Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Jende and Neni Jonga, immigrants from Cameroon, pursue the American dream in New York City in 2007. Jende is fortunate to find a good job as chauffeur to Lehman Brothers executive Clark Edwards and his family. Neni is in college, their son Liomi is in elementary school, and they are happy together in their tiny Harlem apartment. Jende hears Clark’s phone calls in the limo, Neni spends time in the Hamptons helping Cindy Edwards with child care, and they both learn the family’s secrets. Neni is pregnant again, and Jende wants her to take time off from work and school, even though their legal status in the United States is uncertain. Then Lehman Brothers collapses, the Great Recession begins, and both families are in turmoil. Jende thinks that with their savings, they may be happier back in Cameroon, but Neni really wants to stay and get her degree. The Edwards, not as resilient as the Jonga family, are even unhappier. They are not as vividly drawn as the Jongas, and I didn’t care about their problems as much. I really enjoyed reading about life in Cameroon, and the Jongas’ interactions with their fellow immigrants. This debut novel is our September book discussion selection, and is also the latest book club selection by Oprah Winfrey. I look forward to hearing what everyone else thought about this compelling novel.
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Beautiful storytelling makes this novel, set mostly in Cornwall and Peru in 1859, compelling reading. Adventure, magical secrets, betrayal, and a different sense of time are all part of the adventure. Readers of Pulley’s first book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, may suspect that the large moving statues guarding the salt line of the forest in Peru are clockwork, especially as there are windup lanterns filled with glowing pollen. But Pulley’s imagination takes the story in a very different direction, in a village set on stacks of volcanic glass. Botanist Merrick Tremayne, whose father and grandfather spent time in Peru, is recruited for an expedition to Peru to smuggle cuttings of cinchona trees, the source of quinine, badly needed in India for a malaria epidemic. The risk is high, and Merrick’s leg was badly injured while working for the East India Company. Watchmaker Keita Mori of the first book makes a cameo appearance, but Merrick’s intriguing guide/priest Raphael takes center stage here, bridging the border of the Spanish and Quechua speaking worlds, and with a poignant connection to Merrick’s grandfather. Creative and unpredictable, I look forward to more from this enchanting author. For readers of historical fiction and fantasy.
The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones
A dystopian thriller set in the near future that’s sure to be popular. A group of residents of the southeast zone have paid a large fee to spend a few weeks enjoying nature beyond the salt line. The salt line is a ring of scorched earth and garbage dumps intended to protect the privileged zone residents from ticks carrying deadly diseases. The group’s guide, Andy, makes them practice using a cauterizing stamp that works to prevent disease if used right after a tick bite, and cautions them to stay close to their assigned stamp partner. Somehow the group, which includes tech entrepreneur Wes, middle-aged mom Marta, pop star Jesse and his girlfriend Edie, end up in Ruby City, where June and the other residents, including scarred Violet, no longer live in fear of ticks, though at a price. Adventure and danger follow the group, and they have to decide what kind of life they’ll choose in the future, if they survive. This is another September pick by Library Reads.
Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller
This novel retells the story of A Little House on the Prairie (the book, NOT the television series) from the point of view of Laura Ingalls’ mother, Caroline. In 1870, Caroline, Charles, and their two young girls leave their home and extended family in Pepin, Wisconsin to travel more than 600 miles in a covered wagon to homestead near Independence, Kansas. Authorized by the Little House Heritage Trust, the author traveled to the home sites of the Ingalls family, learned to crochet lace, sew a calico dress, and read diaries of other pioneer women. The result is an immersive experience for the reader, with a fresh, deeper look at a much-loved story. It is also more historically accurate, as Caroline is pregnant with her third child on the journey, wondering who will deliver her child. Building a log cabin and digging a well with only a couple of neighbors is challenging and rather dangerous when seen from Caroline’s point of view. 5-year-old Mary, eager to please, and lively, charming 3-year-old Laura will still delight Little House fans, along with neighbor Mr. Edwards, the unlikely friend of Santa Claus. The relationship and personalities of Caroline and her husband Charles are more complex and fully realized, making for a wonderful reading experience.
I am happy to share that Caroline, which will be published on September 19, is a September Library Reads selection, promoted with a slightly shorter version of this review. Library Reads highlights 10 books every month that have been read and nominated by library staff nationwide.
When the English Fall by David Williams
Amish farmer Jacob is worried about his daughter Sadie, 14. She has seizures and visions. Lately she’s been talking about angels falling from the sky. When a solar storm knocks out the electric grid, her visions start to make sense. Jacob, his wife Hannah, and their Amish neighbors respond generously to the disaster, sending extra food every week with the National Guard to Lancaster. As conditions in the cities deteriorate, hunger and violence come ever closer. How are the Amish to be a witness to the values of non-violence, community, and generosity in a post-apocalyptic world? Jacob writes this story in his journal, even as he and his son Jacob help their neighbors repair storm damage, and when Mike, the English (non-Amish) man who sells the furniture Jacob makes, comes to the farm for advice and help. Beautifully written, moving and unpredictable, this shorter novel is a memorable standout on the increasingly crowded shelves of post-apocalyptic novels.
The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn
Rachel and Liam are sent from the future back to 1815 England, to meet the Austen family, assess Jane’s health, and find the manuscript of The Watsons, along with some of Jane’s letters. They must be careful not to change the time line, but Rachel soon rescues a young chimney sweep. Rachel is a physician and fan of Jane Austen, while Liam is an actor turned Regency scholar. They are posing as a wealthy sister and brother who grew up in Jamaica. While they’ve had extensive training, adapting to the past is challenging, especially for outspoken Rachel. Rich in period detail, I really enjoyed their interactions with the Austens, especially siblings Henry and Jane Austen. Their future world isn’t nearly as appealing, especially after Liam and Rachel return to find that their world has changed. Witty dialogue, with some romance, but no explanation of how time travel works. Enjoyable, especially for fans of Regency romance, Jane Austen, or time travel. For more books featuring Jane Austen, try Stephanie Barron’s excellent mysteries, beginning with Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor.
The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, by Jean Pendziwol
Foster teen Morgan gets caught spray painting graffiti, and is assigned community service at a retirement home. Scraping away her work and painting a fence, she is befriended by blind resident Elizabeth Livingstone. Elizabeth has just been given the journals kept by her father Andrew, a lighthouse keeper in the 1920s and 1930s. Elizabeth and her twin sister Emily, a mute but talented artist, grew up on an island on the Canadian side of Lake Superior, with their two older brothers. War, influenza, isolation, and the challenging duty of keeping the light and fog horn working make for a unique upbringing. Morgan reads the journals to Elizabeth, and learns that her grandfather knew Elizabeth. Elizabeth is hoping to find answers to old family secrets, including the mysterious grave of another baby with her name. The plot is melodramatic, with numerous twists and turns, but I found Morgan and Elizabeth to be very good company, and enjoyed their interactions. Readalikes include: The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman, and Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline.