John Clark offering some suggestions for those with readers of all types and ages on their Christmas lists.
First up is a great blend of romance, mystery and historical fiction from Jenifer Donnelly, author of A Northern Light and Revolution. These Shallow Graves (Delacorte Press, 2015, ISBN 9780385737654) is the story of Jo Montfort, a young lady from a wealthy New York shipping family who is pulled out of her life of comfort and constraint when her father dies in his study from a gunshot wound. When the police and her uncle announce it was an accident, Jo is shocked and saddened until she discovers evidence that starts her on a trail of discovery, convoluted family secrets and a slap-in-the-face exposure to how brutal life for those less fortunate in 1890s New York City really is,
When Jo visits the editor of a newspaper owned by her late father to deliver an item bequeathed to him, she overhears a young male reporter talking to his peers, claiming her father’s death was a suicide, but the police are covering it up. Her first reaction is indignation, but the more she listens and the more she looks at Eddie, the young reporter, the stronger her interest and attraction become. After finding money and her father’s missing agenda book in his office, she decides that enlisting Eddie’s investigative skills are in order.
Sneaking out of her mansion unaccompanied would have been unthinkable before her father’s death. Indeed, her life was headed toward an arranged marriage and a fancy wedding, followed by days of luxurious boredom, having children and doing the right things per society’s expectations. However, That’s exactly what Jo begins to do and as she enlists Eddie’s help, he introduces her not only to a new world, but a cast of characters, some memorable, many scary or pathetic. There’s awkward, but brilliant Oliver, a medical student who moonlights in the morgue where he hones his skills as a forensic pathologist before the profession was even conceptualized. Another person who stands out is Fay, an orphan like Eddie who was rescued from the streets by Taylor, a Fagan clone. She’s sassy and tough, but there’s a connection between her and Jo that transcends the huge gap between their lives.
As Jo and Eddie begin to unravel the secrets surrounding her father’s death and the mystery of a tattooed man long believed lost at sea in the Indian Ocean, who reappears after seventeen years, their attraction grows, even though Jo’s family constraints scream that it’s doomed from the beginning. What happens to them, to her family and the way the two young lovers deal with some pretty dark events, makes this 500 page book seem a lot shorter. It’s a great blend of romance and mystery, garnished with a really intense and accurate view of what life was like for classes in New York near the turn of that century. It includes a reading list at the end for those curious for additional facts about the details in the book. If you have someone on your list that loves any combination of the themes here, you’ll have a winner for certain.
Juvenile fans of historical fiction will be interested in The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, Candlewick Press, 2015. ISBN: 9780763678180. Here’s a brief review of that one.
When your mom dies suddenly and you’re twelve and living on a hardscrabble Pennsylvania farm with your perpetually angry and demeaning father, what happens? You’re verbally abused, no longer allowed to attend school and have to assume all the work your deceased mother was doing. This is the reality in 1911 for smart, but impetuous Joan Skraggs. When her father tears up and burns her only three books, now fourteen year old Joan takes the money her late mom sewed into an apron and runs off, hoping to find work and a new future in Baltimore. Arriving at night and frightened when a man tries to take advantage of her, She’s rescued by a young Jewish man who takes her to his home. His parents, the wealthy Rosenbachs, give her shelter and then employment as a hired girl. Her job is to do whatever the elderly Malka, who has been with the family since Mr. Rosenbach was a boy, cannot or will not. She changes her name to Janet and tells the family members that she is eighteen.
There’s a steep learning curve because of her impetuosity and complete ignorance of Jewish customs and religious practices, not to mention her infatuation with David, the older son, as well as her determination to become a confirmed Catholic. Told through the entries in her diary and dialogue with others, this is an excellent historical novel for curious and smart juvenile and teen readers. They will cringe when Joan rushes into numerous situations with the best of intentions, only to be like a bull in a china shop and they will cheer as she survives and even thrives as she learns from her mistakes and is treated ever so kindly by the caring and understanding people who have employed her. It is a perfect addition to any library interested in adding a worthwhile title to their historical fiction collection.
Another choice for juvenile readers is Clementine For Christmas by Daphne Benedis-Grab, Scholastic 2015 ISBN: 9780545839518. This is a feel-good book about Josie who is extremely shy at school, but shines in her volunteer role, cheering up kids on the pediatric ward at the hospital with her dog Clementine. While there she is a different person, able to dress in costumes, sing and feel good about herself. It involves losing her dog temporarily while gaining confidence, understanding other kids and making new friends. It’s a perfect holiday read.
For those looking to thrill an avid teen reader, I suggest the Starbound trilogy (book three comes out today and arrives tonight!) by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. I devoured the first two and can’t wait for the final installment. These are science fiction blended with intrigue and romance at its best. Titles are These Broken Stars: A Starbound Novel, This Shattered World: A Starbound Novel and Their Fractured Light.
For adults I have three suggestions, If you have a police procedural lover on your list, check out Brian Thiem’s first book Red Line (Crooked Lane Books (August 11, 2015) ISBN: 9781629531946). I picked up a copy at the New England Crime Bake and read it right after I got home. After 25 years as a homicide detective in Oakland, Brian knows his stuff. I’ve attended two programs he’s done at Crime Bakes and came away impressed both times. The book only increased my respect. It’s a great read and he’s got more to come.
Sometimes I pick up books on impulse, reading the first few pages to see if there’s a really good hook. I brought my music CDs to Bull Moose for store credit and had to wait for a while so they could process the big box. I picked up The Consequences of Revenge by Rachel Van Dyken, Skyscape 2015 ISBN: 9781477830642. It turned out to be a total bed shaker, one of those books that has you laughing so hard the bed shakes so much your significant other keeps waking up and asking what you’re reading. Max Emory drifted through college, content to get okay grades while enjoying Milo’s (a girl) company and sorta hoping the friendship might blossom, but when she marries another of his friends, he’s in a complete funk. Despite having a fortune, thanks to his family hotel empire, Max holes up in his apartment, ignoring hygiene and tries totally lame pickup lines just to keep in contact with the world. This act blows up at a coffe shop when the barrista cuts him dead. Next thing Max knows, his friends have forged paperwork and he’s the bachelor star on an island with 24 single women as part of a reality show. One of the girls is Becca, the barrista. What follows involves creepy and desperate females, a goat and shark phobia, as well as a plan to foil any future zombie apocalypses. The story is funny, sexy and there are pieces of dialogue that would make even Ebeneezer Scrooge cackle with glee. If it’s a hit with the recipient, the author has a couple dozen more in print.
Lastly is a feel-good ebook for the folks on your list who prefer reading in this format, Holly Schindler’s Fifth Avenue Fidos: A Modern-Day Fairy Tale with “Bite” Mar 20, 2015. The description at Amazon.com says it perfectly: “Mable Barker, a frizzy-haired mongrel from Queens with no real life direction, is never going to snag a man like Jason Mead, a purebred Upper East Side veterinarian. Or so she thinks. Even in her daydreams, the infatuated-with-fairy-tales Mable imagines herself as a princess with a crooked tiara and a whole orchard of poison apples. Then again, Jason isn’t exactly traditional prince material himself. The shy but adorable Dr. Mead’s awkward ways around women have him substituting the search for his lifelong human companion with playing canine matchmaker—breeding blue ribbon champions. Jason’s first breeding attempt yields Innis, Fifth Avenue’s snarliest Pekingese. A dog whose temperament, it appears, will never fit show-dog standards…until he meets Mable, whom Jason hires as a dog walker. Could Mable actually have what it takes to handle Innis and Jason? Can three imperfect beings ever come together to create utter perfection at the Westminster Dog Show—and beyond? Will Mable and Jason ever trust their feelings, allow love to be unleashed? Will Mable ever see herself as a princess capable of riding off into the sunset?”
If you get some of these for yourself or as gifts, let me know what you think.