Matt Miller is a modern day teen in Brooklyn whose mother has passed away from cancer. Partly to start helping his father and partly to distract himself from the fact that everyone seems to pity him, Matt visits the “Cluck Bucket” to try apply for a job, when a emergency cleanup he witnesses convinces him food service is not for him. The local funeral director, Mr. Ray, who coincidentally oversaw his mother’s arrangements, offers him $30 a day to help out around the funeral home when they run into each other this fateful day at the chicken joint. The next day Matt reports after school and helps Mr. Ray set up flowers, receptions, and handle basic arrangements. As Matt’s father descends into drink, Matt becomes both more independent and connected to more people in his community through his work at the home.
The novel chronicles Matt’s coming of age through his work, mentoring by Mr. Ray, and a new friend. This is also a satisfying story about how a young man grows up as a part of his community by opening himself up to new experiences and responsibilities, strengthening himself and, in small ways, his community. In this book we see not only the Brooklyn that challenges, but also the Brooklyn that supports–a refreshing change from the often one-sided negative portrayals in urban fiction of city neighborhoods.
The Boy in the Black Suit moves along at a leisurely pace, and is written with some great descriptions and unique turns of phrase (were I not listening to the audiobook in my car, I’d have written them down). Without dragging, Reynolds lovingly details his characters and the neighborhood, making them real. An added layer of authenticity comes from the very natural narration by Corey Allen on audio. Some of the coincidences and the neatly-tied ending were the only pieces of the story that did not feel realistic, but these are small criticisms in comparison to the quality of the work overall. This is a novel version of the male coming-of-age story that had me caring about the characters and invested in the story.
I recommend The Boy in the Black Suit to fans of Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk, and Walter Dean Myers’ young adult fiction. This book will be enjoyed by the more thoughtful young adult reader of realistic fiction, and by all ages of readers who enjoy character-driven stories with a strong sense of place.
Check the WRL catalog for The Boy in the Black Suit as an audiobook on CD
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Readers who enjoy police procedurals and are looking for stories of justice in the New South will find a lot to enjoy in Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series. Maron sets her books in contemporary North Carolina (like fellow writer Michael Malone). Over the course of the series, Judge Knott has to address the same problems and concerns—racial and social divides, economic inequality, etc.—that face Malone’s Police Chief Cuddy Mangum. Maron does not shy away from addressing challenging issues in contemporary society.
The problems that Judge Knott faces are often rooted in the evils of the past. Family and community play important roles in both the life of Judge Knott and in the stories. Maron’s novels are straight ahead mysteries, with engaging characters and interesting plots. This is an excellent series for readers interested in contemporary crime writing, issues in the New South, or police procedurals. Start with Bootlegger’s Daughter.
Check the WRL catalog for Bootlegger’s Daughter.
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Posted in Adventure, Audiobook, Books, Characters, Coming of Age, Crime fiction, Fast-paced, Literary fiction, Magical realism, Mindy's Picks, Readers' advisory, Sense of place, Subculture on June 9, 2015|
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Despite being abandoned by her Danish mother when she was an infant and her Chilean immigrant father’s absence working as an international airline pilot, Maya was raised by her grandparents with spirited enlightenment and fiercely bolstering love. She was propped to have sound character, and her future held so much promise, until her Popo died when she was fifteen. Popo was her Nini’s second husband, but his presence meant the world to Maya. He had promised, “I swear I’ll always be with you.” Popo was a remarkably attentive surrogate parent to Maya, but following his death, whatever threads held her in check were unraveling at an alarming rate. The trio formed with her two girlfriends styled themselves as the “Vampires” and challenged each other to commit increasingly risky criminal acts and venture into dangerous sexual territory. By the time Maya is nineteen and living on the streets of Las Vegas, by the time she phones home, she’s on the run from criminals and the law. As she’s ushered onto a plane to exit the country and ride out the danger, her grandmother hands her a notebook for writing out her troubles as a tool for recovery, or as her Nini says it,
take advantage of it to write down the monumental stupidities you’ve committed, see if you can come to grips with them.
In the audiobook version I enjoyed, as the narrator began speaking in the voice of the 19-year-old female main character in Maya’s Notebook, she sounded far too mature, using unrealistic vocabulary and sounding too worldly. Soon, however, that didn’t matter because I was spellbound by Maya Vidal’s troubled past. She’d experienced complex problems and was running from drug lords, international criminals, and the FBI, and she comes from a highly unusual family; clearly her life was more complicated than an average teen girl’s. She was sent by her Chilean grandmother, her Nini, to Chiloé Island, perfect as a place for banishment or exile, to ride out the danger with an old friend of Nini’s, Manuel Arias. Manuel is a man with a mysterious and painful past as well. The narrative floats easily between Maya’s present in Chiloé and her past in Berkeley, California, then a rehab academy in Oregon, then in Las Vegas where she reaches the darkest pit of her degradation and suffering. Just when you think her story has been told already, it just gets deeper and more layered.
Maya’s Notebook is an Adult Fiction title which would likely appeal to many older teens, but the book contains very graphic scenes of criminality, violence (both sexual and drug-related), sexuality, and extreme drug use. It’s available in the WRL collection via regular print, audiobook on CD, e-audiobook, and in large print.
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I wrote about the Western Into the Savage Country, which explores the idea of a man going West to prove himself worthy of his father and of a woman he wanted. Today’s book, Crossing Purgatory, explores a different reason for a man to go West: to escape a ruined life back East. It’s also set later in the 19th century, during a time when immigrants, would-be traders, and farmers seeking tracts of their own land set out into dangerous territory with little idea what to expect.
Thompson Grey is a successful farmer in the dark and deep soil of Indiana, but without the capital to expand his holdings. Returning from a trip to raise funds, he discovers that a tragedy has taken his entire family. Grey blames himself, and goes into exile. Along the trail and at the place he breaks his journey, he constantly drives himself with physical labor to blot out his terrible memories.
Almost by accident he attaches himself to a small party, each member of which has suffered tragedy or thwarted hope. Grey holds himself apart, but still becomes an accidental pillar of a group of homesteaders. Through his encounters we come to see the arbitrary nature of death, and the consequences of failure in the early West.
Although the Purgatory is a real river and a significant setting of the story, the river itself is only a stand-in for the searing examination of one man’s conscience and the torments he inflicts upon himself out of guilt. As we accompany Grey on his desperate journey of expiation, we come to hope that his self-loathing will give way to some form of acceptance and peace. But Gary Schanbacher’s storytelling and characters make that journey a difficult and ultimately rewarding one for us.
Check the WRL catalog for Crossing Purgatory
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In south and east Asia in the nineteenth century, opium was everything, not just a drug that had a social impact on society, but the basis of a large economy and the source of fortune for colonial empire builders. That’s the world where Amitav Ghosh sets his epic historical trilogy that begins with Sea of Poppies.
One has to enjoy being immersed in a new and complicated setting to enjoy these books. As the story opens, we quickly meet many characters: a young wife whose ex-soldier husband is so addicted that he can no longer work his job in the opium factory, their low-caste neighbor who is a gigantic ox-cart driver, a mulatto American seaman making a surprising rise in the world, an orphaned Frenchwoman, a somewhat pampered raja whose riches and position have become precarious, and many others. As these characters come from many social levels, ethnic backgrounds, and occupations, even their language is a riot of different styles, jargon, and levels of formality. It’s a rich story that engages all of the senses and hurls the readers headlong into a very different time and place.
My advice? Enjoy the swim. Use the glossary to solve your worst confusions and let the novel flow forward. It eventually coalesces, as all of our major characters find their way to the Ibis, a ship crossing the sea to China where some go as criminals, some as coolie workers, and others as soldiers to fight in the Opium Wars. On the ship, their stories come together into a more central strand. Ghosh has begun a masterwork, an epic tale about an epic subject that most readers won’t find familiar, featuring character types they haven’t before encountered. It works because it is an involving story and its hard not to sympathize with the plights of the characters. The language is lush and finishes the trick: transporting the reader successfully away.
The story continues with River of Smoke and is due to conclude with Flood of Fire later this year.
Check the WRL catalog for Sea of Poppies
Or try it as an audiobook on compact disc
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Posted in Arts, Biography, Books, Characters, Children's, Historical fiction, Jan's Picks, Quick read, Readers' advisory, Sense of place, Travel, War/Military on May 5, 2015|
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Anyone coming from Winnipeg is well aware that the most famous of all bears, Winnie-the-Pooh, was named after that Canadian city. Many people know that the real Christopher Robin visited the real Winnie Bear at London Zoo, but London is thousands of miles away from Winnipeg, so the connection back to Canada is not well-known, even to fans of the Bear of Little Brain. Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh sets out to change this grave lack!
For the youngest of readers as well as for the staunchest of fans the book does a wonderful job of capturing the amazing details of Winnie Bear’s life. It all started during World War I when a Canadian solider, Harry Colebourn, impulsively bought an orphaned bear cub when his troop train stopped briefly in Ontario. Despite the astonishment and doubts of his officers he promised to look after their new, small, brown mascot, named Winnipeg after their regiment’s home city. Harry was a veterinarian and his job was looking after the army’s horses and to his surprise Winnie fitted in well with the normally skittish horses. Harry’s regiment took Winnie along with them on their troop ship to England, but thought France would be too dangerous for the small bear, so Winnie lived out his days at London Zoo, as a bear so friendly that children were allowed to ride on his back.
Warmly illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss, this short book is a must-read for Winnie-the-Pooh fans of all ages. It is great for the whole family to share as older readers will enjoy the author’s note and pore over the historic photographs of the real bear and his real people. Very young Winnie-the-Pooh fans will be fascinated by the connection between their bear who is a toy and a real wild animal.
Check the WRL catalog for Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.
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This is a mystery which will appeal to fans of Charles Todd’s detective Ian Rutledge. Like Rutledge, the main character, John Madden, is a Scotland Yard detective struggling with shell shock in the aftermath of World War I. He is called to a small village in Surrey where an entire family has been murdered.
As he works with local police, he is bothered by the meticulous planning that appears to have gone into the massacre and starts to suspect that this is not the killer’s first murder. With help from the local police constable, the comely female village doctor, and an Austrian psychologist, Madden slowly develops a portrait of the suspect: a former soldier and psychopath who is escalating at an alarming rate. He has his next victim picked out, and Madden’s challenge is to find out who and where before it’s too late.
Although comparisons to Rutledge will probably draw Charles Todd’s readers to this title, there are major differences. Madden’s demons are a little more straightforward than Rutledge’s, and the overall atmosphere is more optimistic. Airth allows healing and happiness to dangle within his protagonist’s reach, whereas Rutledge’s fans often wonder when his creator is going to give him a break already.
The psychological aspects will also appeal to fans of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series.
Check the WRL catalog for River of Darkness.
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