Astray by Emma Donoghue

Book- This collection is comprised of fourteen stories revolving around themes of immigration, travel, and drifting throughout North America. As an immigrant herself from the UK to Canada, Donoghue has a particular emotional insight into these topics. Emma Donoghue’s short stories (and, in fact, her novels) often stem from a small historical detail, such as the 1864 murder of a slave master by his slave and mistress, which becomes a fleshed out story, as in “Last Supper at Brown’s” in this collection. Particularly strong stories in Astray include “Man and Boy,” which chronicles the relationship between a zookeeper and his elephant, “The Hunt,” where the topic of war crimes during the Revolutionary War is explored, and, my favorite, “Snowblind,” which details the harsh first winter of two gold mining partners in the 1890s.

The audiobook version of Astray is a real treat, with several different narrators throughout to suit the disparate characters, and a part at the end narrated by Donoghue herself sharing the process by which she developed each story. I found that on audiobook, the stories were a perfect length for a shorter drives so you don’t have to keep jumping in and out of the plot as you would with a novel. These stories will appeal to fans of other historical fiction with keenly observed details, such as The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

indexBook – When I started reading this book, I didn’t know much about it, other than that it had a glow-in-the-dark octopus on the cover. And really, what else do you need to know? The octopus, fortunately, is a character (although he doesn’t glow in the dark) – Katsu, a mechanical octopus made by the titular watchmaker, Mori, a Japanese nobleman who has moved to England to practice the art of making tiny things out of even tinier gears. We meet him through Thaniel Steepleton, a telegraphist recently recruited by Scotland Yard, who is being used by his superiors to investigate Mori as a suspect behind a high-profile bombing.

This is fantasy only by the thinnest hair, and steampunk only because of the prominence of Mori’s fantastic clockwork creations (and their proximity to Japantown’s fireworks shops). The plot circles around the investigation of the bombing, but Thaniel and Mori’s relationship is the real core of the book, growing slowly through mistrust and uncertainty into a deep, heartfelt connection. I was a little iffy about it for the first few chapters; by the end, I was entirely in love.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

sunBookCircling the Sun is based on the true life story of Beryl Markham. In the early 1900’s, Beryl, her parents and brother arrive from England to farm 1500 acres of untouched bush in Kenya. Two years later, when Beryl turns five, her mother and brother return to England, unable to handle the primitive conditions. Beryl remains on the farm with her father, running wild in the stable and with the nearby Kipsigis children, particulary her best friend Ruta. As Beryl grows up, she resists conventions and finds herself most comfortable training horses. After a disastrous marriage, she builds a life for herself among the decadent expats living in Kenya. Her circle of friends includes Karen Blixen and Karen’s lover, Denys Finch Hatton. (Blixen wrote her memoir Out of Africa under the pen name Isak Dinesen). Beryl also discovers the joy of flying, becoming a bush pilot and record-setting aviator. I was inspired by Beryl’s determination to follow her own path, despite many roadblocks and much hardship. Paula McClain also wrote a novel based on Hemingway’s early married life titled The Paris Wife.

Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

sandcastleBook – Chris Bohjalian pays homage to his Armenian roots in Sandcastle Girls, by telling the story of “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About”. The genocide of over ½ million people by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The account is relayed through Laura Petrosian, the great granddaughter of Elizabeth, an American from Boston and Armen from Armenia. While researching her genealogy for a book, Laura comes across letters and photographs of her great grandparents that help her piece together her family history.

Elizabeth and Armen meet in Aleppo Syria in 1915.  Elizabeth, is a nurse recently graduated from college who accompanies her father on a mission to provide humanitarian aid to Armenian Refugees. Armen is an engineer working for the Germans who is desperately looking for his missing wife and baby who were lost during the deportations and mass murders. The two soon become very fond of each other. They are separated when Armen leaves to fight for the British Army. Elizabeth and Armen’s love flourishes in spite of continuing genocide and war, as they write letters to each other.

This is an enduring love story that also gives us heartbreakingly gritty details about the atrocities of the horrific events. It was a bit difficult to get through due to the subject matter, but definitely worthwhile.

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus

one thousandBook – One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd is a fascinating account of the “Brides for Indians” program, which was a treaty between Ulysses S. Grant and Cheyenne India Chief Little Wolf in 1875. May records the adventures of herself and the other 999 brides- to-be. This is her ticket out of the insane asylum, where she was incarcerated for having an affair.  All of the women were prostitutes, prisoners, mental patients, or indigents that were offered full pardons.  The agreement being that they would be indentured to the Cheyenne for two years, would have to bear them children, and then would have the option to leave. The U.S. government felt that, the women would be able to tame the savages and that in turn the Indians would take on the white ways once they were given children that were half breeds.

May’s personal journals are full of humor, love, and respect for the other women. She thoughtfully reflects on the beauty and wilderness of the land as they journey across the west to meet their husbands.  Her accounts also detail the culture and lifestyle of the tribe, as she becomes one of Little Wolf’s wives.

Even if you are not a fan of Westerns, this is a fascinating read about these pioneer women.  If you enjoy this book, you might also like These is My Words and The Diary of Mattie Spenser.

Novels In Verse: The Forgotten Genre

Book – The genre of novels in verse often gets swept under the rug, lost in the muddle of YA fiction.  As opposed to the narrative style of most YA novels (words organized in sentences and paragraphs), verse novels tell stories in the form of free verse poetry.  Aside from their unique formatting, novels in verse excel at covering difficult topics and creating emotionally charged stories.


Here are a few examples of novels in verse, in a variety of themes:

Substance Abuse: Crank by Ellen Hopkins

Ellen Hopkins challenges taboo subjects such as drug addiction, abuse, sex, and suicide in her novels. In her first verse novel, titled Crank, Hopkins addresses drug addiction through the experiences of the main character, Kristina, otherwise known as Bree. Hopkins bases the story off of her own experience with her daughter’s addiction.  The strength in this novel is the connection the author has to the subject matter.

Historical Fiction: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

This story follows fourteen year old Billie Joe and her experiences during the dust bowl of the Great Depression.  Billie Joe’s narration is a diary of daily life on her family’s farm where she lives with her Daddy and Ma.  Emotionally charged, this story provides insight into the lives of those living through the dust bowl, while the free verse form helps readers connect to the characters more fully.


Other verse novels at the Warrenville Library include: Because I am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas, A Girl Named Mister by Nick Grimes, May B: A Novel by Caroline Starr Rose,
Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham, and Sold by Patricia McCormick

 

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Book – As a children’s librarian, there is no doubt that I am biased in favor of children’s books, but you don’t need to take my word for it that this one makes a fun read even for grown-ups. Besides the vote of confidence from the Newbery Committee, I have the testimony of my grandparents–neither of whom is a children’s book reader in general but each of whom devoured this one in a day, laughing all the way–to back me up in that claim.

1962 is the summer of eleven-year-old Jack Gantos’ perpetual grounding. With a nose that won’t stop bleeding, on the outs with both his parents and forbidden from playing baseball with his friends, Jack might have a grim few months ahead of him if not for his feisty elderly neighbor. Mrs. Volker, the resident historian of the small town of Norvelt, needs the loan of Jack’s hands to type up obituaries of her fellow orginal Norvelters, the rare task for which Jack is released from house-arrest. But when those obituaries start coming a little too thick and fast, Jack and Mrs. Volker become an unlikely team of sleuths, and fast friends into the bargain.

Part mystery story, part fictionalized memoir, entirely small town slice-of-life, Dead End in Norvelt explores questions of community and memory without ever feeling preachy. Centering as it does on an inter-generational friendship, it’s a great choice to share within families–but even if you don’t have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or cousin to pass it on to, it’s well worth the rollicking ride.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Series 1 (2013)

TV Series – The Honorable Miss Fisher is the James Bond of lady private investigators—she’s got the fancy car, the sumptuous home, the gorgeous wardrobe, and the slick pearl-handled pistol.  Based on a series by author Kerry Greenwood and set in 1920s in Melbourne, Australia, this series features lush flapper-era costumes, gorgeous period sets, and intriguing historical details.  Stories in this series cover the gamut of Australian society and straddle social classes, dealing with such disparate topics as clandestine back-alley abortion providers and high-society charity functions.

Despite the historical setting, however, Phryne feels very much like a modern character.  She is the head of her own odd household which includes her butler (named, appropriately, Mr. Butler), her companion Dot, surrogate daughter Jane, and various other lovers and lost souls she collects. Fans of series like Bones and X-Files will appreciate the romantic chemistry between Phryne and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, a dashing and sardonic policeman with whom she often collaborates.  Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries will especially appeal to fans of the wide variety of BBC detective shows, such as Inspector Morse and Murdoch Mysteries.  We also own series 2 and 3 of this one, as well as the novels the series is based on, so feel free to make an afternoon of it!

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Book – Dr. Faraday is a respectable country physician, but he keeps his childhood a secret – his mother was a maid at Hundreds Hall, home of the ancient and established Ayres family. And now that the new maid of the household is his patient, he’s even more reluctant to let it be known where he came from. But the Ayreses – widowed Mrs. Ayres, her spinster daughter Caroline, and her son Roderick – have much more to worry about than their friend the doctor’s history. Strange things are happening at Hundreds Hall, things that are putting a strain on the well-being of the family. Dr. Faraday is convinced that it’s only the effects of living in an old and decrepit house, but the family is sure there’s something more sinister going on.

The Little Stranger takes its time getting where it’s going; this is no fast-paced thriller. Rather, you have plenty of time to get to know Dr. Faraday, Mrs. Ayres, Caroline, Roddy, and Hundreds Hall itself. It’s the kind of haunted house story where you’re never quite sure who’s right and what’s really happening – although it helps to remember that the narrator, Dr. Farraday, has his own biases that may be getting in his way and ours. This is the perfect novel for a cup of tea and a gloomy October afternoon.

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

the_gods_of_gotham-1Book – If you have any interest in mystery, historical fiction, New York City, Holmesiana or just plain well-written human drama, Lyndsay Faye is the author you never knew you needed in your life.  Unless you did, in which case well done you.

Timothy Wilde is a New York City bartender in 1845, lending an ear to the world’s problems and working up the courage to confess his love for his childhood sweetheart, Mercy.  When a fire does away with his job and his life savings, however, he stumbles his way (pushed by his brother, the larger-than-life, twice as troublesome and three times as irresistible Val) into the work he never wanted but always should’ve had: as a ‘copper star,’ a member of New York’s brand-new police force.  A chance encounter with a ten-year-old girl in a blood-covered nightgown puts him on the trail that ends in the bodies of twenty children and sends the entire city into a flurry of tension along racial, ethnic and especially religious lines.  And while his determination to find the truth will make an investigator of Tim, it will also challenge his preconceptions about the people he loves.

Written in rich period language (a glossary is included), The Gods of Gotham is a fast-paced and atmospheric thriller that stands on its own merits as both a mystery and a piece of historical fiction.  But what makes it exceptional are Faye’s writing style and command of human nature.  Her prose is insightful, incisive and deeply felt, and her characters memorable and well-rounded.  New devotees will be pleased to hear that Tim’s adventures continue in Seven for a Secret and the recent conclusion to the trilogy, The Fatal Flame.