Starless by Jacqueline Carey
I really enjoyed reading this lush, compelling, standalone fantasy. Richly detailed with a strikingly unusual narrator, this story definitely exceeded my expectations. Khai has been raised in the desert by the Brotherhood of Parkhun, chosen to be the shadow or protector of a royal princess born the same day. Khai is trained by warriors and a thief, as well as an unlikely seer, facing his first opponent at age 9. Khai’s gender is non-binary, but that’s not a spoiler to anyone but Khai. The princess Zariya, youngest child of a very long lived king, has some physical problems from a childhood illness, but is brilliant, beautiful, and strong-willed. Later the pair journey across their starless, island-filled world in search of answers to a prophecy and companions to help in their quest. One reviewer compared their quest to Tolkien, but it reminded me more of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. The gods are creatively depicted, and include a giant octopus who’s an oracle. Giant sea worms tow their ship, and not all their companions are human. This is the first book I’ve read by Jacqueline Carey; I may try her Kushiel series next.
Red Waters Rising by Laura Ann Gilman
Isobel is riding with her mentor Gabriel, exploring the hot, humid southern portion of the Devil’s West, in the third book of the trilogy which began with Silver on the Road. Isobel is the young Left Hand of the territory; arbitrator and sometimes enforcer in this magical land. As Isobel and Gabriel approach the Mudwater River (aka the Mississippi), everyone they meet seems increasingly uneasy. Gabriel is feeling the call of the River while Isobel may be too closely connected to the land of the territory. In the city of Red Stick they may be facing a riot, or another flood. An imaginative, well-drawn book set in an alternate 19th century North America, which leaves room for more stories in the Devil’s West.
Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin
This atmospheric novel focuses on a pivotal summer for eleven-year-old Marcus on a South Carolina barrier island, living with his artist aunt, helping guard a sea turtle nest, and becoming fascinated with a ruined cottage. Locally known as Grief Cottage, a family staying there may have died in a long ago hurricane. Charlotte frequently paints the cottage, and Marcus likes to visit it, wondering if it’s haunted. Having lost his best friend and his mother, Marcus is unsure if his eccentric, reclusive Aunt Charlotte really wants him to stay. He visits with an elderly neighbor and gets good advice from Charlotte’s friend Lachicotte Hayes when not riding his bike, checking on the turtle nest, and unpacking boxes and memories from his last apartment with his mother. Young Marcus is good company in this melancholy, leisurely read. A fairly lengthy epilogue makes for a satisfying resolution, tying up some loose ends on a hopeful note.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
This is an absorbing novel about two very different families in the planned community of Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. Set in 1998, the Richardsons and their four children seem to have everything, but it’s their house in flames as the book opens, with one of their children suspected of arson. 11 months earlier, Elena Richardson rented a small house to artist Mia and her teen daughter Pearl. Mia and Pearl are used to moving frequently, fitting all their belongings in a VW Rabbit, buying clothes and furniture at thrift stores. Izzy Richardson spends time with Mia, wanting to learn how she makes her unusual photographs. Pearl is befriended by Moody Richardson, and is fascinated by his older siblings, Lexie and Trip. Full of secrets gradually revealed, this is a story about mothers and daughters, and different paths to motherhood. Adoption, surrogacy, unwanted pregnancy, and premature birth are all covered here. Reporter Elena’s friend is hoping to adopt an abandoned Chinese American baby, whose birth mother works with Mia at a Chinese restaurant. Everything is connected, and the author gradually peels back the layers of the characters, dazzling and sometimes stunning the reader. Deservedly popular, this is a memorable and compelling read.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan
Full of drama and suspense, this novel tells the story of Italian teen Pino Lella and his experiences in northern Italy during World War II. When bombs start to fall on Milan, Pino and his father camp in the hills at night, but soon he is sent to the mountain camp of Father Re, where Pino learns to hike the mountaintop trails, then leads Jewish refugees across the Alps to safety in Switzerland. At 18, he must enlist in the military, and his father thinks he’ll be safer in the German Organisation Todt. Having learned to drive in the mountains with a future racecar driver, Pino becomes the personal driver to Nazi General Leyes. Reporting to his uncle at his store in Milan, Pino is also a spy known only as Observer. Pino soon falls in love with Anna, the maid to Leyes’ mistress Dolly. Leyes confuses Pino, taking food and blankets from the Italians for his troops, but also saving some Jews from being sent to work camps. Beneath the Scarlet Sky is fiction, but is based on the amazing true story of Pino Lella, and is being made into a movie. An epic story full of thrills and heartbreak; suggested for readers of real life adventure stories or World War II fiction.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
As a girl, Anna Kerrigan visits Manhattan Beach with her father Eddie, and meets Dexter Styles, who has ties to the Syndicate. The sea calls to the three of them, and to Anna’s sister Lydia. Years later, Eddie is missing, Dexter owns a nightclub, and Anna has a tedious job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Anna competes to be a diver at the Navy Yard, and pursues Dexter for answers about her father. We learn about Eddie’s adventures at sea, and the secrets the characters all have. While there are tender family scenes, the focus is on work, and on coworkers and crewmates. Anna takes risks and craves adventure, wanting to contribute to the war effort, reinventing herself more than once. Plenty of danger and intrigue add to the intensifying pace, leading to a surprisingly satisfying conclusion, with complex, memorable characters. Widely acclaimed, it’s a pleasure to read a book that lives up to high expectations. The first historical novel from award-winning novelist Egan, this is sure to be popular with book discussion groups.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
Part mystery, part coming-of-age story, this first novel is set during the British heat wave of 1976. One Monday, Mrs. Margaret Creasy goes missing, and Grace Bennett, her 10-year-old neighbor, decides to investigate, along with her friend Tilly. They visit all the neighbors on their street, even Walter Bishop in #11, who has been shunned after being suspected of stealing a baby. Flashbacks to 1967 reveal some of the villagers’ secrets, but don’t solve the mystery. A possible image of Jesus captures the neighborhood’s attention at the peak of the heat wave, and almost everyone, even the new Indian family from Birmingham, gathers in the shade to visit and play canasta. I thought the plot quite clever, with some twists, and I enjoyed the occasional humorous scenes, the refreshingly ordinary girls, and the 1976 English village setting.