Betsy Burton is the co-owner and co-founder of The King's English Bookshop. In addition to her life as a bookseller, she is an activist for all things local, and is also past President of the American Booksellers Association. Her book, The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller, continues to be a bestseller at our shop. In her spare time, Betsy is working on a book about her son, a young man with some disabilities and some extraordinary abilities as well. She still loves the book business as much as she did when she started over forty years ago.
A glory of a novel, this tale of children trying to figure out the world around them is, above all else, about books. About story. As its cast of characters moves us across continents and ages from ancient Greece to the present and beyond, we fall in love with the best of them—and the worst: Anna, a child trying unsuccessfully to behave in a convent in 5th century Constantinople; Omeir, the youth who waits outside its walls in the company of thousands of Ottomans; Seymour, a present-day eco-terrorist bent on saving the earth; Konstance, a girl encased in a spaceship who has never known our beloved earth; Zeno, a boy who grows up in the forests and years later returns home to help five children produce a play. And, of course, the narrator of that play, his voice, taken from the folios of Cloud Cuckoo Land, an ancient novel and the connective tissue of Doerr’s—which becomes, in an eerie sense, the history of all books. The tale of their fragility. And their strength. Both narratives fill the heart with terror and love and compassion, dread and humor; Doerr’s also manages to encompass our struggling planet and the continuum of our history. Impossible to put down and, once finished, life-changing, Cloud Cuckoo Land is the kind of book you hope will come your way but almost never does. An absolute masterpiece.
Now “reeducated” by his best friend and blood brother Man, our nameless ex-triple agent (see The Sympathizer, the first volume of his “confessions,”), has made his weary, sorrowful way to Paris in the company of his also blood brother and longtime friend Bon. Was the revolution right or wrong? What of those who participated in it? Wrote of it? Fought it? Fought for it underground? Bon knows what he thinks: he has spent his lifetime killing communists. But having spent his adult lifetime as a spook, sleeper, spy, the middle “blood brother,” now haunted by ghosts, crippled by remorse, wracked with doubt, fearful that Bon will find out what he’s done, who he is, knows not what to think. Except that his brain has separated into two parts, his self into two pieces. And that despite disenchantment with the ways the revolution has played out, he still feels in sympathy with parts of it. With parts, it still seems, of many things. He stays with his “aunt” (his handler in former days, actually Man’s aunt) and recognizes in her friends and colleagues a ripe source for doing harm to those with whom he does not sympathize. And because he and Bon have also been told to contact “The Boss,” he has the means: drugs. So the plot thickens into a roux of violence, philosophy, hypocrisy, desperation and treachery as he acts his way into and out of nearly constant chaos and danger, writes his way into and out of wavering sanity, able to sympathize with so many, to understand so little. What is he committed to? Committed for? BOOM! He says, in describing his birth, product of a Vietnamese mother (whom he loved) and a French father (whom he loathes). And BOOM is an apt description for this detonation of words that sob and scream, weep for, tear at the fabric of politics and philosophy, of belief and its opposite.
Inspector St. John (pronounced Sinjun) Strafford wanders the winter landscape surrounding Ballyglass House after a body is discovered in the library. Shades of Agatha Christie—except that Strafford is no Poirot, and 1957 Ireland is far from Dame Agatha’s pastoral England. A lonely man who observes life from the sidelines, audience rather than player (as he himself observes), Strafford is from the same upper reaches of Protestant society as are the far grander inhabitants of Ballyglass. He wonders why the victim, a Catholic priest, has long been a familiar of the house and even more to the point, what he has done to deserve the bizarre post-death injuries he has suffered. So our detective roams the great house, the surrounding countryside, observing, making mental notes, engaging in awkward conversation, blundering into even more awkward situations, always accruing facts—or perhaps story would be a better word since he gradually builds a narrative of the lives involved in the mystery he’s trying to solve. Working more by instinct than process, he pieces together fragments from conversations, from revelatory behavior to create a plausible outline of past and present. As that outline comes into ever sharper focus, it also darkens in a dramatic way as Banville’s brilliant language burrows its way into the narrative and the reader’s psyche, somehow preparing us for what turns out to be the secret heart of the tale—and ample reason for murder.
An oddly appealing love story in which a woman of 42, lively and attractive yes, but undeniably mature, a mother of two and the chair of the English Department in a low income school, falls for a young man of 22 who babysits her boys. Hornby’s dialogue, whether internal or actual, is as funny as it is discerning. Consequently the way this improbable couple do and do not manage to grope their way across racial and cultural lines, not to mention a yawning generational gap (his own mother is exactly his new “girlfriend’s” age) makes for a light and witty yet surprisingly revelatory tale. As the pair trek their way over a series of interesting and often enormously amusing obstacles, they at first see the flaws inherent in the dissimilar ways their respective generations and classes view everything from sex to books to Brexit. But then, pulled into the other’s point of view by affection, each is forced to examine his or her own attitudes—the perfect recipe for social comedy and for a wise and wryly humorous read.
A woman as learned in the ways of the earth as is her playwright husband in the ways human beings can meld to create or destroy one another lies at the beating heart of this fearsomely beautiful novel. The bewitching birth of love, the creation of a family, the death of a child. The arc of grief. Of cracked hearts and lives and relationships. The possibility of healing. Not through forgetting but through its opposite. Through memory. This breathless counterpoint of past and present, of the woman who married Shakespeare, of her children, his children, of the ties that bind us to one another, for good and for ill, not only dazzles us with its depth of feeling and the radiance of its language, it quite literally will not let us go, perhaps forever
As the prejudice and racial hatred that was so much a part of the ‘60s boils up again today, it is hard to think of a more important or timely book than the biography of John Lewis. It’s also hard to imagine anyone more suited to write that biography than Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian with a deep understanding not just of our nation’s past but also of the Christianity which, along with the non-violence of Gandhi, coalesced into the bedrock beliefs of the adult John Lewis. Preaching to chickens as a boy, to his fellow students at the theology seminar he attended as a young man, Lewis grew comfortable formulating and expressing faith—whether in God or the “beloved community” that was his version of “a perfect union.” That faith led him from lunch counters in Nashville to the buses of the “Freedom Riders” to Birmingham to Selma to the turning point of “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge—and finally to the U.S. House of Representatives where he remained until his recent death. The march of history seen through his eyes and grounded in Meacham’s portrait of his time, reflects back a man of profound morality and unshakable belief that, “It will all work out.” Somehow, turning the last page of Meacham’s excellent book, looking back on the extraordinary life of the unstoppable and inspiring John Lewis, I almost believe it will. Even now, in 2020.
The ways in which idle speculation and innocent dreams of glory can inadvertently ripple into riptides while calculating ambition can whip the winds of politics to cyclone force: all may be found in the twining lives and voices of a young Muslim woman who flings words into cyberspace that say more than she means, the outcast transgender who fervently longs to be a star, and the self-seeking gym teacher with an eye for the main chance. The young woman, Javin, writes the fatal words that create the maelstrom; Lovely prepares for his acting class, hope in his heart; and Pt. Sir re-writes the past in his own best interest, as the reader is hurtled forward, as fearful for and at the same time as incredulous as is Jivan. A thriller on one level, a brilliantly crafted novel that perfectly captures the guilelessness of youth and its terrifying fragility on another, it is also a devastating portrayal of the corruption of the political state—in India or, for that matter, anywhere.
Mantel’s (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies) Thomas Cromwell alternately soothes and schemes his way through the present and through dreams of times past, so seldom surprised by the actions of others that when he’s occasionally taken aback the reader is stunned. Uncanny in his understanding of women, of the ambition that drives humankind, and of the currents of history, his is a character of Shakespearean stature. As is Henry Tudor’s, arrogant, erratic, as insecure—and as cruel—as our present president. Brilliant, utterly involving and hundreds of glorious pages long, this is the perfect way to while away the coming hours, days, even weeks ahead, learning the lessons history has to teach in the process.
Sportcoat, an aging sot from the Brooklyn Projects, shoots a baseball-star-turned-drug-
dealer—and then forgets he’s done it—in a novel as boisterously funny as it is touching, as wondrous as it is wacky. Proof of the adage that home is where the heart is, this is a perfect pick-me-up for these dark days.
There is so much to love in Erdrich’s new book: a plot about white plotters trying to steal Chippewa land; tall tales from The Book of Mormon, the Bible, and collective Chippewa memory; a young woman lost in the city whose sister and mother fear for her, dream her danger; her sister, Patrice, whose hated nickname, Pixie, belies her always able, often implacable nature; Wood Mountain, a brilliant boxer who’d rather love than fight; the white math teacher Haystack and, white also, a couple of Mormon missionaries whose dislike of one another is fast turning to hatred; Millie, well-educated, smart, high on the autism spectrum; Roderick, an unassimilated Chippewa ghost; and Thomas, the factory’s night watchman, who watches over them all—or tries to. It is Thomas who marshals a plan to save the reservation from the plotters in Washington D.C. and who puts together the pieces of their resistance with the advice of his ancient father Biboon. It is Thomas who orchestrates their assault on Congress against the humorless Mormon Senator Arthur V. Watkins—along with the Senator for Indian Affairs, Rex Lee (holy moly this really is based on fact!). Erdrich’s boisterous, bewitching, seemingly improbable tale is as enraging as it is hilarious, as heartbreaking as it is entertaining, as whimsical, humorous, heroic as it is factual. A true story in the best sense of the word. I loved every page.
In August 1939 Pablo Neruda organized a refugee ship, the Winnipeg, to transport over 2000 Spanish refugees to Chile. Allende’s new novel, inspired by this littleknown event, should strike a chord in our current unwelcoming world. Its main character, Victor Dalmau, is a medic on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War until, knowing that only brutality will follow Franco, he flees to France, desperate to find his dead brother’s fiancee and child. His plan to convince Roser to marry him so she and the child can join him on the Winnepeg works. We follow their lives as they build a community, pursue careers, and search for their own identities in their adopted country. However when another dictator, Pinochet, shows up, the Dalmau family must once again consider their political views in a dangerous world. Full of contrasts—dictators and freedom, leaving and belonging, fear and hope—Allende’s novel is possessed of perfect timing, and her prodigious talent radiates throughout. – Margaret Brennan Neville, Random, $28
Set in Laos in the 1960s, this spare but powerful narrative tells the tale of three orphans and a dedicated doctor named Yang. The orphans have taken refuge in a bombed-out field hospital and become motorcycle couriers maneuvering across fields laced with unexploded bombs and under barrages of bombs from the air— until Yang arranges for the four of them to be evacuated on the last helicopter leaving the country. This begins a story that lasts decades, a poignant, tragic and beautiful work of historical fiction that once again solidifies Paul Yoon as a writer of remarkable talent. It will stay with you long after you finish the last page. – Sally Larkin, Simon & Schuster, $26
Apeirogon, a “countably infinite” shape, describes McCann’s new book perfectly in that it evokes the countably infinite stories that we as humans tell ourselves and each other in our desire to make sense of an often senseless world. Set in Israel and Palestine, it is the story of Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, and Rami Elhmenanan, an Israeli, who have both lost daughters to the violent conflict between their nations. These two characters and their stories are real, the rest is fiction. Apeirogon covers the larger themes of life: friendship, love, loss and belonging, and does so beautifully. However, the beating heart of the book—something that could cure all conflicts—comes in the exact center of the novel and is told by Rami..... “if they [the Palestinians] were anything other than objects to be feared, they would become real people.” The story itself is told in the manner of the 1001 tales in the Arabian Nights, with Bassam’s and Rami’s true stories in the middle of the book. Each vignette advances not only their tales but also the physical and emotional checkpoints that they must negotiate, small passages that stitch together story, history, nature and politics. A soaring, searing novel that is at once bleak and hopeful, this is absolutely one of the best books that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. – Jan Sloan, Random House, $28 Editor’s note: Bookseller Gayle Shanks from Changing Hands in AZ was traveling in Israel and Palestine and had read (and loved!) Aperiogon. She said in an email, “Tonight as part of our tour, we met with two men who have started an organization called the Parents Circle, a part of another organization called Combatants for Peace. To my utter shock and tearful amazement, the two men introduced themselves and turned out to be the very men in the novel!! They were as shocked as we were and have actually not yet read the book. They are going to call McCann and tell him that I loved the book and that they met me. My best to all of you from the crazy and beautiful Middle East.
Most of Casey’s friends have let go of their literary aspirations, settling for more practical careers or for marriage. But she writes and rewrites the novel she’s determined to finish, taking her characters up and down the stairs of their lives even as her own mental balance starts to teeter. King regards Casey with a kind-hearted yet clear-eyed acuity that brings her to aching and believable life, her panic attacks and her waitressing feats limned with equal parts humor and empathy. Gorgeously written, perceptive, moving, this is a book any writer will love—as will anyone who has waited tables, waited for love, or for will-o’-the-wisp inspiration to strike.
First there is the tart voice of Halima, as astute and acerbic as Elizabeth Bennet’s, followed by that of Jacob Wainwright, a not-yet-ordained minister so blinded by the light of his own missionary zeal that he misperceives all that he sees. Through the eyes of this unlikely pair, cook and scribe respectively, both former slaves, we see the man for whom they work, Dr. Livingston, funny, flawed, obsessively searching for the source of the Nile even as he grows increasingly ill. His death and the epic journey of his company from the interior of Africa to the coast, and then on to England, bearing his remains, is the stuff of this imaginative and masterful novel. The path they take through hostile terrain teems with danger—from one another as well as from the outside, from hostile tribes and from starvation. But it is also scarred everywhere with traces of the slave trade that ravaged the continent and its peoples. Gappah brings to light the source not of the Nile but of the taking, buying and selling of human beings, the evidence of which is savagely vivid and indelible, echoing hauntingly through their journey. As large as life and as paradoxical, as full of sex and gossip and deceit and goodness and death as all of our lives, Out of Darkness, Shining Light does illuminate the world—its darkness as well as its light.
Eight-year-old John, who observes accurately enough but doesn’t necessarily understand what he sees, lives through a long hot Washington D.C. summer in 1959 in a neighborhood plagued (or blessed, if you’re precocious) by spiders, gossip, hatred for Nazi sympathizers, communists, and anyone else who is the least bit different. Trouble is, because it’s D.C., politicians, spies, and diplomats from across the nation and around the world abound; everyone is different—even in the 1950s. When the arachnid invasion and the rare lizard-like creature being studied in the National Museum present John, his two best friends, and their tomboy sidekick Beatrix with the possibility of a weapon akin to the new and fearsome nuclear bomb, they embark on a quest that turns into high adventure. This, along with their attempts to protect Ivan’s gorgeous aunt, to get a look at the iron lung and the translucent frog of their next-door neighbor, and to plan a party they think will bring peace to the neighborhood, makes their summer full to say the least in a tale that is funny one minute, terrifying the next. Acidly sweet and painfully clear-eyed, a wondrous combination of great storytelling and dead-eyed truth-telling, Summerlings is an absolute joy to read. If you loved To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Sawyer or that effervescent memoir by Chris Rush, The Light Years, Summerlings is the book for you.
A boy in the midst of a mixed-race family, a mixed-race community in Houston tells tales of neighbors and friends and families, of his brother and sister, his father and mother, of infidelity and baseball and drugs and death and love in his neighborhood and in his family’s restaurant. The chorus of community interferes and supports, gossips and judges in a coming-of-age story that is harsh in terms of reality, as harrowing as it is touching, vibrantly told and brilliantly original.
Reading Power’s new novel is a bit like reading the Bible—it’s voluminous, lyrical, passionate, compelling, chockfull of fascinating characters, of tales that span years and continents, and beneath its overarching, endlessly compelling story lies one central truth: in this case, the truth of trees. Unlike the Bible, The Overstory is grounded in science as intriguing as the tales it tells, as fascinating as the cast of characters who trek the forests and track the pathways of the internet Powers pulls us into. A research scientist, two voracious readers, an artist, an engineer, a statistician, a techie to the nth degree, trees of every imaginable variety, all interact across species and interests and inclination in a breathtaking book that enchants you, angers you, takes away your hope, gives it back....the ride of a lifetime. The ride of our collective lifetime. Our overstory. Do not miss it. Give a copy to everyone you know. Spread the word. This is a life-changing book.
The little town of Greenstone, Minnesota, is a faded sort of place, the prosperity provided by mining and manufacturing long gone, as is its local almost-hero, a nearly famous baseball player who disappeared in a plane somewhere over Lake Superior a decade back. His good friend Virgil still runs the local theater, selling popcorn to the two or three customers who come in of an evening—until, heading home in a snowstorm one night, Virgil sails off the road, floating toward certain death in the waiting water...Improbably rescued in the nick of time, Virgil has lost some memory (including his favorite adjectives) but gained a second chance at life, evidenced in the new way he looks at old friends, his openness to new ones. A colorful cast of characters—ranging from the vanished ball player’s son, ex-wife, and a father he had never known to the staff at city hall where Virgil works part-time to the giant sturgeon who haunts the local waterways to the unsavory Adam Leer—make for a big-hearted and thoroughly entertaining read graced with humor, a whiff of mystery, and a good dose of whimsy.
The aftermath of war shed a livid glow across the world long after the last bombs were dropped in 1945. In London the lives of two children, Nathaniel and Rachel, were caught in that eerie glow when their mother disappeared, leaving them in the care of “The Moth,” a stranger they’d met once. Still attending school in the day, the pair entered a strange new world in the evenings, their home a sort of night circus with The Moth its impresario, his sidekick “The Darter” ever-present, and a menagerie of mismatched urban dwellers from beekeepers to opera stars, dog smugglers to ethnographers to spies. From the laundry room in the bowels of the Hotel Criterion in Piccadilly Circus to the vacant London houses Nathaniel invaded with his first love Agnes to night journeys with Rachel and The Darter in mussel boats on the Thames, life became a moonlit kaleidoscope of lurid and larger-than-life people and experiences. Their naiveté in the often magical and as often nightmarish parent-free world they were learning to inhabit is the stuff of this brilliant novel—along with the aftermath of their abandonment as they come of age and enter adulthood. As breathlessly told as The English Patient, and as profound, as poignant as The Cat’s Table, and as haunting, Warlight surpasses both in the light it sheds on our aloneness, on our unadmitted needfulness, on the ways war can warp our lives, and on what we try so hard to bury in the darkness of unacknowledged memory. Brilliant doesn’t begin to describe it.