October 26, 2015

A Non-Linear Narrative of Exceptional Richness

The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories, by Anthony Marra, (Hogarth), 352 pages, release date 6 October, 2015

If I had to guess which present-day writer is most apt to be lauded in another century or so, my guess would be Anthony Marra. There are books I love; there are books I revere. Marra’s works fit both these categories.

The Tsar of Love and Techno is presented as a story collection, but really it’s a novel with a deceptively loose structure. Its character cross several generations, some connected by blood ties, others by affection, still others by rivalry or by the mindless violence of an authoritarian government. It offers a ballerina, an artist, a B-list actress, a soldier, a man who deliberately injures himself to avoid becoming a soldier, small-time gangsters and drug dealers, an art historian losing her vision,  individuals who have—either deliberately or inadvertently—denounced relatives, setting off chains of events that lead to their death. Marra deftly binds these characters to one another within a non-linear narrative.

This is a book I will be reading repeatedly because its richness and complexity promise revelation after revelation, prose gem after prose gem. If you haven’t yet red Anthony Marra, start. If you’ve already read his two published books, then—like me—you can await the pleasures and challenges of his next work.

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October 22, 2015

The Physics of Biology

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili, (Crown), 368 pages, release date 28 July, 2015

Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili’s Life on the Edge is a fascinating, if challenging, read. Their goal is to demonstrate the effect quantum physics has on biology. We may think of life as being driven by (relatively) larger things—our brains, hormones, genetics. What we don’t realize is that quantum physics—which operates on the atomic and subatomic level—plays a key role in all of these.

McFadden and Al-Khalili open each chapter with a narrative: a bird preparing to migrate, a scientists looking for monarch butterflies, a clownfish feeding. Then, they gradually pull readers deeper, into increasing levels of complexity as they tie these activities back to quantum physics. The bird is able to perceive changes in the inclination of the arcs flowing between the earth’s magnetic poles using magnetreceptors. While we may think of migrating birds flying either north or south, the birds are actually flying first toward magnetic rays more parallel to the earth’s surface (which happen to be at the equator) and then continuing on past those parallel rays to rays that increasingly curve away from the earth (which occurs at the poles).

The lesson: “much of what is or was wonderful and unique about robins, clownfish, bacteria that survive beneath the Arctic ice, dinosaurs that roamed the Jurassic forests, monarch butterflies, fruit flies, plants and microbes derives from the fact that, like us, they are rooted in the quantum world.” This is a new scientific endeavor (if we can call anything in science, which naturally builds on previous discoveries “new”) that has the potential to help us answer a great many of the complex questions we ask ourselves about the biological world around us.

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October 20, 2015

A Beautiful Tale Beautifully Rendered

Imelda & the Goblin King, by Briony May Smith, (Nobrown Ltd.) 32 pages, release date 20 October, 2015

I’m consistently impressed by the high-quality picture books published by Nobrow. By picture books, I don’t mean those wordless things with ducky pictures that babies often use for teething—I mean books in which the pictures are absolutely essential to the narrative. In these kinds of picture books, the pictures tell us a much richer story than would the words alone. Imelda & the Goblin King is the sort of feast for the eye—and the imagination—that I’ve come to expect from Nobrow.

Lucky Imelda lives near a fairy forest and the fairies there are her playmates. They spend their days happily together, and Imelda eagerly learns fairy lore—particularly the effects of different forest plants.

The happiness of the fairies and Imelda is threatened by the Goblin King, a great bully determined to rule the forest through fear. When the Goblin King kidnaps the Fairy Queen, Imelda has to think of way to rescue her friend—one that will give the Goblin King exactly what he deserves.

Imelda & the Goblin King is a wonderful read-to-me book. Its illustrations also provide plenty of potential for day dreaming and the spinning of new stories. This is a book that children will pull off the shelf again and again—and one that adults won’t tire of quickly, despite the requests for multiple rereadings.


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October 19, 2015


Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman, (Clarkson Potter), 240 pages, release date 20 October, 2015

Tacos is absolutely gorgeous, one of those cookbooks that’s also an art book, the kind of volume you want to pet (great cover texture!) and wander through, while losing track of time. The pretty starts right on the flyleaves, which feature a checkerboard layout of salsa photos: orange, green, red, brown, yellow.

This book may tell you waaay more than you need to know about tacos, but need is irrelevant. You’ll want to take in all the details. You’ll learn about essential spices, molcajetes for grinding ingredients, how to make nixtamal (whole kernel corn boiled with pickling lime, which is ground into masa, the cornmeal from which tortillas are made). The authors will introduce you to “neo-traditional” tortilla possibilities (saffron, buckwheat, pistachio). The chapter on salsas features the biggest range of such recipes I’ve ever found.

The taco section begins with the expected—chicken, pork, and beef—but then moves on to things like tripe, sea urchin, goat, and egg tacos. Some of these are a bit more “interesting” than I want (I’ve eaten sea urchin; I just don’t like it), but you’ll find your mouth watering as you consider the savory possibilities.

If you know any cooks who enjoy a craftsperson approach, this would make a wonderful gift book. It can get dreamed over—but it will also get plenty of real use.

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October 15, 2015

Steampunk Detective Heroines

The Chess Queen Enigma: A Stoker & Holmes Novel, by Colleen Gleason, (Chronicle Books), 360 pages, release date 6 October, 2015, marketed by the publisher as a title for grades 7 through 12

I’m delighted that a new Stoker and Holmes novel has been released. In case you aren’t familiar with this series (The Chess Queen Enigma is volume three), yes, the last names are familiar. The Stoker is Evaline, sister and ward of brother Bram, the author of Dracula; the Holmes is Alvermina (though she prefers to shorten it to Mina), the daughter of Sherlock Holmes’ older brother Mycroft.

These two young women live in an alternate, steampunk London, where handleless parasols hover mechanically over women’s heads and multi-level streets are anchored by balloons. There’s more to their world, however, than these sorts of frivolous mechanisms. In The Chess Queen Enigma readers learn that the decision to use steam power, rather than electric, may not be a matter of public safety, as the government claims, but a policy designed to enrich powerful men with investments in the steam industry. (Sound familiar?)

The chess Queen of the title once belonged to Elizabeth I and is now being returned to England by the princess of Betrovia, thus ending a long feud between the two nations. Stoker and Holmes are the princess’ unwilling chaperones, trying to protect her from both scandal and danger. Their assignment prevents them from continuing investigations into the identity of their long-time nemesis, the Ankh, with as much energy as they’d like—though they’re surprised and (nervously) delighted to find that the princess is willing to work with them on this project.

With each new volume in this series, I find myself growing increasingly fond of Stoker and Holmes. Their characters balance each other well and provide readers with a wonderful blend of adventure, originality, humor, and quirky feminist impulses. If you have a reader (particularly a female one) in you life between the ages of twelve and eighteen, this title would make a well-received gift. And, if you’re like me, you may find it a treat for older readers as well.

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October 13, 2015

Climbing the Tree of Life

The Mystics of Mile End: A Novel, by Sigal Samuel, (William Morrow Paperbacks), 320 pages, release date 13 October, 2015

The Mystics of Mile End is a rich and satisfying novel in a number of ways. It juxtaposes Jewish mysticism and rationalism; it presents a world populated by a mix of hipsters and conservative Jews; it explores the crisis moments in life that can lead to an embrace or rejection of faith; it contrasts scientifically based narrative with the narrative of the Torah and Kabbalah. Add to this the fact that it’s narrated in four different voices and what the reader encounters is a world that’s new at every turn.

The Meyer family has lost its mother, and her sudden death leaves not just a gap in the family, but unresolved questions of faith. Her husband, David, an academic, has rejected the conservative Judaism they once shared, replacing it with a rigid rationalism. Samara, the oldest of the two siblings has chosen to secretly prepare for her Bat Mitzvah, a ritual her father has refused to allow her to participate in. Younger brother Lev lives a sort of dual existence, attending Hebrew school in the afternoons, then hanging out with his best friend, who is obsessed with astronomy. He embraces faith and science, without seeing the potential conflicts between them.

This is the situation at the novel’s start. Samuel takes us through years of this family’s life as its members move toward and away from their original faith. At the center of this to-and-fro movement is the Tree of Life—a mystical construction embodying God’s creative energy and the human spirit. Each of the novel’s central characters undertakes a study of the Tree: Lev as a part of his Hebrew school lessons; David after a heart attack; Samara in an attempt to understand her father; and Lev’s astronomer friend in an attempt to understand Samara, for whom he has an unrequited love.

Spending time in the world of Mile End offers readers food for both the heart and mind. This is the sort of story you’ll find yourself turning over as you fall asleep at night, reflecting on the philosophical walls each character builds to circumscribe her/his world and the things that can happen as the foundations of these walls are gradually undermined.


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October 12, 2015

One Mystery Opening into Another

The Labyrinth of the Scriptorium, by Hitoshi Goto, (Veronica Lane Books), 101 pages, release date 5 March, 2015

Originally published to acclaim in Japan in 2002, Hitoshi Goto’s The Labyrinth of the Scriptorium is a challenging read, simultaneously interesting and frustrating. The book has a mystery-within-a-mystery-within-a-mystery-within-a-mystery structure that requires readers willing to repeatedly leave one narrative for another.

What drew my attention to the book was both the title and the promise, in the write-up, of a mystery about the Cathars, the Christian sect annihilated as heretical in the 13th Century. Interestingly, this massacre has a parallel in feudal Japan—one of the book’s more interesting topics.

The Cathars appear early on in the novel, then are dropped for a series of nested mysteries set in Europe during and after World War II. The Cathars reappear at the book’s end as the central character, Professor Tomii puzzles his way through the more recent events. What this meant for me was that I read quickly at first, then more slowly when the strand I was most interested in was dropped, and finally sped up again when the novel returned to the theme that had drawn me to it.

The Cathar mystery is not resolved at the end of The Labyrinth of the Scriptorium. Instead, readers are promised a resolution in a sequel, Twilight of Gutenberg.

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October 09, 2015

Music, Murder, and Stolen Art

Art in the Blood: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure, by Bonnie MacBird, (Collins Crime Club), 320 pages, release date 6 October, 2015

These days, the literary world has a wealth of new titles riffing on Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved Sherlock Holmes. Bonnie MacBird’s Art in the Blood is a welcome addition to this body. Of the many Holmes variations I’ve read (and I am a huge fan of Holmes variations), Art in the Blood comes closest to matching the pacing and voice of the Conan Doyle originals.

In this title, a depressed Holmes, who has recently succumbed once again to his cocaine addiction, is faced with a trio of mysteries, all of them with the Earl of Pellingham and his estate at their center. The Earl’s illegitimate son has disappeared and his estranged mother, a French cabaret singer, fears the worst. Several boys who work in the Earl’s silk mill have turned up brutally murdered. In addition, the Earl, an obsessive and unscrupulous art collector, is suspected of having obtained a stolen French art treasure: the Marseilles Nike.

Holmes has a great deal of help in his investigations, some welcome, some not. He’s glad to reunite with Dr. John Watson, whose wife is visiting relatives. He’s deeply ambivalent about the guidance being offered by his brother Mycroft, with whom he is in constant competition and who is quite ready to use Sherlock for his own political ends. Then there’s the detested (by Holmes at any rate) French criminal investigator Vidocq (an actual historical figure), who claims to have left his life of crime behind in his new pursuit of justice.

This bounty of mystery and characters makes for lively, multi-stranded reading. MacBird succeeds in keeping readers guessing about the various whos of the who dunnits. She also recreates the personalities of and relationship between Holmes and Watson quite effectively. I hope there will be many more Holmes novels from her.

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October 08, 2015

Religious Tensions and a Murder in the 6th Century

Murder in Megara: A John, the Lord Chamberlain Mystery, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, (Poisoned Pen Press), 256 pages, release date 6 October, 2015

I read my first John, the Lord Chamberlain, mystery a year and a half ago and found it engrossing, not just because of the mystery at its heart, but because of the glimpse it gives into 6th Century life under the Emperor Justinian—particularly its depiction of the religious tensions at this time. Justinian has embraced Christianity, which is now the state religion, but many people still adhere to older faiths, including John, who worships the warrior God Mithra.

At this novel’s opening, John and his household find themselves in Megara, John’s childhood home, having been banished by Justinian. The citizens of Megara seem remarkably ill-disposed toward the newcomers. Partly this has to do with a number of shady enterprises villagers are involved in. But this is also due to the fact that Megara is a Christian city, home to a monastery—and the villagers attribute all sorts of acts of violence and voluptuousness to those practicing “pagan” religions. John tries to reconnect with childhood friends, but they are wary of being seen as too welcoming to him.

When John’s estranged stepfather is found murdered in the ruins of a temple on John’s property, John finds himself hounded by both villagers and the City Defender, who seems eager to accept even the wildest of the villagers’ tales, while treating John with suspicion.

This mystery is satisfactorily solved by the novel’s end, but it’s not just the who dunnit that will propel you through the book. The religious tensions of the 6th Century are fascinating in their own right and also provoke thoughts about the role of organized religion in our own time.

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October 06, 2015

A Marvelous YA Novel about the Perfection of the Imperfect

The Nest, by Kenneth Oppel with illustrations by Jon Klassen, (Simon & Schuster), 256 pages, release date 6 October, 2015

Kenneth Oppel is one of those YA authors I read with great pleasure. He’s a master of narrative suspense and deftly balances the magical and the ominous. The Nest is no exception.

Steven, the novel’s central character, is a highly anxious child, with a long list of fears and compulsive behaviors. And now a new baby’s been added to the family—a baby with serious health problems that may result in death or life-long impairment.

When an angel-like wasp appears to Steve in a dream promising to “fix” the baby, Steve welcomes her efforts enthusiastically. But as the plan to fix Steve’s new brother progresses, Steve begins to see that imperfections, even tragic ones, can be an essential part of who we are.

This book pulled me in from the beginning and I read the second half in one mad rush on an afternoon when I had plenty of other tasks on my “to-do” list. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt compelled to race through a novel in this way—that’s how good The Nest is. In fact, I expect it will become one of “the essentials,” the titles I read over again every few years because their pleasures don’t dim, and I can always find something new in them.

This is a book to give to yourself and to the other dedicated readers in your life, regardless of their age. Its magic transcends limits of age or genre.

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