The March 2007 Book Club Kirkus Review

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The March 2007 Book Club Kirkus Review
THE
“Indispensable!…the issue where we talk about the books
readers will be talking about.”—Kirkus Reviews
BOOK
CLUB
Kirkus Reviews
ISSUE
2007
OUR
TOP PICKS
FOR
READING
GROUPS
i
PLUS
i
Winning Selections forYoung Adults
PICADOR
PAPERBACK
PERFECT
FOR
ORIGINALS
READING
GROUPS
FROM THE AUTHOR OF SMALL ISLAND,
WINNER OF THE WHITBREAD
BOOK OF THE YEAR
“[The] search for a sense of belonging drives the plot of Andrea Levy’s moving new
novel…. Levy meets the challenge of dramatizing the difficult issue of identity
through her restrained prose and imagery…. Beautifully written.”
—THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
“An engaging tale of emerging race identity and heritage…An enjoyable, deft
combination of humor and telling observation on owning one’s race and roots.”
—KIRKUS REVIEWS
“[Delivers] a solid meditation on the power of family stories…. Fans of Zadie Smith
will appreciate Levy’s explorations of race and class.”
—LIBRARY JOURNAL
F R O M T H E A U T H O R O F N B C ’ S T O D AY
SHOW BOOK CLUB PICK SHADOW BABY
“An often moving study of the strangeness of children—their brutal curiosity,
the abrupt maturity they assume; and most of all the consuming, impermeable
worlds they create with their minds.”
—JENNIFER EGAN, AUTHOR OF THE KEEP
“A late adolescence of fierce, sweet turmoil provides the inspiration for
Alison McGhee. [A] tender and charming coming of age tale.”
— P U B L I S H E R S W E E K LY
“Alison McGhee treats her characters generously and kindly, inviting us to fall in
love with them, and it is an offer we cannot refuse. Sometimes a whisper
commands more attention than a yell, and this book is such an urgent whisper:
beautiful, moving, delicate, and wise.”
— A N D R E W S O LO M O N , N AT I O N A L B O O K
AWA R D – W I N N I N G AU T H O R O F T H E N O O N DAY D E M O N
PICADOR
R E A D I N G
G R O U P
G U I D E S
PAPERBACK
AVA I L A B L E
O N L I N E
ORIGINALS
AT
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I
N O U R T H I R D A N N UA L S P E C I A L I S S U E
featuring noteworthy book-club titles, we have once again sorted through piles of
candidates and have emerged with a diverse collection of books that are sure to
inspire lively and earnest—and often, necessary—discussion. In fiction, we present illuminating historical fiction from Alison Weir, Margaret Forster and Ariana Franklin;
thoughtful political and social commentary from Louise Dean and Mohsin Hamid; a
meditation on love from Orange Prize–winning Lionel Shriver; and a magical debut from
James Cañón. We also delve into nonfiction, with a focus on subjects that may provoke
powerful debate: Monica Holloway’s haunting memoir of abuse, Camelia Entekhabifard’s
revealing memoir of Iran; and a searing portrait of female genital mutilation in Somalia,
by Fadumo Korn. And for those reluctant teen readers, our young-adult section—with
favorites Mal Peet and Esmé Raji Codell, and a wildly popular British import, Jacqueline
Wilson—provides plenty to get the kids reading.
A Long Way Gone:
Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
Ishmael Beah
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
February / 9780374105235 / $22.00
I
n 1992, as a boy of 12,
Ishmael Beah was
drafted into the army. He
was at first a reluctant
soldier in Sierra Leone’s
long, all-consuming civil
war, fighting for a corrupt, besieged government whose center was
far from his native town. Then, in time, given
enough power over life and death, enough
marijuana, enough pills, Beah became an
enthusiastic killer whose lieutenant gave him
the telling nickname Green Snake: “You
don’t look dangerous, but you are, and you
blend in with nature like a green snake,
deceptive and deadly when you want to be.”
At age 15, Beah was himself a junior lieutenant, hard and remorseless. “I felt no pity
for anyone,” he recalls. “My childhood had
gone by without my knowing, and it seemed
as if my heart had frozen.” With the arrival of
international aid workers, Beah was sent to a
rehabilitation center, where he slowly shed
his armor and reclaimed some small part of
his youth. Two years later, enrolled at Oberlin College, he began to write his memoir. It
tells a harrowing tale, one of considerable
urgency. “I want people who read this book
to know that all of us are capable of losing
our humanity when put in the right circumstances,” says the 26-year-old author, who
now lives in Paris. “I do not want people to
think of this story as something that only
happens to Africans or to others in parts of
the world where there are civil wars. My
Sierra Leone was once a peaceful nation, and
I could have never imagined as a much
younger child that what happened there
could be possible.” It was possible, of course,
for humankind seems to know no bounds
when it comes to doing harm. But, adds
Beah, “I want people to know that as much as
we are all capable of becoming truly violent,
we also have the capacity to regain our
humanity.” His book offers fine testimonial.
Tales from the Town of Widows
James Cañón
HarperCollins / January / 9780061140389 / $24.95
J
ames Cañón’s brave and witty debut
novel—in which the remote Colombian
village of Mariquita is forever altered the day
a band of guerrillas takes out all but three of
its men—centers on finding one’s voice. Left
kirkusreviews.com
—The Editors
to fend for themselves
with an ethically challenged priest, a transvestite and a shy gay man,
the abandoned women
slowly emerge from
their supporting roles as
wives and daughters to
become the unwitting
founders of a radically socialist society, a
metamorphosis Kirkus described as “slyly
pushing the envelope Aristophanes opened
with Lysistrata.” Tackling politics, gender,
history, religion and Latin American studies
with a surprisingly winning combination of
laugh-out-loud humor and poignant chronicles of the chaos and devastation of a society
fractured by civil strife, Cañón says his primary motives for writing the story in English
were to empower women and alert the rest of
the world to the social crisis plaguing his
native country. “One of the reasons I didn’t
write this in Spanish is because I think it’s
important for Americans to learn about the
Colombian war,” he says. “In Colombia, we
have about five-million displaced people,
and no one really mentions them. America
helps Colombia a lot, but unfortunately, all
that money is going to the military, so the
social situation is still the same as it was 40
READING GROUPS
years ago.” Seldom does an author pen a
debut novel in his second language, but
Cañón’s tale is as unique and inspiring as the
wildly eccentric characters he creates to populate his “town of widows.” “One of the
things about writing in a second language is
you really don’t take much for granted,” says
the 38-year-old former ad man, who came to
New York at age 26 for a year to learn English
and ended up staying and becoming a novelist. “You try to look for the specific word and
find the beauty of the language.” Readers will
relish the finely crafted voices that resound
in this immensely rewarding debut.
This Human Season
Louise Dean
Harcourt / February / 9780151012534 / $23.00
L
ouise Dean draws a
searing portrait of
everyday life in a city
divided with This Human Season, a drama set
in Northern Ireland in
1979. In alternating chapters, Dean illuminates the
equally desperate lives of
John Dunn, a dour guard at the brutal prison
known as The Maze, and the volatile Kathleen Moran, anguished over her son’s imprisonment in the prison’s infamous H-Blocks,
where the hunger strikes have begun. “These
gaunt young men who looked like Jesus and
yet were boys, were dying for a cause by
starving themselves to death,” says the author. “It seemed to me to be incontrovertible
evidence of their belief and their honesty. So
I went to find out why and what that felt like
for their community, their mothers and families.” Her remarkable insight into the Troubles was inspired by nine months of intense
research during which she interviewed British soldiers, former prison officers, priests,
members of the Irish Republican Army and
mothers of sons killed on both sides of the
conflict. “I sat with families numbering nine
or ten persons in small rooms filled with cigarette smoke, sometimes for days, and in cars
in lonely places with one person who was
afraid to meet anywhere else,” she says, noting the sense of humor that emerged even
among the most dire stories—a solid point of
departure for reading groups. “On both sides,
as bright as a new penny, there was that smile
that cracked every time. They are a resilient
people, and we all might hope to give such a
courageous account of ourselves in similar
circumstances.”
4
Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the
Truth—A Memoir of Iran
Camelia Entekhabifard
Translated by George Murer
Seven Stories Press / March / 9781583227190 / $23.95
S
ome books offer
entertaining points
of discussion, allowing
readers to debate plot
twists, symbols and allusions, the process of
character development.
Others, however, are
necessary to discuss, in
that they deeply affect the way we view and
interact with the world around us. Camelia
Entekhabifard’s memoir of her life growing
up in Iran and the jail sentence she served for
writing for reformist newspapers at a critical
juncture in her country’s history falls into the
latter category. “I hope that my readers will
begin to understand what kind of life and
challenge we Iranians faced after the revolution,” she says, noting that “New Yorkers
experienced a terrorist attack in their city on
September 11, and that was shocking for
everyone. But what I hope my readers now
understand is that we Iranians have faced that
sort of terror and shocking events for many,
many years.” In an age in which a vast array
of multimedia alternatives sometimes neuter
the power of the written word, books like this
remind us that literature remains one of our
most potent—and poignant—means of
expression and creating empathy through
shared experience. “[Writing] has…empowered me to affect change and to deliver what
I feel are important messages. Of course, that
was the main reason for the Iranian regime to
close reformist papers and arrest so many
writers and intellectuals,” says the author.
“Writers can open up people’s eyes and
change people’s minds.”
Mistress of the Art of Death
Ariana Franklin
Putnam / February / 9780399154140 / $25.95
C
haracterized by Kirkus as “CSI meets
The Canterbury Tales,”
Ariana Franklin’s latest
novel may not seem like
obvious reading-group
fare. But a strong female
protagonist thriving in
the midst of a patriarchal
age—rendered in lush historical detail—
makes it an ideal choice. “I’ve based [protagkirkusreviews.com
onist] Adelia’s personality on a couple of female scientists I know; dogged, true to their
profession, even if the sky falls in. She might
seem like an anachronism, but she isn’t,”
says the author, who’s been infatuated with
the 12th century most of her life. Men may
write themselves in as the dominant figures
in many historical chronicles, but “delve
deeper and you find accounts of women in
business, managing castles, withstanding
sieges, studying, writing, doing everything
male history says they didn’t,” says Franklin.
“We stand on the shoulders of brave ancestresses.” While women from the past may
have provided inspiration for Franklin’s riveting historical thriller—a satisfying mix of
political intrigue, scientific detail and even
romance—it’s modern-day readers who will
reap the benefits from the inroads they
made—and the paths along which the author
takes them. “Although [the book] is just a
thriller and, I hope, entertainment, I have
tried very hard in writing about a period that
was important in the development of law to
get it right,” says Franklin. “I hope that [it]
encourages questions and, maybe, leads on to
further study.”
Keeping the World Away
Margaret Forster
Ballantine Books / July / 9780345496331 / $24.95
B
ritish novelist Margaret Forster’s engrossing novel about an imaginary work of art by a real
artist (Gwen John, 1836–
1939) examines the effect
that a small oil painting
depicting a quiet room
has on several generations of women. “I was interested in thinking
about [the question] ‘Could a painting change
a life?’ ” says the author. “So the starting
point of this book is, ‘How much does a
painting matter?’ I think there’s a great greed
for painting today.” Forster, known for her
historical fiction, says she originally planned
a nonfiction account. “Unfortunately, Gwen
John’s paintings don’t have interesting lives
because she didn’t paint a great deal and
what she did paint, she often kept,” she says.
“But it was then that I discovered that she
often did three or four paintings of the same
thing before she was finally satisfied, and so
I pretended that this could be one.” She
hopes that Keeping the World Away will challenge readers to articulate their own responses to art, and, for female readers, what they
READING GROUPS
expect from their own lives. “How much of
the artist goes into the painting? If you set
someone in front of a painting and they
didn’t know a single thing about the artist,
how much could they tell? Could they even
tell it was a woman who painted it?”
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Mohsin Hamid
Harcourt / April / 9780151013043 / $22.00
T
his is the story of
leaving America,”
says Mohsin Hamid, who
delves deep into the tension between East and
West in his latest novel.
The narrative eavesdrops
on one side of a confessional conversation between the narrator, Changez, and an unnamed, anxious American at a café in Lehore,
Pakistan. Joining the American melting pot
with earnest, Changez capitalizes on a Princeton education by scoring a dream job as a
business consultant in New York, and romances Erica, a beautiful American socialite.
But in the shadow of 9/11, the young man’s
life, love and cultural identity all suffer profound global shifts, creating an integral division in his devotions. “There’s this underlying sense of suspicion in the narrative that
arises from the way the story is told. It’s like
the way America and the Muslim World look
at each other,” says the author. “Is America
the country that produces the music that we
love, or is it the country that will bomb us? Is
Pakistan full of normal people like us or
crazed terrorists? Neither side really knows
so there’s this weird suspicion on both sides.”
Moth Smoke, Hamid’s previous novel,
focused on Pakistan, but The Reluctant Fundamentalist draws largely on the writer’s own
experiences in America. “The issue that has
most preoccupied me over the last decade
has been negotiating this tension between my
very American side and my Pakistani and
Muslim origins,” he says. “In some ways,
Changez has been similarly penetrated by
both these cultures. Wherever he goes, he
will always be torn.”
Driving with Dead People: A Memoir
Monica Holloway
Simon Spotlight Entertainment
March / 9781416940029 / $23.00
F
or years, Monica Holloway suppressed
memories of an abusive childhood
marked by chronic bed-wetting and compul-
5
sive lying—in addition
to a fascination with
her best friend’s family-run funeral home. “I
think a lot of us with
memories of abuse
have this feeling, that
we either want to be
dead or that there’s a
dead part of us,” she
says. “I felt that I would never be happy.”
Only after her older sister came forward with
tragic recollections of abuse at the hands of
her father did Monica begin to explore the
dark corners of her past—haunting memories she explores in her memoir with
unadorned prose and startling candor. “I felt
that telling my story—and it being a truthful
story—it would have more of an impact on
someone going through that or, God forbid,
on someone abusing a child, than if I had
written this same book and called it fiction,”
she says. “I don’t think it would have that
same power.” Driving with Dead People certainly packs a punch, and will provide countless discussions for reading-groups looking
for emotionally challenging material.
Born in the Big Rains: A Memoir of
Somalia and Survival
Fadumo Korn, with Sabine Eichhorst
Translated by Tobe Levin
The Feminist Press
November 2006 / 9781558615311 / $23.95
A
daptability,” writes
Fadumo Korn, “is a
nomad’s most valuable
asset.” Born Fadumo
Abdi Hersi Farah
Husen in 1964, she
came into the world of
the Darod people in a
season of “big rains,”
when the dry steppes of
the Ogaden region of Somalia, near Ethiopia,
turned green and abundant. Her mother, she
recalls, was “always pregnant,” as the family
moved across that demanding country following their flocks. Surviving a night alone
while looking for a missing goat was proof
that seven-year-old Fadumo was a big girl,
and that meant one thing: gudniin—female
circumcision. The complications that ensued
over the next decades threatened to take her
life at several turns, even as she moved into
the comparative luxury of an uncle’s household in the capital, Mogadishu. Eventually,
after much suffering, she was taken to Gerkirkusreviews.com
many for medical treatment. There she lives
today, working as an advocate against female
genital mutilation. There is much work to do,
her translator, Tobe Levin, notes, including in
Somali communities in North America. “The
infibulations continue to take place,” she
says, “with thousands of refugee girls at risk.
Wherever large groups of Somali refugees
are—in Minneapolis, in Toronto—the majority continue the practice. Genital mutilation
isn’t something far away; it’s happening right
here, and in Germany.” The treatment Fadumo received has, Levin says, “made her
clean” after long years of illness and debility,
with a powerful emotional knowledge to
share. Levin suggests that reading groups
look into their own lives to ask themselves
whether any of their own cherished beliefs
have been proven wrong or destructive. If so,
what happens in these pages may not seem so
alien—but no less appalling.
Afternoons with Emily
Rose MacMurray
Little, Brown / April / 9780316017602 / $24.99
R
ose MacMurray, the
76-year-old poet and
mother of three, died
unexpectedly following
knee-replacement surgery in 1997, having
spent the last four years
of her life creating, in the
grand style of Edith
Wharton, the intersecting lives of the protagonist-narrator, Miranda Arethusa Chase, and
her rather enigmatic friend Emily Dickinson.
Says Adelaide “Lolly” Aitken, who played a
major role in preparing the manuscript for
publication, “My mother wrote poetry from
practically the moment she picked up a pencil, and poetry was her truest love. I don’t
think she imagined writing a novel until she
had to be laid up for a few months and someone gave her a word processor. She was so
intrigued with the character of Emily Dickinson, and the main protagonist is a young girl
who is very recognizably my mother.” MacMurray’s tale gives life to the delicious fantasy of many a Dickinson fan: being drawn
into the great poet’s reclusive world. Soon
after the well-read, teenaged Miranda refuses
to acknowledge Christianity as the sole religion, 27-year-old Emily sends her a tantalizing invitation to visit her. This ignites a tempestuous relationship between the two
fiercely independent minds, each reckoning
with her own aspirations, desires and genius
READING GROUPS
in the face of restrictive 19th-century conventions. With its sweeping coverage of the
Civil War, high society, glorious poetry and
the complexities of intimate relations, the
novel offers ample food for discussion
among historical-fiction lovers and Dickinson scholars alike.
The Perfect Man
Naeem Murr
Random House
April / 9780812977011 / $13.95 paperback
R
ajiv Travers is as
much of an outsider
in 1950s Pisgah, Mo., as
is possible. Orphaned by
his Indian mother and
abandoned by his British
father, he is sent to the
small river town to live
with his uncle’s mistress,
a fiery woman who wants as little to do with
him as he does with will small-town America. Against all odds, Raj thrives in Pisgah,
becoming inextricably linked with four close
friends as they navigate a town wrought with
long-held secrets. But as Raj becomes assimilated, his closest friend, Lew, grows further
stigmatized—the result of his younger brother’s mysterious death years earlier. Already
being compared with Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Pisgah is a powerful setting.
The author explains that he chose the setting
—especially unique, given his own up-bringing in an immigrant-heavy London neighborhood—for this very sense of universality.
“Missouri is right at the heart of America,
arguably, culturally, between the north and
the south, and certainly between the formative east and the idea of the west,” he says.
And he believes Raj’s experiences transcend
his very unusual story. “For me,” he says, “as
I think for all pure fiction writers, the magic
and power of fiction is in its central paradox:
by telling, as objectively, honestly, specifically and skillfully as you can, the story of
one person, you tell, at some level, the story
of us all.”
The Year of Fog
Michelle Richmond
Delacorte Press / March / 9780385340113 / $20.00
W
hen Abby Mason’s young soon-to-be
stepdaughter Emma vanishes into the
fog from a public beach, life changes forever
for the characters in Michelle Richmond’s
elegant new novel. But the author is quick to
note that the story of Abby’s year-long search
6
was not simply drawn
from the headlines. “I
was actually walking on
Ocean Beach near my
house and it was a really
foggy day, very cold.
And there was a little
girl on the beach playing
in the sand with a bucket.
I walked by and then I turned around and she
wasn’t there anymore,” she says. “A couple
of weeks later I started writing this. I hadn’t
planned to. I was tired of novels [Richmond’s
second, Dream of the Blue Room, had just
been released], but I wanted to know what
happened to her, why she was there, who she
was.” The novel focuses heavily on the relationship between Abby and her fiancé, Jake.
“What is the breaking point of a relationship?” asks the author. “Abby and Jake are at
this great point, then the rug is completely
pulled from beneath her feet. When you have
the very best possible relationship, how
much can that relationship take?” The author
also questions the construction of memory.
“I was thinking about how she would be
searching her memory for something, some
clue. Then I read research on memory, how
we attempt to bend it to our needs, how it can
fail us at times,” she says. “We never have
a completely true memory. Every time we
access our memory, it’s going to change a little bit.”
The Big Eddy Club: The Stocking
Stranglings and Southern Justice
David Rose
The New Press / May / 9781565849105 / $25.95
F
rom 1977 to 1978, a
serial killer brutally
raped and strangled seven elderly white women
who were linked only by
their membership in The
Big Eddy Club, an exclusive social organization
in Columbus, Ga. Carlton Gary, a black man with a troubled family
history of racial persecution, was arrested
years later and swiftly sentenced to death.
Though David Rose was originally sent to
Georgia on a more general assignment to
write about the state’s death penalty, he
quickly became fascinated with Gary’s story.
“I am now certain he did not get a fair trial
and that important exculpatory evidence was
concealed from the jury,” he says. It is this
investigative journalism that Rose feels sets
kirkusreviews.com
his book apart from most true crime stories,
and, he believes, provides such interesting
fodder for reading groups. Not only is the
story compelling, he says, but it also raises
important issues that bear further discussion,
such as “the way the legal system can be
abused and manipulated, along with the connections between lynching and racism in the
history,” he says, and “the way that mentality
is formed by historical memory, or the deliberate suppression of terrible events.”
A Buffalo in the House: The True
Story of a Man, an Animal, and the
American West
R.D. Rosen
The New Press / June / 9781595581655 / $24.95
R
ichard Rosen first
traveled to Santa Fe
not as a writer (he is the
bestselling author of a
mystery and several humor books), an editor (he
is a senior editor at Workman Publishing) or an
animal-lover, but rather,
as a son-in-law. “[I] don’t know if it was serendipity or fate,” he says, “but at a little gettogether with my future in-laws…I met a
large animal chiropractor whose most unusual client turned out to be an injured buffalo.”
That conversation led to a visit with Veryl
Goodnight and Roger Brooks—and their
buffalo, Charlie—in their suburban Santa Fe
home. The visit was not only what the author
calls “a novel experience,” but also one that
gave him an idea, “a sense that this was a rare
story in which the present and the past resonated perfectly.” Rosen uses Charlie’s story
to tell a much broader history of the American buffalo, a species on the brink of extinction. While doing so, he incorporates subtler,
more universal lessons, such as “our relationship to animals in general, and the relationship of that relationship to our love relationship with humans…[and] serious questions
about our responsibility for our own commitments, and how it is we choose what’s important to our moral well-being.”
The Post-Birthday World
Lionel Shriver
HarperCollins
March / 9780061187841 / $25.95
N
obody’s perfect in Lionel Shriver’s complex, emotional and affecting new novel.
The author’s follow-up to her Orange
Prize–winning We Need to Talk about Kevin
READING GROUPS
is a sprawling meditation
on love, desire and the
conflicts that arise from
one woman’s state of
affairs both real and
imagined. “It’s a paralleluniverse book which
hinges on a kiss,” she
says. “It looks at what
difference it makes whom we select to love
and with whom we live. What influence does
that choice have not only over the important
junctures of our lives but also over the ordinary texture of our daily lives? I think those
two things are equally important.” In London, American expatriate Irena McGovern
must choose between loyalty to her faithful,
dispassionate partner Lawrence Trainer, or
indulgence in a reckless embrace with spontaneous, visceral snooker-player Ramsey
Acton. Shriver explores both sides in interleaved chapters that depict the consequences,
coincidences and ironies of Irena’s doubleedged choice. “I like the idea that this book
allows a reader to reflect on their own romantic choices and perhaps even to reconsider
them,” she says. “Everyone has a Lawrence
or a Ramsey in their lives. I didn’t want to
write about the ‘good man’ and the ‘bad
man.’ I wanted to deal with two good men,
both of whom are imperfect—which is to
say, like everyone.”
When She Was White: The True Story
of a Family Divided by Race
Judith Stone
Miramax Books / April / 9780786868988 / $23.95
A
partheid was a fact
of life in South
Africa for the better
part of the 20th century—its insistence on
racial classification and
hierarchy a formula for
cruelty, injustice, official abuse and corruption—and it touched on
lives in ways great and small, as when, in
1955, Sandra Laing was born to an Afrikaner couple who were faithful members of the
pro-apartheid Nationalist Party and Dutch
Reformed Church. Recalls her mother, “I
immediately noticed that the color of Sandra’s skin was darker” than it should have
been, given her parentage. “During the 1950s
and ’60s,” she added, “a few cases of genetic
kickbacks occurred,” but neither parent could
find an instance of interracial crossing on
8
their family trees. Sandra’s complexion
caused her much misery. Neighbors assumed
her mother had had a forbidden affair with a
black man, and the family was shunned; at
the age of ten, Sandra herself was reclassified
as “coloured,” and everything changed.
When She Was White, Laing’s life story set
against the broad context of South African
life past and present, is a complex tale of race
and the search for personal and ethnic identity, one that may seem quite removed to most
American readers. But, remarks American
journalist Judith Stone, it should not be.
“Matters of race, equality and identity are
central and contentious issues in America
today,” she says. “And I don’t think there’s a
person on the planet who hasn’t been affected by family secrets, parental pressures, the
pull of competing loyalties and the struggle
to reconcile personal beliefs with community values, whether she or he lives in South
Africa or South Dakota.” Stone suggests that
reading groups pay attention to the question
of who holds the ultimate responsibility for
all the difficulties in Laing’s life—a matter
touched on throughout the narrative. “Can
you blame people who are caught up in a system?” she asks. The answer to that question
is a universal concern.
The Other Side of You
Salley Vickers
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
February / 9780374221904 / $24.00
A
former psychologist, Salley Vickers draws largely on
her own experiences
with patients to conjure the very complex
relationship between
the two main characters in her latest novel:
a psychiatrist and a
patient each struggling with their own morbid demons. In what Kirkus called a “philosophical romance,” David McBride, “a psychiatrist with his own bedeviling ghosts,” is
“irrevocably changed by his interactions with
a patient,” Elizabeth Cruikshank, a suicidal
woman who initially has difficulty sharing
her past. As the two discuss the art of Caravaggio, he learns that she had once been in
love with Thomas, an art scholar who introduced her to the iconic Italian painter, and
whose unexpected death in Rome has left her
feeling empty, lost and, above all, guilty.
Scarred by his role in his older brother’s accikirkusreviews.com
dental but violent death as a small child,
David begins to realize how much of his
emotional life he has repressed in spite of—
or perhaps due to—his profession. The author’s unique insight into the patient-therapist
relationship is a worthy point of departure for
discussion, and the nature of David and Elizabeth’s relationship allows them to delve into
issues that will provide plenty of topics for
book clubs, as their conversations revolve
around the intersections of love, death, art
and family. As Kirkus said, “following in the
footsteps of Iris Murdoch, Vickers is concerned with the spiritual dimensions of love
and love’s effect on the soul.”
Innocent Traitor: A Novel of
Lady Jane Grey
Alison Weir
Ballantine / March / 9780345494856 / $23.95
H
aving penned numerous popular history books (including five
on the Tudor dynasty), it
was a natural extension
for Alison Weir to create
what Kirkus termed “an
affecting portrayal” of
“England’s briefest reigning sovereign, Lady Jane Grey.” The grandniece of Henry VIII is often little more than
a historical footnote, but “I think that [she] is
an appealing subject because of her youth,
her vulnerability and the fact that her life
was tragic in so many aspects,” says the
author. “She was the victim of child abuse,
ruthlessly pushy parents, ambitious politicians, a callous husband and a fanatical
queen.…It’s an amazing and horrifying tale
that today beggars belief.” But Weir allowed
the narrative to grow organically. The story,
she says, “came about because I had some
spare time while I was researching Eleanor
of Aquitaine back in 1998, and it occurred
to me that, rather than adhering to the strict
constraints and disciplines of nonfiction, it
would be great to let my imagination rip
and write a novel based on a historical character.” The story leaps off the page of its
own accord, but sharing the experience further enhances it. “Discussion can enrich the
way we read because those participating
can impart their own special knowledge,
experiences and opinions and help us to see
the subject in a different way,” says Weir.
“Reading passages aloud, with good delivery and characterization, can bring a book
even more to life.”
READING GROUPS
9
S E L E C T I O N S F O R Y O U N G - A D U LT G R O U P S
Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature
Robin Brande
Knopf / August / 9780375843495 / $15.99
W
hen Mena writes a
letter that causes
her to be shunned by her
church, her family and
her friends, she’s troubled by the response, but
never in doubt that she
did the right thing. Then
she falls for the study of
science, her science teacher and her lab partner. Things are spinning out of control and at
the same time closing into something akin to
understanding. Evolution vs. creationism,
religion vs. science, the separation of church
and state—Robin Brande’s buoyant story
thoughtfully takes on debates both timeworn
and current. “I recently had dinner with a
group of people ranging in age from 12 to
59,” says the author. “Someone asked what
my book was about. It wasn’t long before
every person at the table had expressed some
opinion about whether God exists and
whether evolution is real. It’s one of those
issues that people might not even know they
care so strongly about until they have to start
explaining their position.” And there is more
than a hint of the author in Mena. “I grew up
fundamentalist Baptist, and enjoyed every
part of my religious upbringing, until our
church kicked me out for reasons too bizarre
and ridiculous to go into,” she says.
Vive la Paris
Esmé Raji Codell
Hyperion / October 2006 / 9780786851249 / $15.99
K
irkus called Esmé
Raji Codell’s Vive la
Paris a “fine tale with a
strong sense of right and
wrong.” The “Paris” here
is a fifth-grade, AfricanAmerican girl with a
nose for injustice, even
as it leads her into some
thorny predicaments. “Paris’s brother is
being mercilessly bullied by a girl in her
class,” says the author. “When he won’t fight
back, Paris starts itching to take on his battle.
Her piano teacher, Mrs. Rosen, who survived
WWII [in a concentration camp], helps her
to come to terms with the bullies in her life.
How hard is it, really, to be your brother’s
keeper? How hard to love thy enemy?”
Though the author’s approach is subtle,
thoughtful questions abound: What are innocence, guilt and responsibility? How can
they be immediately and universally apprehended? Is ignorance ever an excuse? “In a
country that I feel is becoming increasingly
polarized,” says the author, “I used bullying
as a vehicle for readers to see how their decisions about who they call an enemy will
reverberate throughout their lives.” And don’t
hold the humor: “As a teacher, I know that
children need to laugh.”
The Loud Silence of Francine Green
Karen Cushman
Clarion / August 2006 / 9780618504558 / $16.00
H
ear the loud silence
of Francine Green,
an eighth-grader who
has been taught, at Catholic school and at home,
that quietness equals
godliness—though she
has much to say, if only
to the bathroom mirror.
Enter Sophie Bowman, who thinks freedom
of speech is a fine right, especially in the
cause of social justice. Since the story is set
in 1949, as the Cold War is taking off and
fear-mongering is all the rage, the book, said
Kirkus, will “send readers off to find out
more about [Joseph] McCarthy, his witchhunt and the First Amendment,” but it “is not
a story about the McCarthy era so much as
one about how one girl…learns to speak up
for herself.” Says author Karen Cushman,
“The book is much more about questions
than answers. Is Sophie a hero, or is she just
provocative? Does Sister Basil really have
the girls’ best interests at heart? Is protecting
our safety worth sacrificing some liberties?”
That last question is especially of the moment, and should send readers off to find out
more about the Patriot Act and other issues
of civil liberty.
Ida B…and Her Plans to Maximize
Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly)
Save the World
Katherine Hannigan
HarperTrophy
December 2006 / 9780060730260 / $5.99 paperback
I
da B. Applewood experiences the joy of a
near-perfect life—communing with the
trees in the family orchard, secure in the protectiveness of her home-schooling—and
kirkusreviews.com
Katherine Hannigan experienced a similar delight creating the character. “Ida B. reminded me
about the joy there can
be in meeting the world,”
she says. “The wonder
and magic and fun and
the love that lies underneath everything (even overwhelming hardship).” And hardship does eventually befall
Ida B.: Her mother develops breast cancer,
some of the orchard is sold and Ida B. must
return to public school. Angry, bereft and
powerless, she closes herself off from nearly
everything. Luckily, those closest to her
don’t abandon her, nor is she immune to
solicitude and affection. “Ida B. became my
hero,” says the author, “not just for her
quirky humor and gift for tree-conversing,
but because she’s so not-perfect. She makes
mistakes, sometimes big ones (like I have).
She tries to ignore her soul tugging on her,
telling her things aren’t right (like I do).”
Still, Ida B. finds her way back to the love of
family and opens to the pleasure of new
friends, “through the puzzling out of her own
difficulties—even after many false starts,”
said Kirkus—the book is “poignant, affirming, and often funny.”
Tamar
Mal Peet
Candlewick / February / 9780763634889 / $17.99
I
n his latest novel, Mal
Peet seamlessly fits
together two story lines:
The first is the tale of Dart
and Tamar, members of
the Dutch resistance during World War II; the second is the story of another Tamar, granddaughter
to the first and heir to his papers after he
commits suicide—mysterious papers she
will follow to unravel his cryptic past and
clues to her own identity. “In part,” says Peet,
“Tamar is a historical novel about two men,
British secret agents, who are parachuted
into Nazi-occupied Holland in 1944. It is
also about history, about the ways our individual lives are shaped by events that took
place long ago, events that we may know little or nothing about.” It’s a wonderfully complex story, ripe with love, jealousy and
treachery, as well as fear and horror, startling
READING GROUPS
discoveries, the dread of waiting—all
“meticulously crafted,” said Kirkus, “gorgeously detailed…simply superb.” “Here are
people who don’t, or can’t, or won’t tell each
other things,” the author says. “That’s why
there’s a lot in the book about communication problems: about coded messages, secret
telephone lines, foreign languages, people
who can’t speak at all or who use ventriloquism. There’s a conflict between people
who are trying to understand, to get at the
truth, and others who for different reasons
need to disguise what they mean and conceal
the truth.” With enough ambiguities to keep
discussions lively, Peet notes that “there is no
one right or wrong way to read the story, and
it doesn’t offer any easy conclusions.”
Buried Onions
Gary Soto
Harcourt
December 2006 / 9780152062651 / $6.95 paperback
P
overty and violence
—an
unbeatable
combination for a
rough childhood. Eddie
hasn’t
caved
yet,
though; he’s scrambling to escape the misery of his southeast
Fresno, Calif., neighborhood, its squalor and death, the sense that
it sits atop buried onions—a bulb of sadness,
a poisoned heart—that emit vapors bitter
enough to make a grown man cry. But each
time things begin to look up, along comes
another in an endless stream of cruel turns.
“Eddie wants to do well,” says author Gary
Soto, “but the stars are not aligned for him.”
Fate is a pivotal issue here, as well as trust,
forgiveness and the pressures of family. Soto
shapes the big issues into intimate questions
of how we make specific decisions when particular parameters and influences are at work.
Also worth mulling in this “valuable tale
…one that makes no concessions,” said Kirkus, is the simple dignity of a worthwhile job.
“I was never a member of a gang,” says the
author, himself a product of Fresno. “I was a
loner, someone like Eddie, and believed that
if you were decent, a regular kind of kid, you
would be rewarded with a paying job. But in
the San Joaquin Valley, finding any job outside the fields or in fast foods is a rare
accomplishment for a young Mexican kid.”
Such is the elemental, fraught dream of
Eddie, and readers will eagerly climb aboard
for the ride.
10
Way Down Deep
Ruth White
need are one, wrote Robert Frost. Ruby—
and the denizens of Way Down Deep—
would agree.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
March / 9780374382513 / $16.00
I
n the hollows of
Appalachia lies the
town of Way Down
Deep, a tight little
community of worthy
misfits who are more
than happy to adopt the
toddler with the curly
red hair—she says her
name is Woo-bee, quickly deciphered as
Ruby—found on the courthouse steps one
summer morning. “The good citizens of Way
Down reckoned if Ruby’s people were dumb
enough to lose something as valuable as a
child, then finders keepers, losers weepers.”
Ruby comes to live with Miss Arbutus at her
boarding home, and she becomes a favorite
with the townsfolk, each of whom is a tad
bent, either in the head or the heart. “We each
have something to learn from everyone we
meet,” says author Ruth White, referring to
the words of one of her characters. “That
makes each person a teacher as well as a
learner.” Through deft characterization,
White shows how sadness and anger, loneliness and grief, love and decency play out in
our conduct—in anger, withdrawal, protectiveness, nurturing, rock-throwing and even a
bad case of “cussitis.” As the personalities
are unfurled, readers must consider the
nature of blood ties, home and the ways we
attract what we most call for. “Is there really
a power within, which can answer all our
needs?” asks the author. Only where love and
Candyfloss
Jacqueline Wilson
Roaring Brook Press
August / 9781596432413 / $14.95
W
hen her stepfather
announces that he
is moving the family
from England to Australia for six months,
the prospect throws
Floss for a loop: Should
she go with her mum,
or stay by her muchloved, if financially challenged, dad? “Floss
loves her mom very much, so it looks as if
she’ll jump at the chance of going to Australia,” says U.K. Children’s Laureate (2005–07)
Jacqueline Wilson, whose books for young
readers have sold millions of copies. Finally,
Floss’s father gets the nod, and he proceeds to
demonstrate, repeatedly, just how truly awful
a businessman he is (while maintaining a
warm disposition). Meanwhile, Floss must
deal with friend problems at school. How is
a girl to handle herself when all she knows
gets turned upside-down, when friends become strangers, when she suddenly finds
herself living, charitably speaking, in diminished circumstances? It isn’t simple, but Wilson has created a fresh and curiously hopeful
world for Floss to stage her experiences in
learning and loving. “I hope everyone has fun
deciding whether Floss makes the right
choices,” says Wilson.
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SCHOLASTIC and associated logos are trademarks
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