1940 with the capture of a British Air Force officer who is held in a German prisoner of war camp. James Hunter, the officer, spends his years as a prisoner carefully studying birds he can observe from inside the camp.

In many ways, Helen Humphreys’ novel is like one of those birds studied by James Hunter: subtle, without flash, but with a beauty and wealth of details that become increasingly clear the more time one spends with it. And, like a bird, it soars.

Besides James, the novel follows the lives of Rose, his wife of a few months, who finds herself in love with another man, and Enid, James’ sister forced to move to the country to live with Rose after her London apartment building is destroyed in the Blitz. These characters lead very separate lives, yet Humphreys pulls their stories together in a satisfying whole that is wonderfully rich, despite the novel’s seeming simplicity.

In their different ways, James, Rose, and Enid spend much of their lives living with a tightly focused sense of purpose that is intended to hide the frustrations of their own lack of options. They live life as they do in order to keep themselves from seeing the lives they are leading.

Humphreys is an exquisite prose stylist. Her sentences are beautifully, yet straightforwardly, constructed; her precise word choice conveys nuance effectively. She shows us how much an author can accomplish with fully realized characters, even when their lives appear simple.

It’s early in the year, but I expect The Evening Chorus will be on my “Best of 2015″ list. Read it—let yourself sink into its quiet as its richness unspools before you. If you find yourself hungry for more of Humphreys’ work once you’ve finished The Evening Chorus, I can recommend her collection of interlocking stories, The Frozen Thames, as a satisfying follow-up.

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February 03, 2015

The Beauty of the Beastly

Beastkeeper, by Cat Hellisen, (Henry Holt & Co.), 208 pages, release date 3 February, 2015

Cat Hellisen’s Beastkeeper reworks the tale of Beauty and the Beast. This is a reworking with teeth—literal and metaphorical—and you won’t find any Disney princesses here. And it’s not just the beast who’s cursed.

When Sarah’s mother walks out on their family, Sarah’s life changes for the worse, not just in the usual terms of loneliness and more responsibilities, but in other, disquieting ways. Why is her father getting hairier? Why has he almost stopped speaking?

There’s little else I can tell you about this book without giving away its secrets. If you want a new version of an old tale, one without the fairytale ending, you’ll want to check out Beastkeeper.

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February 02, 2015

How Does One Learn to Be a Ghost?

The New Ghost, by Robert Hunter, (Nobrow), 24 pages

Last Friday, I reviewed Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, published by Flying Eye. Today, I’m reviewing Robert Hunter’s The New Ghost, which is published by Flying Eye’s parent company, Nobrow.

This book captivated me from the moment I read the title. Who thinks about ghosts being new? But, if one is willing to imagine a world with ghosts, those ghosts are each going to have had a first day “on the job.” That’s the premise of this short graphic book.

The first page pictures a moody blue and black sky crowded with floating transparent grey figures and one additional floating figure in a more substantial solid white below the rest of the group. At the bottom of the page, one reads “It was my first day. To understand my role, I was told to follow the example of my colleagues.” The business of following colleagues turns out to be a bit complicated and, left behind uncertain and confused, the ghost befriends an astronomer, who is kind, but who has no more idea than the ghost does about what it is ghosts really do.

This is a small book (24 pages), but the price is more than fair at $11, and the images are, well, haunting. Hunter’s palette of blue, black, grey, and rose is perfect for the story. Even before one reads the text, the images pull the reader into the book’s mixed tenor of beauty and sorrow.

I know this book will be spending a lot of time in my hands. It’s perfect for rainy-day reading and just the sort of still, calming mix of word and image that one needs before falling asleep. Give yourself the pleasures of holding this book in your hands and of being able to pick it up again and again. Your world will be the richer for it.


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January 30, 2015

A Magical (and Scientific) Blend of Word and Image

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, by Dr. Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman, (Flying Eye Books), 64 pages, originally released in 2013

Flying Eye Books is an international publishing company, an offshoot of Nobrow Publishers. Nobrow publishes some remarkable graphic novels and non-fiction (I’ll be reviewing several of these in the next month or so). Flying Eye seeks “to retain the same attention to detail in design and excellence in illustrated content as its parent publisher, but with a focus on the craft of Children’s storytelling and non-fiction.”

Normally as a reader, whether of adult or children’s books, I’m focused on story. A good cover might capture my interest momentarily, but it’s story that makes me stick with a book, that makes me love it. Nobrow/Flying Eye are making me rethink my criteria. Yes, story is crucial—but there are books where the visual magic is as significant as the magic of the writing, books that marry image and word in ways that create something neither form could achieve by itself.

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space is just such a book. Created by a PhD in Quantum Device Physics (Dr. Dominic Walliman) and an award-winning illustrator and comic book creator (Ben Newman), the book combines scientific rigor (on a level appropriate for younger readers) with delightful imagery. Every page offers a wealth of details. The written text includes compilations of facts, astronomical history, longer descriptive passages, and small asides. The illustrations are busy in the best way: clearly connected to the text, but with all sorts of small flourishes and surprises built in.

This is the kind of book that a grade-school age budding scientist can spend hours with. I wish I’d had a book like this when I was younger, but even now, when I’m well into my fifties, I’m absolutely captivated by it. I want to leaf through it again and again; I want to pore over every page. This is a perfect book for gift-giving and for opening up the universe (literally, the universe) for younger readers.


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January 29, 2015


Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, by Bill Nye, (St. Martin’s Press), 320 pages, released November 4, 2014

Back on February 4 of last year Bill Nye (the Science Guy) debated Ken Ham founder of the Creation Museum of Kentucky (which I am not going to grace with a link)—if debate is the right word when a system based on developing and testing hypotheses is put up against a system based on faith (and an over-reliance on a text whose original form is buried under centuries of rewrites and later inventions). That’s where Undeniable had its origins.

If you’ve been looking for (or even if you haven’t) a clear, thorough laying out of evolutionary science, Bill Nye is your guy. Her knows his material. He also has a delightfully colloquial voice that makes difficult concepts accessible for the everyday reader. Take, for instance, his description of the fossil record:

The fossil record isn’t a tidy, clean recording. No one went to a studio and methodically laid down some tracks, the way a rock and roll band records an album. The evidence imbedded in the Earth’s rocks is more like the work of a band that recorded with a faulty microphone and then accidentally recorded over most of the tracks. On top of that, when they were finished, they lost almost all of the final versions.

Nothing Nye’s writing is really new, though it’s certainly up-to-date. What makes it so interesting is the way he can bring his material to life and help even those already familiar with it to see it in fresh, new ways. This is a book that will delight both adults and younger readers, that addresses both without talking down (or up) to either group.

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