Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird is twenty-six, lives in New York, and goes by the name Jean Louise. When she returns to Maycomb, Alabama, for her annual visit, she is shocked and heartbroken. Her father Atticus's staunch beliefs have completely changed. (In one of attorney Atticus Finch's most famous cases from the 1930s, detailed in TKAM, he defended an African-American man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.) The once noble Atticus seems to believe that African-Americans are second class citizens and has joined forces with the KKK.
Jean Louise always saw her father as a fair-minded man who was her conscience. Knowing her father doesn't see races as equal has hurt Jean Louise to her core. She must realize no one can be her conscience, that she must rely on her own feelings and beliefs to guide her.
Why I picked it up: I was required to read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was a sophomore in high school. The novel truly rocked my world. Even though I grew up in the South after Brown v. The Board of Education, I am still appalled by what my ancestors had to endure. There was no blind justice in Southern courts where African-Americans were seen as second class citizens. The story of an affluent, white lawyer defending a poor, black man in the 1930s struck a chord with me. I had to read the sequel, especially after reviews said Atticus had become a racist.
Why I finished it: I read the book cover to cover in one weekend because I wanted to figure out why Atticus was racist. I felt betrayed by him because for me, as for many others, Atticus has always been one of the good guys. When I found out he did have racist beliefs, I was crushed. (Atticus, like his sister, Alexandra, started believing African-Americans were taking advantage of government handouts. He also didn't think blacks deserved the education whites did.)
But I honestly enjoyed the book because there are some funny stories about Jean Louise and her older brother Jem's childhood. One of the funniest stories was when Scout, Jem, and their neighbor Dill attended a Baptist revival as young kids. Thinking the only way they could get to Heaven was to be baptized, Jem and Dill dunked a naked Scout in an old wash tub. When the family's maid, Calpurnia, called the children inside to meet the new baptist minister and his wife, Scout forgot she was still naked. Atticus sent Dill home and his children to their room. The kids had thought they had horrified Atticus but he needed them to leave the dining room so he could try to stop laughing.
Readalikes: Two Southern Gothic novels: Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell, about a young woman trying to help her family keep their home despite her father’s meth addiction, and Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, in which Bone's mother's mean-spirited and abusive new husband shakes Bone's faith in humanity. Both stories relay the message that we may not agree with all our family members' points of view or actions, but we are still family.
Helen Simonson’s beloved, bestselling debut, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, instantly established her reputation as a gifted storyteller. Now she returns with an equally compelling work of fiction, one that reaches far beyond the small English village in which it is set.
It’s August 1976, and ten-year-old Sunny just arrived in West Palm Beach, Florida, to visit her Gramps. She’s not very happy -- his retirement community is full of old folks, it’s hours away from Disneyland, and her grandpa is still smoking despite the fact that he says he has already quit. But she soon meets Buzz, the son of the groundskeeper, who introduces her to comic books.
Why I finished it: Sunny’s flashbacks to life at home with her big brother, Dale, gave me the sense that there was a reason she was sent to Florida alone, and I wanted to find out what that was. (Minor spoiler: Dale’s drinking and drug use had gotten out of control. The book is based on someone close to Matt and Jenny who had a substance abuse problem, and they wrote this book "so that young readers who are facing these same problems today don’t feel ashamed like we did.")
And there was a lot of nostalgia for me here, since I was a kid in the 1970s, including the "Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific!" shampoo, TaB in the soda machines, and the kids buying pre-Alan Moore Swamp Thing comics from a drugstore spinner rack.
It's perfect for: My great-aunt Virginia’s great-grandkids. She was my favorite relative, and was famous for going to cheap all-you-can-eat buffets (a tradition her kids and their kids seem determined to continue). They’ll all identify with Sunny’s trip to the cafeteria with her grandfather and his friends because they’ve eaten their fill of Tricolor Salad, and they’ve all been urged to put rolls in their pockets for later.
When a beautiful woman makes Will Rhodes an offer he can’t refuse, he’s drawn into a tangled web of international intrigue. As he races across Europe, it becomes clear that the network of deception ensnaring him is part of a deadly conspiracy with terrifying global implications—and that the people closest to him may pose the greatest threat of all. A pulse-racing thriller from the bestselling author of The Expats and The Accident.
Harper is a happy, healthy teen living a dream life. Her family is wealthy, she's a good student with loads of friends, and she could be headed to the Olympics as an equestrian riding Harry, the horse she's had since childhood. Her father's biotech company offers a medical procedure that can erase painful memories, making life more pleasant. Protesters claim there are harmful side-effects. When tragedy strikes, Harper is determined to have the procedure herself. But she has no idea that having new memories will make her question everything her parents have told her, affecting her and everyone around her.
Why I picked it up: The mesmerizing eyes of the girl on the cover caught my attention. Although the photo is fuzzy, one eye is crystal clear, and it is focused on the reader. The book's Seattle-area setting sealed the deal -- I always like reading books set in my hometown.
Why I finished it: Harper’s dilemma kept my interest through the first half of the book -- her loyalty to her father versus the temptation to erase a horrible moment in her life. Why was her father so adamant that she not have the procedure? Then Harper's relationship with Neil (one of the protesters) and the way family secrets were slowly uncovered kept me reading. Every time I thought I had figured it all out, something new was revealed. It was a great teen romance and family drama filled with suspense that also raised questions about medical ethics.
Readalikes: Delirium by Lauren Oliver. Both are teen romances that focus on the idea that medical science can reduce the pain, stress, and conflict of daily life, but ask whether or not we should mess with nature.
Acclaimed author Elizabeth Brundage combines noir and the gothic in a novel about two families entwined in their own unhappiness with, at the center, a gruesome and unsolved murder. At once a classic "who-dun-it" that morphs into a "why-and-how-dun-it," All Things Cease to Appear is also a rich and complex portrait of a psychopath and a marriage, and an astute study of the various taints that can scar very different families, and even an entire community.
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Yukio wants to have a Christmas Eve snowball fight, but the other little ninjas don’t want to get on Santa’s Naughty List. He ambushes Santa in an effort to run him out of Ninja Village, and gets the other ninjas to chase the red-clad intruder.
Why I picked it up: Every year I see a bunch of sappy-looking Christmas picture books designed to appeal to grandparents. The ninjas made this one stand out from the crowd.
Why I finished it: These drawings are adorable, from the snow-covered landscape to the ninjas doing snowball battle with the red-faced, bearded samurai and his snowmen.
It's perfect for: My friend David, who could read it with his boys, because he always preferred Cobra’s ninja in white, Storm Shadow, to G.I. Joe’s silent ninja Snake Eyes. He’ll love that Yukio’s white uniform helps him stand out from the crowd of ninjas throughout.
A reimagining of Jane Eyre as a gutsy, heroic serial killer, from the author whose work The New York Times described as “riveting” and Gillian Flynn declared “spectacular.” This satirical romance about identity, guilt, goodness, and the nature of lies is a brilliant and deeply absorbing reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s classic character.
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Ever since people discovered that vitamins existed, they have tried to extract them, take them as pills, and add them to less-nutritious foods. That they could instantly cure deficiency diseases like beriberi and pellagra gave people the hope that vitamins could do almost anything. The story starts with defeating scurvy via rations of limes and cabbage on the high seas and continues to the current anything-goes U.S. dietary supplements market where companies sell pills containing potentially harmful mega-doses of vitamins, unstudied herbs, and seal penis powder to fix any problem you can imagine.
Why I picked it up: I've been hearing people make fun of that guy who's consuming nothing but Soylent, the “nutritionally-perfect” drink mix. What makes someone want to give up eating?
Why I finished it: The first scientifically-perfect diet was proposed in 1887 by Wilbur Olin Atwater, shortly after the discovery of calories. He thought that people just needed the most calories for the least amount of money, unaware that there might be anything else important in food. Early researchers noticed that animals raised on these human-engineered "purified diets" didn't grow or thrive. There was something apart from protein, carbohydrates, and fat that the animals needed: vitamins. As more vitamins were discovered and isolated, serious illnesses caused by deficiencies were cured, and since then the general public has been bombarded with advertisements for products containing these miracle-working chemicals. Modern food is full of vitamins that are added to replace those lost in processing or to make up for unbalanced diets.
Are we repeating Wilbur Olin Atwater's mistake? Are we now missing something our bodies need by basing our idea of a perfect diet on what we know so far?
Readalikes: Mary Roach's Packing for Mars discusses the difficulties in bringing enough healthy food for a long-term space journey, during which a perfect, portable diet is an absolute must. (She points out that, to help us minimize human waste on the trip, we should follow lessons from how pet food is engineered to minimize the amount of scooping owners need to do later in the process.)
Instead of focusing on champions, winning dynasties, iconic images, or scandals, British amateur cyclist Leonard captures the history of the Tour de France via stories of some competitors who finished last. These "winners," who are awarded the lanterne rouge (red lantern), may be a better avenue to understanding the development of the race because their stories allow Leonard to discuss teams and their tactics in an event where the winner is still an individual. Plus just finishing the race is an accomplishment. For example, the first last-place finisher, 1903’s Arsène Millochau, was so far behind the leader that many of his times aren't recorded (he’d missed newspaper deadlines). He ultimately finished 64 hours, 57 minutes, and 8 seconds behind winner Maurice Garin. But even finishing, with an average speed of 15.24 kilometers per hour over the 2428 kilometer course was its own triumph, especially given that during that first Tour twenty entered riders failed to start and another twenty dropped out in the first four hours.
Why I picked it up: It's about the first great stage race, and has an attractive picture of colorful cyclists riding along a curving, cloud-shrouded mountain road on the cover.
Why I finished it: Leonard dishes dirt. The reconstruction of the 1950 debacle when Abdel-Kader Zaaf dropped out because of alleged alcohol consumption is superb. Leonard ascribes at least some of Zaaf's difficulties to racism. Payback for the indignity of his being photographed passed out on the side of the road came in 1951, the year Zaaf finished last, but also the year when he acted as a decoy for il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi, in a stirring stage win. There’s also an assumption readers will be familiar with the sad fate of Tommy Simpson, the British cycling star whose death during the 1967 Tour de France was ascribed to a mix of amphetamines, brandy, heat, and dehydration. And sometimes the British cyclist slang is a bit thick, which was fun.
It's perfect for: Sports fans who are not fans of competitive cycling. The vital lore of any sport isn't just the recitation of winners, but stories of how the sport has changed. And weird stuff. Lanterne Rouge is full of odd, enlightening stories, which is what you'd probably expect from a book about the greatest unofficial non-prize in cycling.
Readalikes: French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France and Gironimo!: Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy, both by Tim Moore, in which amateur bike rider Moore challenges the courses of each stage race. Moore is also British, so the bike slang has the same transatlantic flavor as Leonard's. Moore is slightly more irreverent: I'm not quite sure Leonard would raid decorative wine cork displays for brake pad material the way Moore does.
A thorough, succinct explanation of how the Islamic State (ISIS) came to be. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, considered the creator of their brutal ideology, was a Jordanian thug who converted to radical Islam in prison. With early funding and support from al-Qaeda, Zarqawi began a campaign against Shias as well as the United States and any other countries, ideologies, and groups who did not agree with his narrowly defined beliefs that Islam should return to seventh century practices. Zarqawi got quite a few recruits when the US, after its invasion of Iraq, disbanded the country’s military. Thousands of soldiers found themselves with no way of earning money (they were blackballed because of previous allegiance to Saddam) and felt unimportant. Coming to work for Zarqawi gave them a paycheck and a purpose.
Though he was ultimately killed by American bombs, al-Zarqawi was instantly replaced and the war strategy of ISIS -- taken from a book called Management of Savagery -- continued. Eventually the mantle of leadership fell to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who made the critical decision to send a small group of his fighters into the middle of the ongoing Syrian civil war. ISIS was able to take over a huge area of land that includes parts of Syria and Iraq, and announced the founding of a Caliphate (the Islamic State) there.
Why I picked it up: I want be informed about this part of the world when there are decisions to be made by our leaders. Reading this seemed like a step in the right direction.
Why I finished it: Of course I believe the radical theology of ISIS is crazy, but finding out that they mean to micromanage society to the point of not allowing the selling of cucumbers and tomatoes in the same purchase because they might be taken to resemble the male anatomy shows the ridiculousness of their ideology. And I felt like I had more insight into how bad things were in Baghdad from 2005-2007, at the height of al-Zarqawi's reign of terror. At one point there were so many victims' bodies dumped in the Tigris River that an Imam issued a ruling -- a smoked carp dish called masgouf should not be eaten because he feared contamination by human remains.
It's perfect for: Anthony, my friend who is a nut for the American revolution. I think he would enjoy reading about another country that had a chance to start a democracy if its people could have put aside sectarian differences. While the US forefathers were able to create a constitution, the Iraqis failed to rise above their differences. The majority Shias polarized and left out the Sunnis, fueling al-Zarqawi and his insurgents. Reading this made me appreciate that our forefathers had vision, and I am sure Anthony would agree.
Wilm’s life in postwar Leipzig is hard: between his angry, wounded father, his damaged and withdrawn sister, an enigmatic engineer who takes an interest in him, and the young German officer who dumped his sister, Wilm sees no future for himself. When Wilm learns his sister was raped by Soviet soldiers, his rage turns to a need for revenge. At night he leaves graffiti on buildings to anger the German police who work for the Soviet occupiers. He is soon soon committing other, more violent acts of vandalism. When his friends Karl and Georg get involved, Wilm is trapped between trying to protect his sister from her ex-boyfriend and his friend Georg from the police, and his own growing desire to make a life for himself away from Leipzig. He makes a Faustian bargain with the ex-boyfriend to spare Georg an interrogation, but one final, impulsive act of violence involving a grenade and the Soviet barracks sends Wilm and his friends on the run.
Why I picked it up: Lately I've been reading books centered around World War II.
Why I finished it: I’ve had a hard time finding good novels about post-WWII Europe, and this one hit the mark with quick but common descriptions of the characters' privations. Also, Wilm is deeply flawed. He cares deeply about his family and needs to avenge his sister, but he also is willing to become more and more like the Soviet and German soldiers he despises. His friendship with a bridge engineer gives him a possible career path, while his anger at his sister’s ex-boyfriend leads him to commit harsher acts of violence.
Bass sets up the characters like chess pieces. Every encounter leads to more trouble.
Readalikes: The time this is set in is just a bit later, but the action and tension in this book reminded me of Code Name Verity, a book about two young British women during WWII, one a spy, the other a pilot.