May 12, 2016

Feline Scientific

Professor Astro Cat’s Atomic Adventure, by Dr. Dominic Wallman and Ben Newman, (Flying Eye Books), 56 pages, release date 10 May, 2016

There are so many reasons to love Professor Astro Cat, I just can’t help myself. This brave and brilliant feline, with a mouse sidekick, has already led readers through Frontiers of Space. Now he’s back on an atomic adventure, explaining topics like gravity, the scientific method, atoms, molecules, and laws of force and motion.

Like the first Professor Astro Cat book, Atomic Adventure offers a feast of fact and image. Always dapper—he wears a derby even under his space helmet—Professor Astro Cat models a spirit of inquiry that’s infectious and entertaining.  Grade-school scientists will enjoy poring over the pages of this book, reading main and secondary text, finding fact within fact within fact.

And frankly, Professor Astro Cat’s charm extends well past his grade school audience. Any lover of illustration will be charmed by this book—whether or not she has children in her life. The bright colors and the retro/modern style illustrations are nothing short of visually delicious.

If you know any budding scientists, particularly those who enjoy sorting through data and making their own discoveries, you’ll delight them with Professor Astro Cat. And if you have adult friends who appreciate top-notch design and illustration, they’ll be equally pleased with this title.

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May 10, 2016

A Baseball Mystery That’s Got Lots of Game

Sayonara Slam, by Naomi Hirahara, (Prospect Park Books), 280 pages, 10 May, 2016

The “detective” in Naomi Hirahara’s Sayonara Slam is Mas Arai, former gardener, baseball fan, and resentful host to his extended family. Like most of the characters populating this novel, Arai is fascinating, drawn in careful detail.

The mystery in this mystery novel is the murder of an unpopular Japanese journalist, who drops dead while covering a World Baseball Classic game being held at Dodger Stadium and played between historic opponents Japan and Korea.

More interesting than the mystery (which is interesting) is the network of relationships among the book’s “Japanese” characters. I’m putting Japanese in quotation marks here because their experiences are different enough to make lumping them under a single heading inappropriate. There are the Japanese who lived through internment in the U.S. in World War II. There are the Japanese who returned to Japan rather than be interned. There are the Japanese who survived the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, who are now U.S. citizens. There are Japanese who will acknowledge the wrong Japan committed when it forced Korean women to serve as “comfort women.” There are younger Japanese trying to climb their way up today’s economic ladder. Sayonara Slam lets us sees the complexity of culture played out on both historical and global scales.

Read this book for its central character and for the puzzle it’s built around, but also read it for the rich, complicated world it will introduce you to.

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May 05, 2016

Forgery and Fascination

The Last Weynfeldt, by Martin Suter, translated by Steph Morris, (New Vessel Press), 303 pages, release date 16 February, 2016

If you appreciate interesting mystery novels—and by interesting I mean with unusual settings and particularly well-developed, quirky characters—you’ll love The Last Weynfeldt. Adrian Weynfeldt is an art authenticator and appraiser working for an auction house. He lives alone in a roomy apartment filled with original art, enjoying both comfort and predictability.

The Last Weynfeldt opens just as Adrian’s life is turned doubly upside down: he realizes that a painting he’s authenticated is, in fact, a forgery, and he finds himself involved in an increasingly complex relationship with a volatile woman whose presence is pulling him out of his comfortable habits. One grasps the content of the central mystery fairly quickly, but the resolution is uncertain until the novel’s end, which makes it a rewarding read.

Martin Suter’s writing, as translated by Steph Morris, is a pleasure to read—precise, with effectively painted emotion that never comes across as sentimental. If you’re starting to think about your summer reading pile, add The Last Weynfeldt to your list. Its mix of complexity and charm will prove deeply satisfying.

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May 03, 2016

An Outsider on Roanoke

Left in the Wind: A Novel of the Lost Colony: the Roanoke Journal of Emme Merrimoth, by Ed Gray, (Pegasus) 352 pages, release date 3 May, 2016

One might think that by now the tale of the lost colony of Roanoke had been done to death, but one would be wrong. Ed Gray’s Left in the Wind is a solid addition to the fictional explorations of this colony’s doomed history.

In this version of the story the expedition’s leader, Governor John White, realizing the project is failing, abandons the colonists and sails to England, claiming he is going to secure additional supplies. Meanwhile, the colonists face Indian tribes of varying levels of hostility—and often exacerbate the hostility through their own arrogance.

Emme Merrimoth records these events in her journal. Once White’s lover, she later was both accused of witchcraft and enslaved by one of the local tribes. As a single woman she is much freer than other women of the colony, but also more suspect. As the colony’s failure grows more certain, Emme allows us a viewpoint that is both grounded within the community, but also placed outside of it. She is both participant and observer at the same time, pursuing many of the same questions that readers will find rising in their own minds.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction. Left in the Wind will provide an enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

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April 28, 2016

Resistance in Amsterdam

Girl in the Blue Coat, by Monica Hesse, translated by Natalia Payne, (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), 320 pages, release date 5 April, 2016

Don’t let the fact that Girl in the Blue Coat is published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers fool you. Yes, young adults would enjoy this title, but it makes deeply satisfying reading for adults as well—and it’s worth making a trip into a different section of the bookstore.

The central character, Hanneke, has been surviving the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam and providing sole support for her parents by dealing in black market goods. She works days as a receptionist in a funeral home whose owner is good at finding the increasingly rare things that wealthy Amsterdamers are willing to pay for. Hanneke serves as his delivery person.

Hanneke has no interest beyond keeping herself and her family safe. She certainly doesn’t want to take unnecessary risks. However, Hanneke’s work in the black market brings her in contact with a group of young people working for the resistance… and the novel’s action proceeds from that point.

Monica Hesse has done valuable research into a little known part of the history of resistance in Amsterdam, and The Girl in the Blue Coat brings this history to vivid life.

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April 26, 2016

Dead and Deadened

These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories, by Luke Mogelson, (Tim Duggan Books, Random Houe), 192 pages, release date 26 April 2016

I’m lucky to receive electronic review copies of a great many interesting books—but one of the rules that I’ve established for myself is that when one of the electronic review copies turns out to be of five-star quality, I buy it in hardback the day it’s released. Maybe that’s not necessary, but when I find a book that’s truly worth supporting I want to support it—both by blogging and through my personal purchasing power. These Heroic, Happy Dead is one of those books.

These Heroic, Happy Dead falls just shy of being a  novel. Instead it’s a collection of closely related stories tracking the lives of U.S. soldiers and their families, both while the soldiers serve in Afghanistan and after their return to the U.S. The heroic and the happy of the title are both sardonic. While these men may be brave, they aren’t heroes. And they’re certainly not happy.

Luke Mogelson shows us men who have been changed by war—both more detached and more volatile, more rigid and more unsure of what it is they hope for from their lives. The reader feels almost relieved not to be meeting these men in person, but at the same time empathizes with them. They may have been undirected before serving in Afghanistan; that war has now left them completely unmoored.

As these soldiers and ex-soldiers try to main a sot of minimalist existence, their families circle around them like asteroid-shattered planets. There’s the mother who is unaware of both the unthinking violence and the deep regret that live side by side within her son. A teenage son who understands that something is off with his father, but who doesn’t yet have enough experience of the world to understand how very off that off is.

This book is a quick read, but it’s worth taking slowly, letting the stories sink in one at a time, so each has its own full resonance and is more than just one part of a whole. I haven’t been in combat, so I can’t really know how accurate these stories are, but I do know that they overwhelmed me with their mix of tragedy, hope, and impotence in the face of both the world of war and the world at home.

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April 21, 2016

Dream Catchers, Distillers, and Bottlers

The Girl Who Could Not Dream, by Sarah Beth Durst, (Clarion Books), 384 pages, release date 3 November, 2015

Imagine a world where dreams can be captured, bottled, bought and sold, in which dream merchants must hide their trade from other who distrust their skills. Imagine, too, that a very few, very unique people, who cannot dream, can bring to life creatures from the dreams of others.  That’s the situation at the center of The Girl Who Could Not Dream.

Sophie has dreamed only once—when she stole a bottled dream from the dream store hidden beneath her parents’ bookshop. She brought her best friend back from that dream—a monster named Monster, who is fluffy, blue, four-legged, tentacled, and possessed of multiple rows of teeth. Aside from Monster, Sophie doesn’t have any real friends—just the kids at school she provides with dream catchers, which spare them from nightmares and allow her to bring dreams back to her parents’ store for distilling.

When Sophie’s parents disappear, she must rescue them from a world where dreams and reality increasingly overlap and in which terrifying creatures have begun to appear. In this process, she learns, finally, about friendships with other children (and a tribe of fluffy, pink killer-bunnies), about courage, and about forgiveness.

The Girl Who Could Not Dream is a fun, silly-serious, just-the-right-amount-of-frightening read for kids in late grade school or middle school. Its mingling of fantasy and the ordinary world make its magic seem almost possible.

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April 20, 2016

Black, White, and Yellow Fever

Lazaretto: A Novel, by Dianne McKinney-Whetstone, (Harper), 352 pages, release date 12 April, 2016

The key location in Lazaretto is, of course, a lazaretto: a quarantine hospital. In this case, the quarantine hospital is on an island in the harbor beside Philadelphia. Weak and dying immigrants—and Philadelphia residents suspected of carrying easily transmissible diseases—may find themselves isolated on the lazaretto, unsure of when they’ll be able to rejoin the wider world.

The crucial latter part of Lazaretto is set on the lazaretto, but much of the book takes place within the black community of Philadelphia in the years following the assassination of Abraham Lincolm. The book’s  characters range widely in color, occupation, and status. Added to the mix are orphaned twin brothers Abraham and Lincoln. While both are technically “white,” culturally they, too, are black: odd men out in a community full of odd men.

Lazaretto offers high-stakes drama: a murder, an attack by white racists leaving central characters  balanced on the cusp of life and death, pure and less-than-pure loves, spiritualism, and a possible outbreak of yellow fever. This novel propels readers along, with alternating waves of fear and celebration. The number of characters brought to life between its pages gives readers a panoramic view of a particular moment in U.S. history, when slavery has ended, but freedom is still a long way off.

Read this book for this historical and cultural insights it offers. Read it for its characters, who make excellent companions. And read it for the almost transcendental moments when McKinney-Whetstone offers readers yet one more surprise in a novel full of surprises.



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April 18, 2016

A Wishful-Thinking Elizabethan London

A Second Daniel, In the Den of The English Lion Volume I, by Neal Roberts, (Booktrope Editions), 364 pages, release date 28 September, 2015

Set in 1592 London, A Second Daniel straddles the line between historical fiction and historical wishful thinking. This doesn’t take away from the fun of reading the book, but it does mean that one cannot treat this as a piece of fiction revealing historical truth.

In 1558, “Noah Ames,” a young orphan and a Jew, stumbles into a chance meeting with Princess Elizabeth, soon to become Elizabeth I. She finds the boy charming and decides to pay for his education, which requires his new name and which requires carefully disguising—without denying—his Jewish heritage. Fast forward almost 35 years and Noah, now a lawyer, finds himself investigating the murder of a prominent Spanish merchant living in London. The merchant is connected to a London-based Spanish diplomat, who also happens to be a (semi)hidden Jew. And, the merchant leaves behind a beautiful widow who soon becomes Noah’s love interest.

The author makes good use of court intrigues during Elizabeth’s reign, drawing on historical sources. However, Daniel’s life as a secret Jew is much less likely. This author, like many, happily cites Elizabeth’s proclaimed desire to “not make windows into men’s souls,” taking it rather more generously than it was interpreted in Elizabeth’s London. In other words, this novel will require a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but once that is granted A Second Daniel makes for fun reading.

A Second Daniel is the first volume in what is intended as a series. Volume 2, The Impress of Heaven, was released in January. If you want a bit of an Elizabethan romp and aren’t too concerned with historical accuracy, you’ll enjoy this title. If you’re less tolerant of historical revisionism, you’ll want to look for more substantial reading.

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April 14, 2016

Calculations and Compromises

One Hundred Twenty-One Days, by Michele Audin, translated by Christiana Hills, (Deep Vellum Publishing), 200 pages, release date 12 April, 2016

One Hundred Twenty-One Days is a novel that is so original it almost defies description. The characters are an assortment of mathematicians. The time period spans World Wars I and II. The style—well, the style varies depending upon which chapter you’re reading. As the reader works her way through the book’s many voices, the reader experiences a depiction of the processes by which we make choices and compromises during difficult times. Some of our mathematicians collaborate with occupying forces, some don’t. Some speak out when they see incipient fascism, some don’t. All of these actions are presented obliquely, requiring close attention. Given its intellectual and stylistic richness, I don’t doubt that this title will be one of my favorites of the year—and one I’ll be rereading sooner, rather than later.

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