Dark Days by Dewey Roscoe Jones
Dark Days is a historical fiction novel about the young star-struck lovers, Ishmael Dade and Denise Donaldson. Their story begins in the South close to the time of World War I. Ishmael is black and works as a servant in a white household and Denise is an heir to that estate. Thus, readers know from the onset that the odds are against a lasting relationship between these two bright, passionate young adults. Despite the reality that discriminatory practices, individual racism, and other external factors are constantly working against their union, the couple’s unconditional love strengthens over time.
Author Dewey Roscoe Jones creates a strong sense of place both here in the United States and abroad in war torn France. Everywhere Jones takes his readers—from Muskogee (Oklahoma), to Chicago, to France—there is a ubiquitous division between the Haves and the Have-Nots. He describes how people with the most power brutally suppress those who are at a disadvantage, patriarchal leaders hinder the ambitions of women and children, Northern city slickers take advantage of those who recently fled the rural South, U.S. Army officers exploit soldiers, and medical professionals maintain a system that prevents care to the most needy. But as is true in all historical periods, there are exceptional people who go against the grain and strive for equity. These individuals and groups provide hope, humor and a belief in goodness; thankfully “Dark Days” has such characters. For example, Hattie, Ishmael’s surrogate mom represents courage, wisdom, and forgiveness even though she has witnessed injustices and atrocities that could have left her weak, cynical, and spiteful.
This is definitely a character driven story. The strong willed protagonists that struggle to make it through an unimaginable way of life make this book a real page-turner. I was caught by surprise more than once when I planned to set the book down after completing a particular chapter and the next thing I knew I was in the middle of the following one! This novel makes for a great discussion, because many of the events that take place can be viewed as either a triumph or a tragedy depending on the readers’ perspectives and interpretations.
“Dark Days” is a story of characters being caught between two worlds. A suggested read-alike book is the international bestselling saga “The Far Pavilions” by M.M. Kaye. It is the story of two 19th century star-crossed lovers—Ash, an Englishman who was raised as a Hindu in the Himalayan foothills, and Juli, an Indian Princess who must choose her own destiny. Like “Dark Days,” it features issues of class and race. It also depicts characters that are at odds with their society’s norms.
I Dare Me by Lu Ann Cahn
At the end of 2009, Lu Ann Cahn is feeling stuck. She’s happily married, on good terms with her grown daughter, a long-time cancer survivor, and respected for her work as a news reporter in Philadelphia. But still, not happy. And also not happily embracing new technology or social media. So she begins 2010 with a project to embrace and blog about a Year of Firsts. For 365 days in a row, she tries something new, or something (like hula hooping) that she hasn’t done in over a decade. Her firsts include: a polar bear plunge, taking a ballet class, baking a chocolate cake, zip lining, using an ebook reader, paying other people’s parking meters, sewing on a button, and going to the opera. Some were fun, others took more daring, some days weren’t very successful, but every day Lu Ann tried something new. She learned to embrace change, say “yes” more, got recharged and changed her life in surprising ways. Read more about her firsts on her website, and link to short video clips of her experiences. Looking to make 2014 different from last year? Lu Ann’s book may inspire you to embrace change, too.
The Bones of Paris by Laurie King
This novel takes place in Paris, France in 1929. The main character is a American “down at his heels” Private eye named Harris Stuyvesant. He is currently in Paris on an assignment to find a missing American young woman who has not contacted her parents in months, which is totally out of character for her. The parents want her found and contract with Stuyvesant to find her.
Paris during this time seems to be one big Party/Pick up scene. In the course of his investigations, Stuyvesant encounters some big name American expatriates including author Ernest Hemingway and photographer Man Ray. Besides the investigations into the American girl’s disappearance, we are also treated to some of the more morbid history of Paris, including mass cemeteries, Catacombs, the Danse Macabre (The Dance of Death), Adipocere (wax made from human corpses), the Theater du Grand-Guignol in Montmartre (where murders are staged to shock and amuse the audience), and a number of gruesome suspects. Is it the Avant-Garde photographer who favors pictures of tortured/dying women, or is it the timid bone collector who keeps vats full of corpses being aided in decomposition by flesh eating beetles? Or is it the famous respected Count, a wealthy French hero of World War I, who runs the Theater Du Grand Guignol for the amusement of his mass of jaded followers?
This is a superbly written, darkly disturbing book.
Compound Murder by Bill Crider
A day in the life of Dan Rhodes, sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas, is an unusual and varied one. His dispatcher, Hack, can never tell a clear or concise story. Dan and his deputies deal with a dead body at the local college, thefts of copper and hair extensions, and a report of a wild hog inside a house in Clearview. The hog turns out to be a pet pig, and provides considerable comic relief. The dead man is Earl Wellington, an English professor who was not well-liked. Suspects in his death include the Dean and his department head at the college, along with student Ike Terrell, accused of plagiarism. A high speed chase after Ike peels out of the college parking lot ends with a cracked windshield and the need for Rhodes to visit the gated compound owned by Able Terrell, Ike’s father. I thought there might be a lot of violence in this book when I read about the compound, but there is more adventure and humor than violence. Dan is happily married, and has a dog who’s scared of his cat. I was amused to learn that the author, a native Texan, was an English professor. This is the 20th book in the Dan Rhodes series, and the first I’ve read, but I felt at home in Clearview right away. The first book is Too Late to Die.
Longbourn by Jo Baker
Two hundred years after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jo Baker ably retells Jane Austen’s story from the point of view of the servants. Sarah, the housemaid, is the main narrator. She was orphaned as a young girl, and has worked at Longbourn for years, along with Mr. and Mrs. Hill, the butler and cook/housekeeper. Sarah is fond of Mrs. Hill, even though she often scolds Sarah and Polly, the younger maid. When Mr. Bennett hires a footman/groom, James Smith, Sarah is at first suspicious of James, but later falls in love with him. Elizabeth, Jane and the younger Bennett girls come to life, but again from the servants’ points of view. Five young ladies in the house certainly make for a lot of laundry, sewing, and cleaning. Sarah wonders what they can possibly have to complain about, and doesn’t think much of their suitors, especially Wickham, who flirts with young Polly. When Mr. Bingley moves to the area, his handsome footman, Ptolemy Bingley, has Sarah dreaming of life in London. When James Smith suddenly leaves Longbourn, he describes his childhood and experiences in the Napoleonic Wars, while Mrs. Bennett and Sarah try to find him. This was one of the best books I read in 2013, and I recommend it to Anglophiles, historical fiction and Regency romance readers.
Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman
After watching at least one episode of the comical television series “Parks and Recreation” (thus a chance to familiarize yourself with the masculine, carnivorous, neoliberal, and mustachioed Ron Swanson character—played by Nick Offerman) you may then want to read Offerman’s memoir “Paddle Your Own Canoe.” Offerman is a loveable humanist who encourages others to live a “delicious life” that entails getting out into the great outdoors, creating something with your very own hands, and best of all finding a partner to share and enjoy life’s adventures with. No doubt his book will appeal to those who love his Ron Swanson character’s deadpan humor as he delivers his personal history related to sex, drugs, rock and roll, theatre, and film—and to small town America. He hails from Minooka, Illinois, attended U of I in Champaign-Urbana, and is a well known professional in the Chicago theatre scene. Offerman is a wordsmith. By the time you finish his book, you’ll be ready to take the Graduate Records Exam (GRE) and pass it with flying colors, so long as you do your homework and look up the words he cherry picked to vividly describe his childhood, his years as a not so starving (yet very poor) artist, and his current status as “one lucky bastard” (his expletives are common knowledge, so no need to have a dictionary on hand for this half of his book). I would especially recommend this book to anyone who is the least bit interested in the life of a modern day thespian. Offerman has had an extensive, successful career in theatre and in front of the camera. He offers sage wisdom in a very direct, endearing, and humble manner. He is a family man to the core, a loyal friend, and one of the funniest individuals on television today. As a woodcraftsman, he is a force to be reckoned with. And to boot—he is an intelligent and engaging author. This is one of my top picks for the 2013 year of great reads! It is also enjoyable to read a local author. –Jeanne
In The Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming
After a meeting at St. Alban’s, Clare Fergusson finds a newborn baby by the back door. Clare is the new priest at the Episcopal church in upstate Millers Kill, New York. She gets to ride along with Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne one night, and gets involved when they find the body of the baby’s mother. A note with the baby indicates that Geoff and Karen Burns from St. Albans are the parent’s choice for adoption, and they are annoyed when they don’t get to foster the baby boy. Another death occurs, and there are multiple suspects. Clare learns too much and is tricked into driving into the Adirondacks for an encounter with the murderer. Clare’s background as an Army helicopter pilot helps her survive the encounter, and the race is on to stop the killer. Clare and Russ are flawed, real characters, and their quickly developing friendship is convincing. The wintry setting of Millers Kill is more gritty than the typical charming village of so many mysteries, and it’s a refreshing change. Winner of multiple awards, In the Bleak Midwinter is the first in a seven book series.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani
This novel takes place during the Great Depression of the Nineteen Thirties. The main character, Theadore Atwell (Thea) lives with her twin brother Sam on a farm in rural Florida. Her family has modest means, but is also buoyed up from the worst of the Financial Crises by large citrus holdings in the state.
That being stated, the novel starts out with Thea finding herself attending a pricey, exclusive school for girls in North Carolina called the “Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls”. She was placed there abruptly during the summer months because of a family scandal that is keep under wraps for now. She is shocked and saddened to be here, but also curious and headstrong, loves horses, and is a brilliant equestrian. Gradually we get filled in on the backstory of Thea, and how she came to be here.
Part scandalous love story, part heartbreaking family drama, “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls” is an immersive transporting page turner – a vivid propulsive novel about sex, love, family, money, class, home, and horses, all set against the ominous threat of the Great Depression. Much of the novel revolves around dressage, an equestrian sport in which horses and their riders execute a series of precise movements in the ring. It’s a subject that Disclafani, 31 – whose first name is pronounced ANT-un, and who received a reported $1 million advance for her novel in one of the most competitive book auctions of recent years – know very well from her own experience as a serious dressage rider.
This book got five stars on “Goodreads” and is one of the New York Times “Best Books of the Year”. Readalikes include “Shorecliff” by Ursula DeYoung. Visit the Author’s website at antondisclafani.com.
Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Dean Karnazes
I’m not a runner, so why would I pick up a book titled Ultramarathon Man? I had recently seen the documentary of the same name about Dean Karnaze’s quest to run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, and his family’s support of this challenge. I was curious about what makes Dean run and how he does it. The book takes place much earlier than the documentary, and talks about why someone might attempt endurance running. Dean had a happy upbringing until his sister died at 18. He ran one year of cross-country in high school, then stopped running when his coach left. He had a wife and a busy job at a corporation in San Francisco. Then he turned 30. After his birthday party, he literally started running all night. Running is clearly a stress reliever for Dean, and he likes the solitude. But it’s also a huge challenge and isn’t always fun, even for him. He decides to see how far he can run, and participates in a 50 mile race, in preparation for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Along the way his wife Julie becomes a dentist, and they have two children. His family, including his Greek-American parents, are very supportive, and act as support crew on his races. He shares the agonies of long-distance running with the readers, the blisters and cramps, thirst, dizziness and more. A more entertaining part is how he fuels his runs, including getting pizza and cheesecake delivered to him along an empty highway, and eating them on the run. He runs for charity, but also to make his life more meaningful and fulfilled. He feels most alive when he runs, especially at night, continuing to work during the day. I still don’t know how he does it, although I have learned that ultramarathons (any race longer than 26.2 miles) have become increasingly popular and even runners in their 60s compete. The book really kept my interest and I wanted to find out what Dean would attempt next. How about running a marathon to the South Pole? Affirmative. For more about Dean and endurance running, visit his website.
Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
In the first book in a science fiction trilogy for teens, life on Earth changed over a decade ago. A red star, called Calamity, suddenly appeared, and some people developed extraordinary powers, and became the Epics. David, 18, has been studying the powers and habits of Epics for ten years, since the day Steelheart killed David’s father in a bank. Steelheart is the ruler of Newcago, formerly Chicago, which he has coated in steel. Tunnels and rooms of steel are now underground. People don’t mind living underground because Nightwielder, another Epic, has blotted out the sun over Newcago. David hopes to join the Reckoners, an underground group secretly plotting against the Epics. Are all Epics evil? David thinks so, but his father believed differently. A quick, fast-paced read that will leave the reader waiting for the next book in the series.