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Tenth of December by George Saunders (2012)

I don’t usually read short stories, but Tenth of December by George Saunders got such excellent reviews, I had to see for myself. I was not disappointed – Saunders is a master with language, creating scenarios where authority figures of one kind or another seek to control, either overtly or covertly, the emotions and responses of various characters including high school students, a recently returned veteran, a dying man, and an ill-fated family.

Despite the often dark subjects that include mind control, abduction, objectification, and simmering violence, Saunders’ stories also contain elements of absurdist humor and love and he manages to suggest that there is hope for humanity despite it all.

 

The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro (2012)

A thriller without a trail of blood and gore and an author with expertise in the art world, B.A. Shapiro takes us underground to the history and methods of art forgery. When a struggling artist commits to do a reproduction of a famous painting by Degas, the action begins. The plot twists and turns between the past and the present, but I was never confused; rather, I was fascinated by Shapiro’s knowledge in the art world. The Art Forger races to an ending that left me hoping this author will write another book.

The Goon: Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker by Eric Powell (2007)

Fans of The Goon will go into Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker not knowing what to expect. But the first page says it all: "this ain't funny."

The Goon is an Eisner Award-winning comic series about a zombie-killing gangster and his stab-happy partner in a 1930s/1940s pastiche of a town overrun by monsters, and known for its black (and at times, quite slapstick) humor. But Chinatown is a marked departure, instead focusing on the titular character Goon's mysterious past and the reasons for his scarred face and heart. Writer and artist Eric Powell pulls it off beautifully, the almost purely black-and-white art evoking the clear noir influences that have always been present in the darker stories in The Goon.
After the publication of Chinatown, the regular series took a more dramatic shift, while still maintaining its black comedy elements. For this reason, it's both essential for fans of the series and a good jumping off point for new readers.

 

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (2012)

In Some Kind of Fairy Tale a teenage girl disappears in the woods near her English home, then returns to her family 20 years later. She has barely aged and her explanation, hardly believable, is that she was abducted by fairies…as the story unfolds it reveals an increasing amount of tangible evidence to back up her explanation.

Joyce weaves elements of folklore and myth into this novel of magical realism; its well-drawn characters build a tale of family, life and contradicting realities.

I find this idea of an updated fairy tale very appealing and as a quote in the novel says:

A fairy tale...on the other hand, demands of the reader total surrender; so long as he is in its world, there must for him be no other.” – W. H. Auden

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

If you enjoy historical fiction, especially the Tudor period featuring King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, you may enjoy this richly detailed and complex winner of the UK’s 2009 Man Booker Prize. Wolf Hall is centered on the improbable rise of Thomas Cromwell, from an angry, violent, and abused blacksmith’s son, to the right-hand man of the king. The writing style takes a little getting used to, but once you become familiar with Mantel’s quirks, the tale is a spellbinding look into the highest levels of power and politics, as well as the mundane details of ordinary life in early 16th century England.

The second book of the planned trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies (2012), is currently available (and also won the prestigious Man Booker Prize).

 

The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli (2012)

This is at once a modern family saga of the Brands, who have produced generations of thieves, con men, and crooks, but it also story of two brothers. One brother, wild Collie, is in prison, waiting to die for the brutal, senseless, massacre of eight people; the other brother, Terry, a man with regrets, left the family for five years but has returned because Collie needs him to solve a mystery. Now there is twist. Collie claims one of the victims was killed by serial killer, who is flying under the radar and will continue to kill more women.

And so the reader enters the world of the dark side. Is there honor among thieves? Is loyalty to the family their strange salvation? Will Terry find his own core? Wasn't the "good thief" the first to enter heaven?

This book is more than crime fiction; it explores the psychological effects of one man against his environment who dares to find peace. The author is the winner of the International Thrillers Writers Award and rightly so. Check out The Last Kind Words today.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (2010)

A unique love story set in a picturesque English village, Simonson has a talent for bringing it all together. The characters, the setting, societal values, religion, aging, parenting interweave into a engaging story.

Major Pettigrew might at first appear to be a stiff old English gent stuck in his ways. He is so much more and he gets to prove it with his love, courage, and wisdom. Mrs. Ali gives him a second lease on life. His relationship with his grown son develops through the course of events set in motion with the death of his brother. To say this is a late in life love story is selling it short. It is a great piece of fiction that happens to contain a beautiful romance between two mature adults.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a phenomenal first effort for the author. I look forward to reading more of Ms. Simonson's unique voice.

The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets by Diane Wagman (2012)

Winnie, a mom and ex-wife to a famous game show host and daughter of a movie star, is kidnapped and she doesn't really understand the motive behind it. As the novel goes on, clues are revealed. The book is told from numerous points of view and the characters are very well developed for as short as the book is.

According to a Booklist review, "The novel is a darkly humorous and occasionally violent exercise in suspense, and a dramatic exposition of the Stockholm syndrome. Wagman does a nice job of lending her characters psychological depth and creating a fast-paced, readable plot."

Check out The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets by Diane Wagman.

Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach by Colin Cotterill (2012)

Like all of Colin Cotterill’s mystery novels, Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach is laugh-out-loud funny with an underlying seriousness. It is a tightly plotted mystery involving corrupt cops, slavery, and some self-serving charities!

This is the second in the series with Jimm Juree, an unemployed crime reporter, and her eccentric Thai family. In a rural village on the coast of Southern Thailand (where her family has purchased a run-down resort), Jimm finds a severed human head washed up on the beach. Of course, she must follow her crime reporter instincts and solve the mystery! The plot, as it turns out, centers on a topic which has gotten some attention in America of late: the exploitation of Burmese refugees in Thailand.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (2009)

I finally see what all the fuss has been about. The Help is an excellent book. Stockett pulls you into another world, long ago and far away. The story unfolds through the eyes of three very different woman and the reader grows to love and root for each one of them. They are good women caught in a cultural trap that seems to have no escape. Working together and risking their lives, they manage to make a small difference.

When you finish the book don't forget to watch the movie!

A Cold Day in Paradise by Steve Hamilton (1998)

I love a good mystery series and this book entranced me with the awkward characters who are flawed in loveable ways. Set in the upper peninsula of Michigan, usually in winter, the twisted plot vibrates with suspense. I was so taken with the first book, I immediately checked out Winter of the Wolf Moon (2000). What really impressed me is the subtle changes in relationships from book one to book two. Read A Cold Day in Paradise by Steve Hamilton today.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton (2012)

In England, sixteen-year-old Laurel witnesses a shocking crime during a summer house party. Fifty years later, Laurel is a successful actress living in London. As the family gathers at the ancestral house for her mother’s 90th birthday, Laurel tries to discover what really happened so many years ago.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton goes back and forth from the present to WWII London following the life of her mother and two other people. A VERY satisfying ending. I cannot stop thinking about it.

For other books where the past impacts the present, check out our bibliography.
 
 

The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling (2012)

J. K. Rowling has written a book for adults! The Casual Vacancy is a story of love and loathing, pity and passion, full of more than everyday English village life. Her development of the characters is masterful, each one paramount to the conclusion, with the main character dying in the first chapter. It’s not a Harry Potter story.
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A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka (2009)

This is the kind of book you can't stop thinking about once you finish it. It's about war, political unrest, struggling to survive, family, and mostly about love. Well-developed characters struggle through the many changes in 20th century Poland. The author skillfully goes back and forth from World War II era to 1992. Eventually, the reader is surprised by the melding of these two worlds.

Lots of tears. Lots of triumphs of the human spirit. I can't wait to read more from Pasulka. Check out A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True today.

In January, our multicultural celebrations will feature Eastern Europe. Check out the programs to learn more about the countries and cultures in this region.

The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks (2005)

The Widow of the South is based on the true story of an unlikely hero from the Civil War era. Carrie McGavock eventually becomes known as the Widow of the South after her house is appropriated for use as a hospital by the Confederate army just prior to the devastating Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, where 9,200 men were killed or terribly wounded in less than a day.

The prose is a bit meandering and I was not always clear where the author was going, but toward the end the story comes together when Carrie makes her courageous stand for the fallen and their families.