Wednesday, July 29, 2015

New Young Adult Book List

Do you enjoy reading young adult novels? Good, because we all do. Here are some new ones so check them out!

1) "My Heart and Other Black Holes" by Jasmine Warga

Two teenagers make a suicide pact in this poignant, first-person debut.

Sixteen-year-old Aysel’s life “can be neatly divided into two sections: before my father made the nightly news and after.” Since her mentally ill father murdered a local boy with Olympic hopes, Aysel feels as though her only escape from the public shame is suicide. She also worries that her father’s madness is genetic and exists inside her as well. Through a website that matches suicide partners, Aysel meets Roman, a kind, attractive, athletic boy who feels responsible for the drowning death of his little sister. Even though Aysel harbors a passion for science and Roman a love of basketball, they are determined not to let each other “flake out.” Together they begin enacting a fake relationship designed to lull Roman’s overprotective mother into allowing Roman more freedom so they can carry out their fatal plan. But when Aysel begins falling in love with Roman for real, she knows she can no longer follow through on their pact. Can she convince Roman that his life is worth living before it’s too late? Any teen who’s ever felt like an outsider will be able to relate to Aysel’s and Roman’s fully realized characters. The countdown at the beginning of each chapter to the couple’s death date (the same day Roman’s sister died) will help propel readers forward to a hopeful if not entirely unexpected ending.

Earnest and heartfelt. (author’s note, resources) (Fiction. 13-17)

2) "We All Looked Up" by Tommy Wallach

The end of the world turns into a life-changing opportunity for four high school seniors.

High school is all about labels. In this stunning debut set in present-day Seattle, there’s Peter the athlete, Andy the slacker, Anita the overachiever and Eliza the slut. Just as each notices a strange blue star in the sky one night, the president announces that the star is actually an asteroid with a path that is 66.6 percent likely to hit and destroy the Earth in two months. Told from the teens’ alternating viewpoints, sometimes with cleverly overlapping details, this edgy story follows how each copes with impending doom with brilliant imagery and astounding depth. Knowing that all life will probably end in just weeks, the four teens abandon their labels and search for meaning in the time they have left. Inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, they forge a “karass”—an unbreakable, and indeed life-changing, bond—as they explore purpose, evil, faith, independence, friendship, sex and love together. In the background there is also social commentary to be gleaned as the world becomes a dangerous place and martial law becomes a farce. But just like the asteroid that dots the night sky, Wallach pierces his darkness with tenderness and humor.

A thought-provoking story that will bring out readers’ inner philosophers. (Fiction. 14 & up)

3) "The Conspiracy of Us" by Maggie Hall

A friendless teen discovers she's the key to a millenia-old epic prophecy—making her an invaluable pawn of the world's great powers.

Sixteen-year-old Avery West has a Plan: don't make friends, so as to remain unhurt when she inevitably has to change schools. Her single mother is a military contractor (something to do with a mandate), and Avery never lives anywhere long.­ At least Avery's learned to hide her violet eyes behind colored contacts, so she's only friendless instead of mocked. Avery's plan doesn't take into account the two gorgeous young men who appear fascinated with her: suave Jack and scruffy Stellan. The boys insist they're taking her to meet long-lost family and whirl Avery across the Atlantic to Paris (an unplanned trip about which she's remarkably sanguine). There, she learns of a conspiracy almost as old as Western civilization. Political leaders, actors, sports heroes and businessmen have come from just 12 families for nearly 2,000 years. Avery's place in all this has to with a prophecy called, surprise surprise, the mandate. Avery's thrust into a cinematic, puzzle-solving action-adventure that takes her from Paris to Istanbul. Though she's overwhelmed by "boy drama," she knows her quest is "way more important." Thrill as Avery's outfitted in Prada and Louboutin! Gasp as she jumps from a fire escape into a gunfight! Swoon as sexy Europeans fight for her hand!

This series opener won't win any prizes, but it will appeal to those who want puzzles and action mixed with their fashion and romance. (Thriller. 12-14)

4) "More Happy Than Not" by Adam Silvera

In a Bronx neighborhood of the near future, it’s no secret that at least one person has taken advantage of the Leteo Institute’s new medical procedure that promises “cutting-edge memory-relief.”

Reeling from his discovery of his father in a blood-filled bathtub, there are lots of things that Aaron Soto would like to forget—the smile-shaped scar on his own wrist attests to that. Puerto Rican Aaron meets a boy named Thomas from a neighboring (and sometimes rival) project who shares his love of comic books and fantasy fiction. The two develop a friendship that makes Aaron wonder if he’s a “dude-liker,” leading to a breakup with his girlfriend. When Thomas doesn’t reciprocate, Aaron considers the Leteo procedure for himself. This novel places a straightforward concept—what if you could erase unwanted memories?—squarely within an honest depiction of the pains of navigating the teen years and upends all expectations for a plot resolution. Debut author Silvera has an ear for dialogue and authentic voices. He scatters references to his characters’ various ethnicities in an unforced manner—of a midnight showing of a movie based on their favorite fantasy series, Thomas says “I was the only brown Scorpius Hawthorne.” Thomas is the foil to Aaron’s conviction that there’s an easy way out in a multifaceted look at some of the more unsettling aspects of human relationships.

A brilliantly conceived page-turner. (Speculative fiction. 13-17)

5) "The Sin Eater's Daughter" by Melinda Salisbury

A peasant girl transplanted to the royal court repeatedly confronts death in her new life as executioner, entertainer and bride.

Raised as the Sin Eater’s daughter and apprentice, Twylla expected to deal with the deceased by eating food symbolizing their sins (to free their souls) and to grow morose and morbidly obese like her mother. But four years ago, she came to the court of Lormere and became Daunen Embodied—the king and queen are the other divine representatives—only to find herself delivering death instead of salvation. Petrified that Lormere will become like Tregellan (a science-minded democracy) or Tallith (abandoned for 500 years), mad queen Helewys controls the court through fear and religion (and even darker means). Twylla is literally untouchable—her skin seemingly made poisonous through a mystical ritual and mysterious potion. She misses her sister and still mourns her dead friend, but she nevertheless longs for companionship. Accordingly, two men vie for her affection: her new, Tregellian guard, Lief, who encourages her to question her faith, and her betrothed, Prince Merek, who pushes for political upheaval. Torn between the boys and her beliefs, Twylla suffers identity crises, court conspiracies and cruel revelations before being able to redefine herself. Through Twylla’s deliberate, present-tense narration, Salisbury weaves a complex tale of romance, religion, fairy tales and politics.

A slow but satisfying read with impressive depth and emotion. (Fantasy. 14 & up)

6) "The Wrath and the Dawn" by Renee Ahdieh

A lush, hypnotic, swoony re-imagining of the “Arabian Nights” framing story.

Sixteen-year-old Shahrzad jilts her sweetheart to wed the “murderer, monster, madman” Khalid Ibn al-Rashid, Caliph of Khorasan, planning vengeance for his serial murders of his brides, including her beloved cousin. Clever, stubborn, and reckless, Shahrzad wields stories like weapons as she piques her new husband’s interest and maneuvers through palace intrigue. But she never envisaged that the cold, brilliant, tortured boy king could kindle her desire, nor that her spurned betrothed would raise a rebellion to rescue her. Redolent of perfumes and spices, luxuriant with jewels and silks, this debut pulls authentic details from across cultures and centuries and mixes them with magic and mysticism to concoct an exotic storybook world—albeit with violence and candid sensuality that take it well out of the realm of children’s books. While the steamy love triangle takes center stage, secondary characters add excitement with their treacherous schemes, murderous plots, and soapy melodrama. Witty, brash, and passionate, Shahrzad makes a good foil for both her impossibly valiant and infatuated first love and for the angry and self-loathing Khalid, cursed to make impossible choices. As the disparate plot threads intertwine to a heartbreaking climax, the conflagrant cliffhanger will leave those readers enthralled by the forbidden romance both yearning for and dreading the concluding volume.

Dreamily romantic, deliciously angst-y, addictively thrilling. (Fantasy. 14 & up)

7) "Magonia" by Maria Dahvana Headley

A girl with a rare fatal disease discovers a magical secret about herself.

Aza Ray Boyle, nearly 16, is sentenced to death by a breathing disorder medical science calls Azaray syndrome (though Aza herself thinks it should be called "Clive" or maybe "the Jackass"). Somehow she keeps surviving: hating the hospital, snarking at her teachers, loving her batty family, and completely relying on her anti-social best friend, Jason. When the worst happens, Aza's shocked at how unprepared she really is. She's even less prepared to wake up on an airship, surrounded by blue-skinned sailors and giant bird people who call her Aza Ray Quel. Aza, it seems, is the lost savior of the sky people of Magonia, stolen away and hidden on land. Politicking and conspiracies confuse Aza (and set up a sequel). She really ought to relish being special as she masters her newfound powers of singing and working with a bird familiar (shaky worldbuilding leaves the magical structure somewhat hand-wavy). The painful, sarcastic beauty of Aza's interactions down below in the everyday world begs comparisons to John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (2012), yet passive savior Aza of Magonia is a pale shadow of her nonmagical self.

Striking an uneven balance between gorgeous realism and banal fantasy, this requires readers tolerant of books with split personalities. (Fantasy. 13-15)

8) "Shutter" by Courtney Alameda

Horror grips San Francisco when a murderous ghost eludes the Helsing Corps, a famed band of monster hunters.

The last descendant of the Van Helsing of Dracula fame, Micheline disobeys her father when she runs alone into a haunted hospital, convinced she can exorcise the violent ghost that’s taken over the pediatric ward. Instead, the ghost overpowers her, inflicting her and the three young colleagues who follow with deadly soulchains that will kill them all in seven days. Worse, the ghost knows Micheline’s name. Escaping after her dad confines her to her room, she gathers her team and embarks on a mission to trap the ghost—a particularly strong one—by capturing it on film. Racing against time and the progression of the soulchains, Micheline and three other Helsing reapers desperately devise new methods to combat the ghost, even as other monsters get in their way. When Luca, a denizen of the plane between life and death called the Obscura, appears to Micheline with dubious advice on how to proceed, she has even more decisions to make. Alameda keeps the fear dripping from the walls as she plunges headlong into this full-scale thriller. She invents threatening and gruesome monsters, packs her heroes into seemingly inescapable plights, and adds mystery with the introduction of Luca and the identity of the terrifying ghost. There’s even a bit of forbidden romance.

A page-turner for thriller fans. (Horror. 13-18)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Hugo Award Winners Book List

Do you enjoy reading award winning books? Check out this book list...

1) "Ancillary Justice" by Ann Leckie

In which a zombie imperialist space cop gets caught up in a complex plot to—well, this enjoyable sci-fi outing gets even more complicated than all that.

Those who have seen the film Event Horizon will remember that a starship that got caught up in a time-space-continuum eddy got all, well, weird—or, as its creator puts it, “[w]hen she crossed over, she was just a ship. But when she came back—she was alive!” Debut novelist Leckie’s premise dips into the same well, only her spaceship has become, over thousands of years, a sort-of human that is also a sort-of borg made up of interchangeable-parts-bearing dead people. Breq, aka One Esk, aka Justice of Toren, has his/her/its work cut out for him/her/it: There’s a strange plot afoot in the far-flung Radch, and it’s about to make Breq violate the prime directive, or whatever the Radchaai call the rule that says that multisegmented, ancillary humanoids are not supposed to shoot their masters, no matter how bad their masters might be. Leckie does a very good job of setting this complex equation up in not many pages, letting detail build on detail, as when Breq finds—well, let’s say “herself” for the moment—in an increasingly tangled conspiracy that involves the baddest guy of all, the even more multifaceted head honcho of the Radch. As the action picks up, one just knows there’s going to be some battering and bruising out on the shoulder of Orion.

Leckie’s novel cast of characters serves her well-plotted story nicely. This is an altogether promising debut.

County Cat Link

2) "Redshirts" by John Scalzi

In 2456, when Ensign Andrew Dahl is assigned to the xenobiology laboratory of the Universal Union starship Intrepid, he looks forward to participating in Away Missions. Peculiarly, however, experienced crew members invariably vanish just before the officers arrive with the mission assignments. Capt. Abernathy, science officer Q'eeng and astrogator Kerensky always go along, whether their skills are required or not, along with a handful of anonymous juniors. Worse, each mission always entails a usually unnecessary confrontation with improbable and hostile entities (ice sharks, killer robots with harpoons, Borgovian land worms) during which one or more of the hapless juniors get killed in dramatically horrible fashion. Abernathy and Q'eeng always emerge unperturbed and unscathed, while Kerensky consistently gets mangled but miraculously survives. If all this sounds like they're trapped in a bad episode of Star Trek, you're not wrong: They are. Somehow, and Scalzi declines to discuss the details, the actions taking place are being dictated by the half-baked scripts of a Star Trek clone series back in 2012. This, and its entirely predictable resolution, occupies 200 pages or so. The remainder comprises three codas set in 2012 that attempt to ground the aftermath in some sort of reality. Fittingly, the starship characters, those who aren't ciphers, sound and behave like teenagers. The plot you know about. Intriguing developments, fresh ideas, dashes of originality? Forget it. It's all vaguely amusing in a sophomoric sort of way, which is fine if you're an easily diverted sophomore with a couple of hours to kill. 

3) "The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman

Wistful, witty, wise—and creepy. Gaiman’s riff on Kipling’s Mowgli stories never falters, from the truly spine-tingling opening, in which a toddler accidentally escapes his family’s murderer, to the melancholy, life-affirming ending. Bod (short for Nobody) finds solace and safety with the inhabitants of the local graveyard, who grant him some of the privileges and powers of the dead—he can Fade and Dreamwalk, for instance, but still needs to eat and breathe. Episodic chapters tell miniature gems of stories (one has been nominated for a Locus Award) tracing Bod’s growth from a spoiled boy who runs away with the ghouls to a young man for whom the metaphor of setting out into the world becomes achingly real. Childhood fears take solid shape in the nursery-rhyme–inspired villains, while heroism is its own, often bitter, reward. Closer in tone to American Gods than to Coraline, but permeated with Bod’s innocence, this needs to be read by anyone who is or has ever been a child. (Fantasy. 10 & up) 

4) "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon

Imagine a mutant strain of Dashiell Hammett crossed with Isaac Bashevis Singer, as one of the most imaginative contemporary novelists extends his fascination with classic pulp.

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, 2000, etc.) returns with an alternate-history novel that succeeds as both a hardboiled detective story and a softhearted romance. In the aftermath of World War II, a Jewish homeland has been established in Alaska rather than Israel. Amid the mean streets of Sitka, the major city, Detective Meyer Landsman lives in a seedy flophouse, where alcohol has dulled his investigative instincts. His marriage to his beloved Bina couldn’t survive an aborted pregnancy, after tests showed the possibility of birth defects. He also hasn’t gotten over the death of his younger sister, a pilot whose plane crashed. He finds his sense of mission renewed when there’s a murder in the hotel where he lives. The deceased was a heroin-addicted chess player, his slaying seemingly without motive. There’s an urgency to Landsman’s investigation, because the Promised Land established by the Alaskan Settlement Act is only a 50-year rental, with Jews expected to go elsewhere when the “Reversion” takes place two months hence. Thus, Landsman must solve the case before he loses his job and his home, a challenge complicated by the reappearance of his ex-wife, appointed chief of police during this transition before the Reversion. In her attempts to leave a clean slate, will she help her former husband or thwart him? Adding to the intrigue are a cult of extremists led by a gangster rabbi, a possibility that the death of Landsman’s sister wasn’t an accident and a conspiracy led by the U.S. government. “These are strange times to be a Jew,” say various characters, like a Greek chorus, though the novel suggests that all times are strange times to be a Jew.

A page-turning noir, with a twist of Yiddish, that satisfies on many levels.

County Cat Link

5) "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke

Rival magicians square off to display and match their powers in an extravagant historical fantasy being published simultaneously in several countries, to be marketed as Harry Potter for adults.

But English author Clarke’s spectacular debut is something far richer than Potter: an absorbing tale of vaulting ambition and mortal conflict steeped in folklore and legend, enlivened by subtle characterizations and a wittily congenial omniscient authorial presence. The agreeably convoluted plot takes off with a meeting in of “gentleman-magicians” in Yorkshire in 1806, the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The participants’ scholarly interests are encouraged by a prophecy “that one day magic would be restored to England by two magicians” and would subsequently be stimulated by the coming to national prominence of Gilbert Norrell, a fussy pedant inclined to burrow among his countless books of quaint and curious lore, and by dashing, moody Jonathan Strange, successfully employed by Lord Wellington to defeat French forces by magical means. Much happens. A nobleman’s dead wife is revived but languishes in a half-unreal realm called “Lost-hope”—as does Stephen Black, the same nobleman’s black butler, enigmatically assured by a nameless “gentleman with thistle-down hair” that he (Stephen) is a monarch in exile. Clarke sprinkles her radiantly readable text with faux-scholarly (and often hilarious) footnotes while building an elaborate plot that takes Strange through military glory, unsuccessful attempts to cure England’s mad king, travel to Venice and a meeting with Lord Byron, and on a perilous pursuit of the fabled Raven King, former ruler of England, into the world of Faerie, and Hell (“The only magician to defeat Death !”). There’s nothing in Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, or any of their peers that surpasses the power with which Clarke evokes this fabulous figure’s tangled “history.” The climax, in which Strange and Norrell conspire to summon the King, arrives—for all the book’s enormous length—all too soon.

An instant classic, one of the finest fantasies ever written.

County Cat Link

 6) "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" by J.K. Rowling

As the bells and whistles of the greatest prepublication hoopla in children’s book history fade, what’s left in the clearing smoke is—unsurprisingly, considering Rowling’s track record—another grand tale of magic and mystery, of wheels within wheels oiled in equal measure by terror and comedy, featuring an engaging young hero-in-training who’s not above the occasional snit, and clicking along so smoothly that it seems shorter than it is. Good thing, too, with this page count. That’s not to say that the pace doesn’t lag occasionally—particularly near the end when not one but two bad guys halt the action for extended accounts of their misdeeds and motives—or that the story lacks troubling aspects. As Harry wends his way through a fourth year of pranks, schemes, intrigue, danger and triumph at Hogwarts, the racial and class prejudice of many wizards moves to the forefront, with hooded wizards gathering to terrorize an isolated Muggle family in one scene while authorities do little more than wring their hands. There’s also the later introduction of Hogwarts’ house elves as a clan of happy slaves speaking nonstandard English. These issues may be resolved in sequels, but in the meantime, they are likely to leave many readers, particularly American ones, uncomfortable. Still, opening with a thrilling quidditch match, and closing with another wizardly competition that is also exciting, for very different reasons, this sits at the center of Rowling’s projected seven volume saga and makes a sturdy, heartstopping (doorstopping) fulcrum for it. (Fiction. All ages)

County Cat Link


Monday, July 27, 2015

Popular Travel Book List

Do you enjoy road trips but don't want to actually go on one? Here is a book list for you. Check it out!

1) "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson

The Appalachian Trail—from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Me.—consists of some five million steps, and Bryson (Notes from a Small Island, 1996, etc.) seems to coax a laugh, and often an unexpectedly startling insight, out of each one he traverses.

It’s not all yuks—though it is hard not to grin idiotically through all 288 pages—for Bryson is a talented portraitist of place. He did his natural-history homework, which is to say he knows a jack-o-lantern mushroom from a hellbender salamander from a purple wartyback mussel, and can also write seriously about the devastation of chestnut blight. He laces his narrative with gobbets of trail history and local trivia, and he makes real the “strange and palpable menace” of the dark deep woods in which he sojourns, the rough-hewn trailscape “mostly high up on the hills, over lonely ridges and forgotten hollows that no one has ever used or coveted,” celebrating as well the “low-level ecstasy” of finding a book left thoughtfully at a trail shelter, or a broom with which to sweep out the shelter’s dross. Yet humor is where the book finds its cues--from Bryson’s frequent trail companion, the obese and slothful Katz, a spacious target for Bryson’s sly wit, to moments of cruel and infantile laughs, as when he picks mercilessly on the witless woman who, admittedly, ruined a couple of their days. But for the most part the humor is bright sarcasm, flashing with drollery and intelligence, even when it’s a far yodel from political sensitivity. Then Bryson will take your breath away with a trenchant critique of the irredeemably vulgar vernacular strip that characterizes many American downtowns, or of other signs of decay he encounters off the trail (though the trail itself he comes to love).

“Walking is what we did,” Bryson states: 800-plus out of the 2,100-plus miles, and that good sliver is sheer comic travel entertainment.

2) "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" by Cheryl Strayed

Unsentimental memoir of the author’s three-month solo hike from California to Washington along the Pacific Crest Trail.

Following the death of her mother, Strayed’s (Torch, 2006) life quickly disintegrated. Family ties melted away; she divorced her husband and slipped into drug use. For the next four years, life was a series of disappointments. “I was crying over all of it,” she writes, “over the sick mire I’d made of my life since my mother died; over the stupid existence that had become my own. I was not meant to be this way, to live this way, to fail so darkly.” While waiting in line at an outdoors store, Strayed read the back cover of a book about the Pacific Crest Trail. Initially, the idea of hiking the trail became a vague apparition, then a goal. Woefully underprepared for the wilderness, out of shape and carrying a ridiculously overweight pack, the author set out from the small California town of Mojave, toward a bridge (“the Bridge of the Gods”) crossing the Columbia River at the Oregon-Washington border. Strayed’s writing admirably conveys the rigors and rewards of long-distance hiking. Along the way, she suffered aches, pains, loneliness, blistered, bloody feet and persistent hunger. Yet the author also discovered a newfound sense of awe; for her, hiking the PCT was “powerful and fundamental” and “truly hard and glorious.” Strayed was stunned by how the trail both shattered and sheltered her. Most of the hikers she met along the way were helpful, and she also encountered instances of trail magic, “the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail.”

A candid, inspiring narrative of the author’s brutal physical and psychological journey through a wilderness of despair to a renewed sense of self.

3) "Into the Wild" by Jon Krakauer

The excruciating story of a young man on a quest for knowledge and experience, a search that eventually cooked his goose, told with the flair of a seasoned investigative reporter by Outside magazine contributing editor Krakauer (Eiger Dreams, 1990). Chris McCandless loved the road, the unadorned life, the Tolstoyan call to asceticism. After graduating college, he took off on another of his long destinationless journeys, this time cutting all contact with his family and changing his name to Alex Supertramp. He was a gent of strong opinions, and he shared them with those he met: ``You must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life''; ``be nomadic.'' Ultimately, in 1992, his terms got him into mortal trouble when he ran up against something--the Alaskan wild--that didn't give a hoot about Supertramp's worldview; his decomposed corpse was found 16 weeks after he entered the bush. Many people felt McCandless was just a hubris-laden jerk with a death wish (he had discarded his map before going into the wild and brought no food but a bag of rice). Krakauer thought not. Admitting an interest that bordered on obsession, he dug deep into McCandless's life. He found a willful, reckless, moody boyhood; an ugly little secret that sundered the relationship between father and son; a moral absolutism that agitated the young man's soul and drove him to extremes; but he was no more a nutcase than other pilgrims. Writing in supple, electric prose, Krakauer tries to make sense of McCandless (while scrupulously avoiding off-the-rack psychoanalysis): his risky behavior and the rites associated with it, his asceticism, his love of wide open spaces, the flights of his soul. A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor will it to readers of Krakauer's narrative. (4 maps) (First printing of 35,000; author tour)

4) "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World" by Eric Weiner

Part travelogue, part personal-discovery memoir and all sustained delight, this wise, witty ramble reads like Paul Theroux channeling David Sedaris on a particularly good day.

Intent on finding the happiest places on Earth and learning what makes them that way, globe-trotting NPR correspondent Weiner discovers some surprises. Money helps, but only to a point; the happiest places tend to be racially homogenous (an unfortunate statistic for multiculturalists); the greatest obstacle to happiness is not poverty or oppression, but envy; breast-enhancement surgery appears to be a good investment, happiness-wise. The author vividly renders happily repressed Switzerland, determinedly tolerant and hedonistic Holland and culturally vibrant Iceland as models of happiness-encouraging environments. (Another surprise: Happiness flourishes in cold climates.) Excursions to Bhutan and India provide a spiritual perspective and underscore the wisdom of low expectations. For contrast, Weiner visits some decidedly unhappy spots: England’s dismal Slough (“a showpiece of quiet desperation”); newly rich Qatar, choking on cash but devoid of culture; and miserable Moldova, whose citizens live by an ethos of envy, corruption, vicious self-interest and pleasure in the misfortune of others. The Moldova chapter is the book’s funniest—nothing inspires comedy like misfortune and despair. But Weiner writes of the morose Moldovans with affectionate warmth and manages to find something positive to say about the country: The fruits and vegetables are fresh. Americans, despite their wealth and comfort, don’t make the top ranks of the world-happiness index—they think too much, work too hard and look for satisfaction in consumer goods. The author’s pronouncements on the nature of happiness are not exactly world-shaking: It depends on cooperative relationships and community; it has spiritual value; it can be attained as a conscious choice. But the author’s conclusions are hardly the point—as with all great journeys, getting there is at least half the fun.

Fresh and beguiling.

5) "The Great Railway Bazaar" by Paul Theroux

For Theroux, so deft in alien locales, all Asia is the bazaar in this fabulous, lone journey through the deserts and steppes and cities of that vastest of continents. Four months, thousands of miles--The Orient Express, The Teheran Express, the Night Mail to Meshed, the Kyber Pass Local, The Delhi Mail from Jaipur, The Mandalay Express, the North Star Night Express to Singapore, The Hue-Danang Passenger Train, The Hikari (""Sunbeam"") Super Express to Kyoto, The Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow--he lived in the decayed romance of the sleeping car ""combining the best features of the cupboard with forward motion."" The only regret for the reader is that images, faces, fantasies rush by as fast as the wheels of those furtive trains. Still, Theroux can conjure an entire lifetime from a chance encounter. Thus, Sadik, the baggy, bald Turk en route to ""owstraalia"" to export laborers (""Good profit""); or Mr. Bhardwaj, the prim ascetic Indian accountant, carrying on an eternal, losing campaign against ""blighters"" in his office, in all India: or Vassily, drunk, running the dining car ""back and forth, every two weeks, from Moscow to Vladivostok."" The railway stations provide a kind of synopsis of each country: in India they are encampments of semi-naked villagers, cooking, washing, copulating. The maimed and the grotesque are everywhere on display like the one-legged man who became Theroux's image of Calcutta--""hop, hop, hop--moving nimbly through those millions."" In reality it is a pilgrimage to nowhere, an odyssey which extends backward to the wars of Tamerlane and forward to Teheran, gaudy and oil-rich like Dallas. Splendid.

6) "Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World" by Rita Golden Gelman

Children’s author Gelman celebrates the joys of the unfettered life, lived only for the moment, that she enjoyed in places as varied as Guatemala and New Zealand after her marriage ended and she found herself finally able to do as she pleased.

When her husband suggested they separate for two months in 1985, Gelman came to the conclusion that she had been living “someone else’s life” and that, with her children grown, she needed something to accommodate her sense of adventure and idealism. She found the answer in Mexico, where she spent the next two months. There she lived with a family in a Zapotec village, taking side trips to such places as the Mayan ruins in Pelenque. Back home in Los Angeles, her husband asked for a divorce, and, now totally free, Gelman began her life as a nomad. Determined to live off her writing royalties (which went further in poor countries), she spent the next decade in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Israel. As a writer, she seems more interested in people than places, and is best at evoking the sense of community and solidarity she experienced on her wanderings. Gelman’s take on local politics tends to be uninflected—reflexively pro-guerilla in Central America during the late 1980s—and she offers only sketchy takes on local history: her travel is primarily an exercise in personal growth. In Israel she explored her Jewish roots, finding the visit moving but not what she expected. A stay in the tropical forests of Borneo, where she lived in a camp for observing orangutans, was followed by a lengthy stay—her longest—in a Bali coastal village. There, she found a mentor whose stories and insights encouraged her to believe in a spiritual dimension to life, a belief that informed the rest of her travels.

An idiosyncratic but exuberant homage to wanderlust.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Female Heroines Book List

Enjoy reading about a strong female character? Want more books like that? Check out this book list...

1) "Crewel" by Gennifer Albin

Too many slubs in the fabric of this dystopian romance land it in the "irregular" bin.

In Arras, men control everything except reality, which is continually woven and re-woven by Spinsters, all women. They labor at the behest of the patriarchal Guild to maintain a post-apocalyptic utopia. Despite being rigorously coached by her parents to fail her aptitude test, 16-year-old Adelice shows her incredible talent at weaving and is wrested violently from her home to labor in the Coventry for the rest of her life. There, she draws the attention of two handsome young men with electric-blue (or cobalt blue, or sometimes just bright blue) eyes, the oily and evil power-hungry ambassador of the Guild, various catty Spinsters and the Creweler, the most powerful Spinster of them all, who extracts the material that forms the reality of Arras from the ruined Earth. Adelice narrates in the genre's now–de rigueur present tense, whipsawing readers through her guilt, grief, fear, revulsion and lust as she learns the power structures of the Coventry and plots to escape. A genuinely cool premise is undermined by inconsistent worldbuilding, fuzzy physics, pedestrian language, characters who never move beyond stereotype and subplots that go nowhere (including a well-meaning but awkwardly grafted-in gay rights thread). These last may reemerge in the sequel that will follow one of the slowest cliffhangers in recent memory.

It's clear that Adelice cares deeply about her fate; it's debatable whether readers will. (Dystopian romance. 12-16)

2) "The Golden Compass" by Philip Pullman

Pullman (The Tin Princess, 1994, etc.) returns to the familiar territory of Victorian England, but this time inhabits an alternate Earth, where magic is an ordinary fact of life. Lyra Belacqua and her daemon familiar Pantalaimon spend their days teasing the scholars of Jordan College until her uncle, Lord Asriel, announces that he's learned of astonishing events taking place in the far north involving the aurora borealis. When Lyra rescues Asriel from an attempt on his life, it is only the beginning of a torrent of events that finds Lyra willingly abducted by the velvet Mrs. Coulter, a missionary of pediatric atrocities; a journey with gyptian clansmen to rescue the children who are destined to be severed from their daemons (an act that is clearly hideous); and Lyra's discovery of her unusual powers and destiny. Lyra may suffer from excessive spunk, but she is thorough, intelligent, and charming. The author's care in recreating Victorian speech affectations never hinders the action; copious amounts of gore will not dissuade the squeamish, for resonating at the story's center is the twinkling image of a celestial city. This first fantastic installment of the His Dark Materials trilogy propels readers along with horror and high adventure, a shattering tale that begins with a promise and delivers an entire universe. (Fiction. 12+)

3) "The Cage" by Megan Shepherd

Six teenagers face a life of captivity in an alien-designed human zoo.

Cora awakens in a most unusual land, one divided into disparate environments stitched closely together: a desert, a beach, a farm, a city, and more. She certainly isn’t in Virginia anymore. Terrified, she runs, quickly encountering Lucky, a cute stranger who knows far more about her than he lets on. Cora reluctantly teams up with him, and together, they find three others inside a strange city filled with candy shops and toy stores. All around them are murky, black windows with shifting shadows behind them. Soon enough, an ET appears, looking much like an alluring figure from Cora’s dreams. He calls himself their Caretaker. He’s one of the Kindred, and it’s their mission to protect humans—an endangered species. The cost of their protection is compliance with their rules. However, Cora isn’t the type to be caged in. The narrative perspective shifts between her and far more thinly characterized cohorts; Cora’s pulses with her fiery resilience, outshining the others. A love triangle that frustrates at first delivers both a swoon-worthy and thrilling cliffhanger that will compel readers to the sequel.

A riff on a Twilight Zone plot unfolds into a richly drawn alien dystopian replete with romance and horror. (Science fiction. 13 & up)

4) "The Truth About Alice" by Jennifer Mathieu

Jealousy, rumors and lies can ruin a teen girl’s life.

In the summer before junior year at Healy High School, Alice Franklin was one of the girls popular enough to be invited to Elaine O’Dea’s party. That night, Alice supposedly slept with both high school quarterback Brandon Fitzsimmons and college guy Tommy Cray. Just after homecoming, Brandon dies in a car accident, allegedly while texting with Alice. Debut author Mathieu brings new life to a common mean girls’ narrative through her multiple first-person narrators. Readers first hear Alice’s story from Elaine, the queen bee of the junior class. Then Kelsie Sanders enters as Alice’s best friend, who is willing to cast her aside to maintain her own tenuous place in the social hierarchy. Two boys also get to tell their sides of the story: Josh Waverly, Brandon’s best friend, who has secrets of his own, and Kurt Morelli, nerd extraordinaire, who’s been secretly obsessed with Alice for years. Due to the novel’s short length, the rotating narrators and a few questionable word choices, some characters border on caricatures in places. When readers finally hear directly from Alice in the book’s last chapter, they may wonder why the author took so long to introduce arguably the most interesting voice in the book.

A quick if unoriginal read saved by a realistic ending. (Fiction. 13-18)

5) "Undertow" by Michael Buckley

The Alpha arrive on the shores of Coney Island.

Coney Island native Lyric Walker has always kept her secret hidden: that she’s part Sirena on her mom’s side. When the Alpha arrive—strangely beautiful yet violent half human/half sea creatures, of which Sirena are a variety—all of New York City erupts into confusion and intolerance. Lyric and her family fear the discovery of their secret, but all is mostly well until a troupe of Alpha teens is admitted into Lyric’s high school, and Lyric is forced to give Fathom, the hot, proud, militant prince of the Alpha, reading lessons. Sparks and bodies fly in a maelstrom of stolen kisses and fights, and all of New York seems headed toward a budding war that only Lyric can stop. The Alpha concept is initially hard to swallow, but readers will likely eventually suspend their disbelief about halfway through the novel, seduced by the Twilight-esque feelings of lust and restraint between Lyric and Fathom. This first in a trilogy isn’t without overt politics: racial intolerance runs amok, and Buckley even names the governor of New York “Bachman.” Despite all of the deliberate, silly setup, the dialogue and characterizations mostly ring true, and by the end, readers will find themselves immersed in this semi-edgy, race-against-the-clock world that’s waiting to implode.

Odd but nevertheless exciting. (Dystopic fantasy. 13-16)

6) "Made You Up" by Francesca Zappia

After her expulsion from private school for an act of mental-illness–induced vandalism, Alex, 17, begins her senior year at an Indiana public school with trepidation.

Bright and determined to get to college, Alex counts on meds to control her paranoid schizophrenia even if they can’t entirely eliminate the hallucinations that have plagued her for a decade; she relies on her part-time table-waiting job to help keep her occupied. Long before they know her history, bullies at her new school target Alex, but she’s got allies, too—notably Tucker, a classmate and co-worker, as well as the small community of students at school who, like her, must compensate for past misdeeds by doing community service. They sell tickets and snacks, set up seating and provide support for school sporting events. Alex and the group’s charismatic but troubled, possibly autistic leader, Miles, share a mutual attraction that might date back to their strange encounter in a supermarket years earlier, when Alex decided to set a tankful of lobsters free. This debut’s talented author creates interesting characters and a suspenseful plot to draw readers in, but eventually the narrative loses traction and, ultimately, its raison d’être in a nihilistic denouement likely to leave readers feeling manipulated if not just plain cheated. Also troubling is the reliance on toxic stereotypes of mental illness to generate suspense.

An intriguing but ultimately misbegotten project. (Fiction. 14-18)

7) "Reboot" by Amy Tintera

This compulsively readable science-fiction debut will appeal widely.

Seventeen-year-old Wren is one of many young people who, after dying of a widespread virus called KDH, came back to life. Called reboots, they are stronger and more aesthetically refined. They also tend to be more aggressive and less empathic; these traits become more pronounced with each minute spent dead. They are confined to Human Advancement and Repopulation Corporation facilities, where they are forced to train as soldiers who carry out the will of their captors. Dead for a record 178 minutes before she reanimated, Wren commands respect and is reasonably satisfied with her second life. But the introduction of a new detainee, Callum, to whom she’s inexplicably drawn coincides with her sickening realization that the humans have been experimenting on the lower-numbered reboots with terrifying results, leading her to forge a desperate escape. Though undeniably derivative of so many in the genre, this is a well-imagined story in its own right. Superb concepts and plotting will hook readers from the start, and though Wren echoes the reluctant-heroine trope common to many recent dystopian adventures, she is sympathetic. The tension between Wren and Callum is playful and often sweet, offering plenty to those who appreciate romance.

Though the story is neatly resolved, the possibility of a sequel is still tantalizingly possible.(Dystopian adventure. 14 & up)

8) "An Ember in the Ashes" by Sabaa Tahir

A suddenly trendy trope—conflict and romance between members of conquering and enslaved races—enlivened by fantasy elements loosely drawn from Arabic tradition (another trend!).

In an original, well-constructed fantasy world (barring some lazy naming), the Scholars have lived under Martial rule for 500 years, downtrodden and in many cases enslaved. Scholar Laia has spent a lifetime hiding her connection to the Resistance—her parents were its leaders—but when her grandparents are killed and her brother’s captured by Masks, the eerie, silver-faced elite soldiers of the Martial Empire, Laia must go undercover as a slave to the terrifying Commandant of Blackcliff Military Academy, where Martials are trained for battle. Meanwhile, Elias, the Commandant’s not-at-all-beloved son, wants to run away from Blackcliff, until he is named an Aspirant for the throne by the mysterious red-eyed Augurs. Predictably, action, intrigue, bloodshed and some pounding pulses follow; there’s betrayal and a potential love triangle or two as well. Sometimes-lackluster prose and a slight overreliance on certain kinds of sexual violence as a threat only slightly diminish the appeal created by familiar (but not predictable) characters and a truly engaging if not fully fleshed-out fantasy world.

Bound to be popular. (Fantasy. 13 & up)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Young Adult Historical Fiction Book List

Looking for a good historical fiction? Check out this book list...

1) "A Great and Terrible Beauty" by Libba Bray

Had Gemma but known what occult horrors would await her, would she still have wanted to leave India? Sixteen-year-old Gemma is sent to her long-desired London when her mother commits suicide. In a terrifying vision, she sees her mother attacked by a vile supernatural force. Would revelation of her own strange mental powers cause more scandal than her mother’s outré death? A sexy but suspicious young man has followed Gemma from India, and cryptically warns her to muffle her visions. Such constraint seems the goal of Gemma’s proper finishing school as well. With corsets, deportment lessons, and rules, Spence Academy shapes prim young ladies. But the seemingly proper girls of Spence reveal various sexualities, passions, and hopes that strain the seams of their strict Victorian education. Mysterious continued visions, dark family secrets, and a long-lost diary thrust Gemma and her classmates back into the horrors that followed her from India. A Gothic touched by modern conceptions of adolescence, shivery with both passion and terror. (Fiction. YA)

2) "Out of the Easy" by Ruta Sepetys

Step right onto the rough streets of the New Orleans French Quarter, circa 1950…

…and meet 17-year-old Josie Moraine, a feisty young woman whose mother, a prostitute in a Conti Street brothel, offers her nothing but scorn and abuse. From the tender age of 12, Josie has made her own way in the world, working in a local bookstore in exchange for a safe place to sleep and cleaning the brothel to earn money toward her planned escape from the Big Easy. Equal parts book smart and street smart, Josie’s dream is to attend Smith College, and she will go to extremes, even blackmail, in her desperation to be accepted. But just when her plans start to gain some traction, her mother strikes again, putting Josie in the middle of a murder investigation and saddling her with a mob debt. There are some meaningful messages here: that love can come from the unlikeliest of sources—the rough-and-tumble brothel madam is much more supportive of Josie than her mother ever was—and that we are all in control of our own destinies if only we choose to be. With a rich and realistic setting, a compelling and entertaining first-person narration, a colorful cast of memorable characters and an intriguing storyline, this is a surefire winner.

Immensely satisfying. (Historical fiction. 14 & up)

3) "Grave Mercy" by Robin LaFevers

Fiction and history coalesce in a rich, ripping tale of assassinations, political intrigue and religion in 15th-century Brittany.

When the pig farmer who paid three coins to wed Ismae sees the red scar across her back, he cracks her in the skull and hurls her into the root cellar until a priest can come “to burn you or drown you.” The scar shows that Ismae’s mother poisoned her in utero; Ismae’s survival of that poisoning proves her sire is Mortain, god of death. A hedge priest and herbwitch spirit Ismae to the convent of St. Mortain, where nuns teach her hundreds of ways to kill a man. “We are mere instruments of Mortain….His handmaidens, if you will. We do not decide who to kill or why or when. It is all determined by the god.” After Ismae’s first two assassinations, the abbess sends her to Brittany’s high court to ferret out treason against the duchess and to kill anyone Mortain marks, even if it’s someone Ismae trusts—or loves. Brittany fights to remain independent from France, war looms and suitors vie nefariously for the duchess’ hand. Ismae’s narrative voice is fluid and solid, her spying and killing skills impeccable. LaFevers’ ambitious tapestry includes poison and treason and murder, valor and honor and slow love, suspense and sexuality and mercy.

A page turner—with grace. (map, list of characters) (Historical thriller. 14 & up)

4) "Pirates!" by Celia Rees

A rambling, romantic 18th-century tale features a teenaged British heiress who, along with her African half-sister, avoids Terrible Fate by becoming a pirate. In the wake of her father’s sudden death, Nancy finds herself hustled from comfortable Bristol to the family’s Jamaican sugar plantation, where she forms an alliance with Minerva, a strangely attractive body slave. Following the shocking discovery that her thoroughly vile brothers have sold her to cruel, swarthy ex-buccaneer Bartholome, Nancy stops the plantation’s vicious overseer from raping Minerva by blowing out his brains—whereupon both young women don men’s clothing and go to sea. Minerva and Nancy both demonstrate facility with fist, blade, and pistol as they survive storms, battle, attempted mutiny, leering suitors, and other hazards—climaxed by a confrontation with Bartholome, who pursues her relentlessly from the Caribbean to Madagascar. Minerva’s true identity comes out eventually, and in the end, both she and Nancy acquire suitable mates without losing their yen for adventure. An ambitious but fundamentally conventional tale, closer to Ann Rinaldi’s historical novels than the more rousing likes of Avi’s True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.(Fiction. YA)

5) "Catherine, Called Birdy" by Karen Cushman

Unwillingly keeping a journal at the behest of her brother, a monk, Birdy (daughter of a 13th-century knight) makes a terse first entry--"I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say''--but is soon confiding her pranks and troubles in fascinating detail. Her marriage must suit her drunken father's financial needs, and though the 14-year-old scares off several suitors (she pretends to be mad, sets fire to the privy one is using, etc.), in the end she's "betrothed and betrayed.'' Meanwhile, she observes Edward I's England with keen curiosity and an open mind, paints a mural in her chamber, evades womanly tasks whenever possible, reports that--ladylike or no-- "I always have strong feelings and they are quite painful until I let them out,'' and chooses her own special profanity, "God's thumbs.'' At year's end she makes peace with her family and acquires, beyond hope, a possibly compatible betrothed (they have yet to meet). Birdy's frequent saint's day entries begin with pithy summaries of the saints' claims to fame; their dire deaths have a uniquely medieval tang, as do such oddities as St. Bridget turning bathwater into beer. Much else here is casually earthy--offstage bedding among villagers, home remedies, pissing out a fire--while death is commonplace. The period has rarely been presented for young people with such authenticity; the exotic details will intrigue readers while they relate more closely to Birdy's yen for independence and her sensibilities toward the downtrodden. Her tenacity and ebullient naivete are extraordinary; at once comic and thought-provoking, this first novel is a delight. Historical note. (Fiction. 12+)

6) "Prisoner of Night and Fog" by Anne Blankman

In 1930s Munich, a young German girl learns to question her learned hatred for Jewish people.

Seventeen-year-old Gretchen Müller has grown up knowing Adolf Hitler as “Uncle Dolf,” the great National Socialist leader whose life her father had died saving in 1923. This bedrock truth is challenged when a Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen reaches out to her suggesting that her father actually had been murdered by a fellow National Socialist party member. Together, they work to unravel the mystery of why her father was killed. Gretchen finds herself doubting everything she has been taught to hate and fear about Jews and ultimately must decide where her honor and loyalty lie. In her debut, Blankman weaves into Gretchen’s story the details of Hitler’s historically documented rise to power (and psychopathic nature), and her fictional characters talk and live among some of Nazi Germany’s most notorious figures. At times, the dialogue is unwieldy, and the historical details consume the narrative, which may cause some readers to become bored by slower sections of the story (though a sexually charged scene with Hitler himself will open their eyes wide). Here’s hoping the author will find a better balance between description and action in the proposed sequel, as the relationship between Gretchen and Daniel is what sets this apart.

An interesting perspective on a well-trod era. (author’s note, bibliography) (Historical fiction. 13-17)

7) "Cinders & Sapphires" by Leila Rasheed

A thoroughly satisfying romp for Downton Abbey fans.

Lady Ada Averley, returning by steamboat to her British ancestral estate after a childhood in India, shares a furtive, passionate kiss with Ravi, an Indian revolutionary. At 16, Ada prefers books to ball gowns and dreads the byzantine formalities of the upcoming social season; she'd rather convince her father to let her attend Oxford than find a husband. But the family's name is imperiled by scandal, and Ada's loyalty demands that she play the game, even as Ravi dominates her thoughts. Ada's emerging social consciousness—she gamely struggles against the pervasive sexism, racism and classism of pre–World War I England—provides an intellectual backbone for what could easily have been just another high-society soap opera. Rasheed sidesteps sanctimony, however, by infusing the story with humor, vivid descriptions—a diamond hangs in a debutante's décolletage "as tempting as the fly on a fishing line"—and a surplus of intrigue above and below stairs, propelling the narrative toward the cliffhangers of the final pages.

Breathless readers will look forward to the next sudsy chapter in this planned series. (Historical fiction. 12 & up)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Thrillers Book List

Want something that will get your blood pumping? Check out this book list...

1) "The Traitor's Emblem" by Juan Gomez-Jurado

Spanish author Gómez-Jurado’s third outing (Moses Expedition, 2010, etc.) offers a redeeming love story set against the unlikely background of extreme violence in Nazi Germany.

The story opens with a Spanish sea captain saving the lives of four strangers he finds lashed to a raft in a raging storm. After risking his own to bring the four on board, one steps forward and gives him a golden emblem, which the captain then passes down to his own son. Later, a man who tries to buy the emblem tells the son how the emblem came into his father’s hands. This is the meat of the novel. The story begins with Paul Reiner, who along with his mother, Ilse, lives with his cruel and calculating aunt and her husband, a baron. They have two sons, one who has gone off to fight for Germany in World War I, and the second, Jürgen, who is slightly older than Paul. Paul reveres the kind older brother, but the younger is a vicious child, who delights in tormenting his cousin and aunt, who both work as servants. Paul’s greatest sorrow is that he knows little of his father, who died when he was an infant. All he knows is his father has been called a traitor, but his mother worships her dead husband and still mourns him. When Jürgen attacks Paul after Paul defends the honor of a young Jewish girl, Alys Tannenbaum, both Paul and his mother flee for their lives. They move into a boarding house where Paul strikes out to find a job to keep them from starving and, against the background of a growing Nazi threat, eventually reunites with Alys, setting in motion a series of events that brings the evil Jürgen back into their lives.

The author tells a riveting love story, spoiled only by the unlikely incorporation of Freemasonry into the plot and a villain so evil he makes Hitler look like a pretty nice fellow.

2) "The Thin Man" by Dashiell Hammett

A good tale but not much of a mystery. The story of the search for a missing lover of a dead woman involves smart society and New York night life.

3) "House of Sand and Fog" by Andre Dubus III

In an enthralling tragedy built on a foundation of small misfortunes, Dubus (Bluesman, 1993, etc.) offers in detail the unraveling life of a woman who, in her undoing, brings devastation to the families of those in her path.

It was bad enough when Kathy Lazaro stepped out of the shower one morning to find herself evicted from her house, a small bungalow to be auctioned the very next day in a county tax sale; bad enough that her recovering-addict husband had left her some time before, and that she had no friends at all in California to help her move or put her up. Then she also had to fall for the guy who evicted her, Deputy Les Burdon—married, with two kids. Sympathetic to her plight, Les lines up legal counsel and makes sure she has a place to stay, but his optimism (and the lawyer’s) hits an immovable object in proud ex-Colonel Behrani, formerly of the Iranian Air Force, who fled his homeland with his family when the Shah was deposed and who has struggled secretly in San Francisco for years to maintain appearances until his daughter can make a good marriage. He’s sunken his remaining life savings into buying Kathy’s house, at a tremendous bargain, planning to reinvent himself as a real-estate speculator, and he has no wish to sell it back when informed that the county made a bureaucratic error. Hounded by both Kathy and Les—who has moved out, guiltily, on his family and brought his lover, herself a recovering addict, back to the bar scene—Behrani is increasingly unable to shield his wife and teenaged son from the ugly truth, but he still won’t yield. Then Kathy tries to kill herself, and Les takes the law into his own hands.

No villains here, but only precisely rendered proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

4) "Room" by Emma Donoghue

Talented, versatile Donoghue (The Sealed Letter, 2008, etc.) relates a searing tale of survival and recovery, in the voice of a five-year-old boy.

Jack has never known a life beyond Room. His Ma gave birth to him on Rug; the stains are still there. At night, he has to stay in Wardrobe when Old Nick comes to visit. Still, he and Ma have a comfortable routine, with daily activities like Phys Ed and Laundry. Jack knows how to read and do math, but has no idea the images he sees on the television represent a real world. We gradually learn that Ma (we never know her name) was abducted and imprisoned in a backyard shed when she was 19; her captor brings them food and other necessities, but he’s capricious. An ugly incident after Jack attracts Old Nick’s unwelcome attention renews Ma’s determination to liberate herself and her son; the book’s first half climaxes with a nail-biting escape. Donoghue brilliantly shows mother and son grappling with very different issues as they adjust to freedom. “In Room I was safe and Outside is the scary,” Jack thinks, unnerved by new things like showers, grass and window shades. He clings to the familiar objects rescued from Room (their abuser has been found), while Ma flinches at these physical reminders of her captivity. Desperate to return to normalcy, she has to grapple with a son who has never known normalcy and isn’t sure he likes it. In the story’s most heartbreaking moments, it seems that Ma may be unable to live with the choices she made to protect Jack. But his narration reveals that she’s nurtured a smart, perceptive and willful boy—odd, for sure, but resilient, and surely Ma can find that resilience in herself. A haunting final scene doesn’t promise quick cures, but shows Jack and Ma putting the past behind them.

Wrenching, as befits the grim subject matter, but also tender, touching and at times unexpectedly funny.

5) "Iron Lake" by William Kent Krueger

Cork O’Connor is a man beset with troubles, some of them of his own making. But he’s a bend-not-break man: an admirable man. And he needs to be, for it’s winter in hardscrabble Aurora, Minnesota. The blizzard that buries the small lakeside town also buries some ugly things with it. Like nasty secrets—and brutal murder. So here’s Cork, who used to be sheriff, who used to have a wife who loved him, who used to have a purpose to his life, sort of stumbling into situations that bewilder him to the nth. There’s the apparent suicide of Judge Parrant. Suicide? Judge Parrant? Not that cantankerous old misogynist. There’s also a missing boy, a good and responsible boy, with no reason in the world for him to have run away. Then there are the murky goings-on over at the casino, where gambling is producing so much wealth for the Native American population that they’ve begun calling it “the new buffalo.” And finally, there’s the windigo, a spirit so malevolent that it can unnerve even those who don’t actually believe in it. Almost despite himself, Cork is soon behaving like the lawman he no longer is, looking for answers that are very hard to find. And yet he does find some. Some of those he discovers, though, he soon wishes he hadn’t. Minnesotan Krueger has a sense of place he’s plainly honed firsthand in below-zero prairie. His characters, too, sport charm and dimension, although things start to get a bit shaky toward book’s end. Still, this first-timer’s stamina and self-assurance suggest that O’Connor’s got staying power.

6) "The Faithful Spy" by Alex Berenson

A thriller worthy of le Carré, beginning with an improbable premise—namely, the infiltration of al-Qaeda by an American agent.

John Wells is a former college football star, unrepentant about having broken a Yalie’s leg on the field of battle. Now, in a real war, he’s a devout Muslim with a long beard and access to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. But is he really a fundamentalist promoting terror? That’s the lingering question of this taut tale by New York Times reporter Berenson (The Number, 2003), who deftly imagines the international shadowland where spooks and assassins ply their trades. In doing so, Berenson avoids the perils of caricature; his bad guys are legion, but they are also recognizably human, and if some of them are a shade evil (“The thought of attacking America always excited him”), others are not completely on board with the whole slaughter-the-infidel program. Wells, as it happens, works for the Great Satan; he’s a “singular national asset,” but one who likes to play by his own rules. Still, has he been turned? The bad guys seem to think he’s one of them, for they’ve sent Wells home to enact a chain of events that will end with the detonation of a dirty bomb somewhere in New York. There are moments in all this that beg for the willing suspension of disbelief, but Berenson doesn’t belabor them; neither does he overwork the formulas (rogue agent falls in love with beautiful but hard-bitten agency handler; bad guys make murderous mayhem), though the book is full of genre conventions. The payoff is tremendous, and there are standout episodes that hint that the fundamentalists know how to work American decadence—as when one terrorist recruits a patsy by telling him that it’s all part of an audition for reality TV.

Well done throughout, and sure to be noticed. After all, Keanu Reeves has already expressed interest in playing Wells.

7) "Terminal Freeze" by Lincoln Child

Furry prehistoric beast thaws, then makes up for lost meals with human victims.

Paleoecologist Evan Marshall leads a group of scientists into “The Zone” in northeastern Alaska. Working out of a small base known as the Mount Fear Remote Sensing Installation, his team from Northern Massachusetts University is doing research on global warming. The only other humans around are a small number of Native Americans, Tunits, to the north. Beneath the ice floor in a cave, the team spots a frozen creature, two fist-sized yellow eyes surrounded by black pupils—perhaps, as the team believes, a saber-toothed tiger. When Usuguk, an elder of the Tunits, arrives to warn the team of evil and advise them to leave, Marshall politely but firmly refuses. Meanwhile, in Virginia, Dr. Jeremy Logan discovers some ominous, though unspecified, information about Fear Base in top-secret documents from the 1950s. More turmoil rocks The Zone with the arrival of brash Emilio Conti, an executive producer with a documentary film crew, big as Marshall’s and twice as boisterous, that promptly sets up a makeshift adjoining camp. The only respectful filmmaker is attractive producer Kari Ekberg. Marshall tries to oust Conti and company, but the producer’s smug announcement that the film has financed the entire expedition effectively neutralizes any objections. After Conti sets about melting the block of ice, the creature inside proves much larger than a cat, though it disappears before anyone gets a good look. Then the tastefully depicted carnage begins. As the body count rises, an ice-road trucker named Carradine boldly drives most of the cast to safety while Conti prepares to film the beast and Marshall seeks help from the Tunits.

Child (Deep Storm, 2007, etc.) depicts his frigid setting with greater authority than his characters, diminishing his thriller’s impact. Far from a classic, but a minor-league Jurassic.