Since I started Read Harder 2017 with an obvious (for me) pick, I wanted my second book of the year to come from one of the categories that took me further out of my comfort zone. I picked #4: “Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.” Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s debut novel Like Water for Chocolate quickly caught my eye.
Mama Elena is a widowed rancher who runs her large household with an iron fist. It has long been tradition in her family that the youngest daughter remains unmarried in order to care for her mother in her old age. That duty now falls to Elena’s daughter Tita, a sensitive teenager who is also a gifted cook. When a young man named Pedro falls in love with Tita, Mama Elena informs the couple that Tita will never be allowed to marry. Pedro then proposes to Tita’s older sister Rosaura in order to stay near the woman he loves–with both joyous and painful consequences for all involved.
Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles is one of my favorite comfort reads. I discovered this YA quartet in middle school and read and re-read it obsessively. I loved the fractured fairy tale humor, the engaging protagonists, and especially the physicality of its system of magic–I could imagine how it would feel to use magic in Wrede’s world. I’ve enjoyed other Wrede books tremendously, especially the Mairelon the Magician books and Sorcery and Cecelia (co-written with Caroline Stevermer), but none quite lived up to the Enchanted Forest Chronicles for me. I think it’s always hard to replicate the experience of encountering just the right book at just the right time.
All of that brings me to Wrede’s Frontier Magic trilogy: Thirteenth Child, Beyond the Great Barrier, and The Far West. These YA charmers are quick reads and contain some truly marvelous worldbuilding in an alternate-universe version of the nineteenth-century United States. But I finished the trilogy a bit disappointed by the pacing and characterization, two things that Wrede usually excels at.
It’s a noir tale as old as the genre itself. A sharp young teen or twenty-something is toiling away in a two-bit operation — maybe legal, maybe not — when one day, in walks The Boss. The Boss notices something special about our protagonist and soon, that former nobody is The Boss’s protégé, slowly and surely seduced by the perks that come with keeping The Boss happy.
Megan Abbott’s Queenpin tells that tale with a simple yet transformative twist: The Boss and the protégé are both women.
We never learn the name of the novel’s narrator, whom we first meet cooking the books at a crummy club called the Tee Hee. That’s just as well, because the main character of the novel is really the Queenpin, Gloria Denton, who plucks The Girl (as we’ll call her for this review) out of the Tee Hee and brings her into a much bigger and more ambitious organization.
A few weeks ago, Slate.com writer Adam Sternbergh wrote a rapturous review of Megan Abbott’s The Fever — really, a rapturous review of Megan Abbott’s work in general. When he described her early books as “pitch-perfect evocations of classic period noir, set midcentury, but each with an ingenious contemporary twist,” I knew I had to give one a try.*
Abbott’s third novel, The Song is You, takes a real-life crime as its inspiration. In October 1949, a dancer and background actress named Jean Spangler vanished, seemingly into thin air. The only clue was her purse, found in a Los Angeles park, which contained an unfinished note:
Kirk, Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away,
Despite media coverage and a gossip columnist’s offer of a cash reward, Jean Spangler’s trail quickly went cold.
The book’s fictional protagonist, Gil “Hop” Hopkins, is the man who made sure it did.
Have you ever wondered why the tiny island of Great Britain was able to colonize vast swaths of the known world? Like any good history major I could give you many long and boring explanations for the existence of Britain’s nineteenth-century colonial empire. But Gail Carriger’s answer is much more fun: Britain rose to global power by giving citizenship and rights to werewolves and vampires, who naturally lent their powers to the Crown in return.
Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series follows the adventures of Alexia Tarrabotti, a London spinster with a fondness for treacle tarts and weaponized parasols. Alexia is a “preternatural” — someone without a soul — whose touch can negate the supernatural abilities of both vampires and werewolves.
At the beginning of Soulless, Miss Tarrabotti is enduring an extremely dull party when one of the other guests makes an embarrassing social faux pas: he tries to bite her. Alexia deals admirably with this display of bad manners; unfortunately, the attack (and the inevitable vampire corpse) results in the summoning of her sometimes-nemesis Lord Maccon, head of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry and the leader of London’s werewolf pack.
Before long, both Alexia and Lord Maccon will be neck-deep (pun intended) in a mystery. Creating new vampires is difficult; it can only be done by vampire queens, and many promising candidates (all volunteers, in accordance with British law) do not survive the process. Newly-created vampires are therefore carefully protected by their hives and taught how and where to feed. But suddenly, hungry, confused newborn vampires are cropping up out of nowhere and attacking people at random. Who is creating them — and how?
The one upside of Ruth Graham’s article trashing adults who read YA is that it prompted me to think about books written for children and teens that I still love at age 32. From Anna and its sequel, Listen for the Singing, came immediately to mind. These books aren’t even quite YA — they are written for a preteen crowd. And yet I don’t think any adult should feel shame or embarrassment about reading either of them.
Eight-year-old Anna Solden is the youngest of five children and has always felt overshadowed. Things seem to come so easily to her siblings, but Anna does poorly in school and is constantly scolded for her clumsiness. But even as Anna struggles in Frau Schmidt’s class, she can sense that there are bigger troubles brewing in her homeland of Germany. In the book’s opening chapter, we learn that her school’s headmaster will not allow Anna’s favorite song, “Die Gedanken sind frei” (“Thoughts are Free”), to be played at the school assembly. Moreover, her classmate Gerda’s father has gone missing.
Anna can tell that her beloved father is disturbed by the changes coming over Germany. One night Ernst Solden announces that the family will speak only English at the dinner table. A few weeks later, he makes an even bigger announcement: the Solden family is moving to Canada.
Last week I told you about a back-luck streak I had with books, when I felt like every book I started wound up being a snooze-fest. Dreadnought was the book that broke that streak. It simply didn’t give me time to get frustrated or bored. Dreadnought moved at breakneck speed from the first chapter to the epilogue and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. I do not advise starting this book on the bus on the way to work, as you may be far too tempted to “forget” your stop and possibly your job altogether in order to finish it.
Dreadnought opens in a Confederate military hospital in Richmond, Virginia, where practical Vinitia “Mercy” Lynch is a nurse. In Priest’s alternate Clockwork Century, the Civil War did not end in the 1860s; instead, it has turned into a decades-long conflict so deadly that every Confederate state (save for Mississippi and Alabama) has outlawed slavery and given former slaves citizenship in order to recruit more fighters. Mercy’s own loyalties are somewhat divided; while she works at a Confederate hospital and Yankee armies burned her family’s farm twice, she is also married to a Union soldier.
The events of the book are set in motion when Mercy receives an unexpected telegram. Her estranged father, Jeremiah Swakhammer, has been critically injured. His friends beg her to make the long trek to Seattle to visit him. Mercy — still reeling from a recent death — decides that despite her father’s failings, she can’t ignore what might be his dying wish.
There’s just one problem. There’s a chance that a few Civil War battles are smack in the middle of Mercy’s route to Seattle and her father.