The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

When Kristin Hannah’s new book The Great Alone became available there was a bit of a buzz around the office. When I received notice that my electronic hold was available the timing couldn’t have been more perfect: we were scheduled to leave on vacation the following day.

Once the pilot gave the okay to power on electronic devices, I pulled out my new iPad with a relish of anticipation only to be quickly disappointed that I’d failed to download the book.

Lesson number one: You do not need to use Wi-Fi to read or listen to e-books or e-audio books, but you do need to download them to your device. I’d only gone as far as checking the book out; consequently it was unavailable on my flight down. However, I was pleased to access it on my return flight. Being on vacation is the best place to start a book. I sat on my sister’s patio on a balmy Tucson morning and entered into the uncharted pages of The Great Alone.

Alaska and Maine have long-held a fascination for me. They are destinations where I imagine adventures with unique grandeur and scenic marine swept beauty. Someday I hope to travel to these geographic east/west opposites. So far my experience has been literary. I have been to Maine in Christina Baker-Kline’s A Piece of the World and to the Alaskan Yukon through Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World.

Hannah’s book engaged me from the get go. Set in Seattle in 1974, the story quickly moves into the wild outskirts of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Ernt Allbright is a Vietnam vet and POW survivor who receives his ticket out of Seattle via an unexpected inheritance of land from a deceased army buddy. The family packs their meager belongings into a VW van and head up the ALCAN Highway.

Told through the eyes of Lenora (Leni), Hannah fleshes out a dysfunctional family bound by fear and devotion. I sympathized with Leni who had to move from school to school, starting over far too many times. The peacekeeper of her family, she maintains a protective and loving relationship with her mom and a skewed but respectful relationship with her unpredictable father.

Situating the novel in a rugged and remote outpost of Alaska during the post-Vietnam era creates a tension that slowly builds in the pit of your stomach and continues to grow. Hoping to escape reoccurring nightmares and failed attempts to keep work after returning from Vietnam, Leni’s father promises things will be different this time around. Secrets, shame, and disillusion begin to breed contempt, however.

For me, it is difficult to understand how a woman can allow a man to beat her in one moment and then take him back in the next, but that’s what Leni’s mother Cora does. She makes excuses explaining that her father is sick; mother and daughter form an alliance and learn to speak the language of silence. Leni’s mom chose her man over a stable home and parents who loved her — Leni doesn’t have a choice.

The family arrives at the start of summer where deceptive sunshine floods into the late hours and food is in abundance. Had it not been for the intervention of wise and caring neighbors who extended their kindness by helping the Allbrights prepare, the family would never have survived their first Alaskan winter. The hopeful enthusiasm for a fresh start begins to fade as the long dark days of an Alaskan winter creep in. The promise Leni’s dad made to stop drinking and beating his wife slowing dissipates, replaced by violence and vengeance fueled by whiskey and a growing paranoia.

The stage is set for disaster and the plot thickens. Leni’s father’s jealousy is aimed at the father of her best friend Matthew. Leni and her mother become adept survivalists not only in the Alaskan Wilderness, but in their own home.

At the time of this writing there are 26 holds on the book, but the list was longer when I was reading the electronic version. At first I couldn’t put the book down, but I was forced to in order to meet the deadline for my book club. Then, about two-thirds of the way through The Great Alone the story took a turn and went from a page turner to a ‘I can finish this later’ type of book. I was not ready to completely give up, however, and was fortunate enough to snag a large print copy to continue reading.

I grew up in the Northwest and in the era depicted in Hannah’s story I would’ve been about the same age as Leni, but my life looked much different. Even though I had my own family drama by the early 80’s, I was living my own dream: young, newly married and starting a family. We lived out in the country with a wood stove and thrived on simplicity. My idea of roughing it was romanticized by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. I knew little of the horrific aftermath of the Vietnam War and less of the devastation it took on men like Ernt.

The Great Alone is a story of ‘behind closed doors’ giving insight into the pain and suffering that our country was still reeling from in the late 70’s early 80’s. Things were not perfect. Hannah captures and develops believable characters and portrays a young family trapped in crisis. I found the transition of pace and tension shifting gears a bit abrupt, but I loved the beautiful description of Alaska and how the story segues into a redemptive ending.

The Great Alone is a must read for 2018!

Xiomara and Nate

I’ve never minded our wet winters too terribly. I’m a grizzled native of upstate New York. I sneer at nor’easters and laugh off blizzards. I shoveled my driveway all winter every winter from the age of eighteen days to eighteen years. I walked to school uphill both ways in freezing rain while wearing flip flops. So now, a little northwest rain? That’s what real winter warriors like me call “cute.” Grossly exaggerated braggadocio aside, I still get excited for Spring. Peeks of sunshine, baseball games, blooming flowers, and best of all, a deluge of phenomenal new fiction. As usual I’ve been glutting on YA novels and while several have been standouts, two in particular have worked their way into my head staying with me long after I turned the final page.

Xiomara, the narrator of Elizabeth Acevedo’s Poet X, is an incredibly compelling and complex young woman who immediately won me over. She is fierce, independent, and loyal to her twin brother, but also struggling with questions about her identity and the conflicts between her own desires and the expectations of her Dominican parents. The relationship with her parents is particularly tenuous – while her brother is treated as a golden child, she has always felt like more of a problem than a blessing:

As issues with her parents come to a head and romance with a classmate grows complicated, Xiomara is desperate for a release which she finds through her poetry and a developing interest in slam performance. Xiomara has finally found a place where she belongs, but unless she can make her parents better understand her world, she may lose this precious chance to blossom through her craft.

CoverReveal_PoetXBeyond the beautifully crafted characters, this verse novel shines because of Acevedo’s fantastic writing. This should be no surprise as Acevedo is an extremely talented poet, but I was still struck by the sheer beauty of her storytelling. As an added bonus, this month’s Reading Challenge is to read poetry. All you need to do for a chance to win is to take a photo with the book you read and post it on social media with the hashtag #EverettReads. Poet X is a profound and compelling work that I am excited to suggest to the young readers I work with each day and it’s eligibility for the April challenge is the cherry on top!

While Poet X has stuck with me because of its wonderfully dynamic characters, S.F. Henson’s Devils Within has haunted me with its resonant, tense and chilling depiction of domestic terrorism. The story opens with a young man named Nate moving to a new town to live with his uncle. Nate wants nothing more than to keep his head down and remain unnoticed, but he has a past that will be difficult to escape. Nate is the son of a powerful white supremacist leader and was raised to carry forward his father’s hateful legacy. Despite a childhood filled with violent acts, indoctrination, and racist misinformation, Nate always felt that his father and his followers were wrong and yearned to be free of their poisonous influence. He eventually does escape, but it comes with a cost. During a frantic struggle Nate kills his father and spends time in both prison and a treatment center before being turned over to an uncle who believes his nephew is the same brand of bigot that Nate’s father was (and a killer to boot).

91NuLbodoFLNate is determined to keep his past hidden. He is deeply ashamed of the life he led and is terrified of being tracked down by his father’s vengeful and zealous compatriots. Nate begins school but struggles to adjust to his new social and academic surroundings. Over time Nate is offered a glimmer of hope. Brandon, a popular classmate, seems genuinely interested in befriending Nate and determined to help him find a place in his new town. Nate is amazed as Brandon is not only the first kind person he has met in the town, but also his first friend who is a person of color. As the ghosts of his past begin to fade Nate yearns to open up to Brandon, confessing the horrible things he has seen and done. But before Nate can take this risk his past begins to catch up with him, bringing with it the toxic hate and terrible violence he thought he had left behind threatening to destroy his new life and, even worse, putting his new friend in jeopardy.

Henson is unflinching in her portrayal of the racism and bigotry that is still pervasive in our society. While at times this book is a thrilling adventure, it is also a fever dream that I know is far too real for many Americans. As the novel approached an impending and climactic confrontation I wanted desperately to stop reading and yet could not put the book down. In my mind that is as high praise as I can give.

At first glance, there are not many similarities between the story of a Dominican girl in Harlem and a former white nationalist in Alabama. But as I dwell on both Xiamora’s and Nate’s stories I see many through lines in their lives. They’re both in conflict (albeit on very different levels) with the expectations and identities of their parents, desperate to find their own place in the larger world around them, and yet determined to live their lives by their own rules not by those forced upon them. I am so grateful to both Elizabeth Acevedo and S.F. Henson for creating these memorable young people and allowing me to see the world through their eyes.

Some Light Reading for the End of the World

I get a kick out of a story that can combine world-changing, terrifying, and sometimes supernatural events with a fairly traditional, mundane coming of age story. This is one of the many things I love about Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Shaun David Hutchinson also showed his skill with this kind of work in We are the Ants and he doubled down in his latest novel, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza.

At first glance, Elena Mendoza is similar to lots of teenage protagonists. School can be rough – she isn’t exactly popular, but she has made her own community. She loves her mom and younger siblings but hates her loser stepdad. I can keep going: her job sucks, Freddie, the girl she pines for, seems to have no clue she exists, inanimate objects often speak to her and she is the product of a virgin birth. Like I said, pretty typical.

81G6+tEFWqLSo about that virgin birth thing. Despite being shouldered with a “miracle child” moniker, there is a scientific explanation for Elena’s situation. She is the first proven human case of parthenogenesis, a form of reproduction involving an unfertilized egg. Other than some cruel classmates who nicknamed her Mary, Elena has largely been able to shed any spotlight that might come from the unique circumstances of her birth. Time heals all wounds and brings enough sensational news stories each day to allow hers to fade away.  

The voices Elena hears are a little harder to explain, but truth be told they give her advice that usually proves helpful so she has learned to live with them and hide them from the surrounding world, even from her mother and her best friend, Fadil. Then one day while at work she witnesses a classmate shoot Freddie and is told by the logo on a Starbucks cup to save Freddie’s life. Though it defies explanation, Elena is able to heal Freddie and her reputation as a miracle girl comes storming back, bringing Elena a mess of unwanted attention.

To make matters worse, the boy who shot Freddie disappeared in a ray of light right after Elena performed her “miracle.” The voices tell Elena that she must heal more people to save the world. Fadil, a devout Muslim, tells her to trust in God and plenty of others tell her she is either crazy or a fraud. For her part, Elena is sure there must be some sort of scientific explanation and she is reluctant to use her powers. But with so many people suffering around her, how can she resist? Unfortunately, every time she heals someone, people disappear in strange beams of light. And as her profile grows, more people seem to want to use her, from her selfish stepdad to shadowy government agents. So Elena is left with quite the needle to thread: save the world, avoid manipulation, solve this rapture mystery and figure out if Freddie likes her or resents her for saving her life. No sweat?

Hutchinson packs a lot into this book and in less capable hands this story could have gone off the rails or veered into religious speculation that just isn’t my taste. Yet Elena is a sensible, compassionate, and delightfully wry narrator who manages to keep this wild novel somewhat grounded. I loved her mix of optimism and pragmatism and her quick banter with Fadil, Freddie, and her ex-boyfriend Javi.  

More than anything else, however, I appreciate the way this book handles identity. I read a lot of YA fiction that features queer characters and I appreciate the thought and care with which so many authors today write about questioning or discovering sexuality, coming out, facing bigotry, and finding acceptance. I also believe, however, that we need stories like this one. Elena has lots of insecurities but is perfectly open and comfortable with her bisexuality. And that is also how she is treated by Hutchinson. Her identity is only addressed as it pertains to the story. It’s a fact of life, not a plot point. The same could be said for the treatment of Fadil’s religion and Elena’s Cuban-American heritage. Hutchinson’s matter-of-fact approach to diverse representation not only makes for great writing but creates a world that I want to live in. Even if it is on the brink of apocalypse.

You Are Healed!

Back in the mid to late 80s there was this channel that would play religious ‘talk shows,’ usually with women who put their make up on with a trowel and had high hair (the bigger the hair, the closer to God) and a husband already sweating two minutes into the beginning of the show while walking through a crowd. I confess that during bouts of insomnia, (yes, 10 year olds can get insomnia; they can also remember where their mother hid the huge bag of Skittles at 3am) I would watch these shows just to see the sweaty dude go to a line of people anxiously waiting to be healed by the power of this man who was a direct conduit for God.

Even at the age of 10, I could spot that split second dismay in the ‘you are healed’ faces of the people, like they were thinking: This dude just punched me in the forehead. And then the look of acceptance: Well, it is almost a direct healing from God and it takes my attention off the drag queen up on the stage in the pink and red sequin jumpsuit so….okay. I feel the same way about figure skating. It’s a beautiful sport, an elegant and intimate dance of two bodies that know each other so well. But I only watch it hoping one of them will fall and slid across the ice on their butt.

I never said I was a good person.

I almost skipped Stephen King’s book Revival, published in 2014, because I didn’t want a doom and gloom angry God book but after the first couple of pages I was hooked. Duh. It’s Stephen King. Oh, my apologies. I know I wrote my last post about Stephen King but the man delivers and when he promises to make you forget reality through his writing, he means it.

Charles Jacobs is a new minister in town. Everybody loves him and his wife and his son, especially a young man named Jamie Morton. But Charles Jacobs’s wife and child die in a tragic car accident and Charles denounces God and all religions and is basically run out-of-town for his blasphemy. He spends years honing a side-show gimmick until something happens that makes him regain his faith and he becomes a faith healer. You see, all his life he’s dabbled with electricity and is harnessing it somehow. How very Tesla of him.

Jamie Morton is all grown up now and a musician with a nasty heroin habit. He meets up again with Charles Jacobs who uses his weird electrical gift to cure Jamie of his drug habit. But Jamie notices that he has certain side effects: sleepwalking and jabbing sharp objects into his arm as though doping again in his sleep. Jamie begins to investigate all of the people that Charles Jacobs has ‘healed.’

It turns out they’ve all had bizarre side effects from the electrical cure. Some have killed themselves or others. Just as Jamie is cutting ties with Jacobs, Jacobs informs him that Jamie’s childhood sweetheart Astrid is dying from terminal cancer. Jacobs says he’ll heal Astrid if Jamie helps him with one last big electrical experiment. Jamie agrees and Astrid is healed. By now Jamie knows that Jacobs isn’t to be trusted and is probably more unhinged than anyone thinks.

What Jacobs wants to do is harness a massive surge of what he calls ‘secret electricity.’ He’s going to bring about this dose of electricity via a lightning rod and he’s going to zap the electricity from the rod into a terminally ill woman named Mary Fay. It works but not in the way Jacobs hoped. Mary Fay is cured, but she is now a conduit for the Afterlife. Jacobs and Jamie discover there is no heaven, no reward for having lived a kind and good life. Instead, there’s a placed called ‘The Null,’ a dimension where dead humans are forever enslaved by insane creatures right out of an H.P. Lovecraft book. One creature in particular is the most powerful, called Mother, and she now inhabits the body of Mary Fay, breaking her body and turning her into a monster.

Okay, the rest I have written down in my notebook and when I got to the part explaining about the ending I thought: I like my readers, all two of them, and I’m not going to spoil the ending. But even after finishing the book I had to go have a nap and a Bloody Mary (not in that order, I’m not that talented).

Revival isn’t just about losing faith and regaining it. It’s about what people become once they lose or regain faith.

I also think it should be a cautionary tale not to mess with electricity or you’ll end up summoning a demon bent on destroying the world.

Redrum

I was going to write a blog about Stephen King’s book The Shining versus the Stanley Kubrick 1980 movie adaptation of the book, but time got away from me. Not because I’m busy. Because I rented the newest version of the movie IT and then I fell asleep (not because of the movie but because of who I am as a person) and then had to begin it again and this blog is already getting away from me and that usually doesn’t happen until the second paragraph.

Come along with me on another adventure of “What Did I Just Read?”

I’ve read The Shining 3 times. I’m not bragging. I just have a hard time remembering books I’ve read a long time ago. But I did reread it just for the pleasure of it. And because it’s one of my favorite King novels.

Picture it: Jack Torrance, recovering alcoholic (one of the scary ones with anger problems), is looking for a new start not only for himself but also for his wife Wendy and their 5-year-old son Danny. He thinks he’s found the perfect job at The Overlook Hotel in Colorado. During the brutal mountain winters (where the hotel, while mesmerizing, is pretty isolated) the place shuts down for a few months with just a caretaker to look after the enormous building. This is Jack’s chance to make up the past year of horrible behavior to both his wife and son and a chance to work on his play without distraction or interruption. He hears a story about a former caretaker years go who went stir crazy one winter in the hotel and killed his wife and children. The isolation, Jack is told, sometimes gets to people. But like with any new beginning, Jack Torrance believes he and his family can get through anything, even being cut off from civilization by enough snow to make you think it’s the apocalypse, the snowy version.

His 5-year-old son Danny has….special abilities. His parents don’t realize it because it’s 1977 and parents aren’t into hovering over their kid’s every move. Nowadays, they’d shove Danny on a reality show or have him hosting a version of Antiques Road Show where he describes the ghost hanging out with the ugly vase from someone’s attic. But in 1977 Danny’s parents think he’s a quietly imaginative kid with an imaginary friend named Tony. Sure, it’s great when a 5-year-old has an imaginary friend but when a 40-year-old woman has one they up her medication.

On The Overlook’s closing day Jack and his family get a tour of the place and meet Dick Hallorann, the chef. He takes one look at Danny and knows he has special abilities. He begins to talk to Danny telepathically. While Danny’s parents are busy looking around, Dick tells Danny that he’s one of the rare people who has a gift called the shining, he can see and sense things others can’t and will have visions of things to come. People hear the title The Shining and they forget it’s actually a good thing, the ability to shine. Dick is leaving for Florida but tells Danny that they have a special connection and he knows the hotel is one huge haunted place and Danny is going to see some seriously screwed up paranormal stuff. But if Danny needs him all he has to do is use the shine to call to him and Dick will rush back to the hotel.

So everybody leaves on closing day. Jack and Wendy and Danny spend the next few days exploring their new surroundings and everything is good. Until the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel find out just how special Danny is and are drawn to him. Thinking back, I don’t remember any nice ghosts that befriended Danny. The Overlook Hotel has a salacious past full of murder and mayhem and the dead have never moved on. Danny doesn’t say anything about what he’s seen because he knows the job is important to his parents and he hasn’t seen his father this happy in a long time.

But that happiness doesn’t stick around. The Overlook can’t get its possessive claws into Danny because of his gift but guess who it can possess? Yep. Jack Torrance. He’s having trouble writing his play (thanks to the hotel distracting him) and cabin fever is beginning to unravel him. After a fight with Wendy, Jack makes his way down to the bar where all the liquor had been removed on closing day (wouldn’t do to have a drunk caretaker stumbling about) but is now fully stocked with a bartender on duty named Lloyd.

The ghosts begin to spill out of the woodwork (Jack was warned not to go into room 237, never go into room 237 because horrible things happened there and damn it, there he is going into room 237) and drive Jack into an insanity there’s no coming back from. The ghosts of the hotel want Danny because of his shine. Lloyd urges a very drunk Jack to kill Danny and Wendy. Once you’re dead in the Overlook, you never really leave. Or is that the Hotel California? In any case, Jack is fully under the hotel’s powers and goes after Wendy. Danny, meanwhile, is giving his new buddy Dick Hallorann a telepathic SOS loud enough to almost make his head bleed.

And then…and then…well, if I tell you what happens you won’t need to read the book and I wouldn’t have done my job of getting you into the library, excited about being terrified to death by Stephen King’s writing. The Shining was King’s third novel and in my opinion one of his scariest, not just because of a hotel full of ghosts reliving their deaths but because of what isolation and inner demons can do to a person whose only goal was to start fresh. Read this book if you want to see the gradual unraveling of one man driven insane by an isolated hotel. Read about a mother trying not only to keep her child alive but also herself as her husband loses his mind. And then there’s Danny, who shines the brightest.

Excuse me, I have some other writing to take care of. All work and no play make Jennifer a dull girl.

Books to Love and Share

Even though we live nearly three thousand miles apart, I’m very close with my nieces and nephew. In my mind I’m the cool uncle who takes them on fun trips and gets them the most exciting presents. Of course when your uncle is a librarian the fun trips usually involve libraries or bookstores and those exciting presents are, well, books. Luckily for me, these kids are born readers so even if I’m not the cool uncle I am the uncle who gets asked for book recommendations and invited to class visits. I’ll take it.

Here are a few of the books that I’ve loved and shared with my young readers this past year.

methodetimesprodwebbin2146bf82-bd60-11e6-a53a-ca2ad7b229f9My youngest niece is almost two. She loves to laugh and is great at identifying animals, as long as it’s a dog or a bear, so I knew she would love Horrible Bear! by Ame Dyckman. Horrible Bear! follows a no-nonsense young girl who crashes her kite into a bear’s den. The sleeping bear rolls over, crushing the kite. The girl storms off furious at the bear, while the bear is filled with righteous indignation for being blamed. Behold, bitter enemies! Ultimately, the bear and the girl come to understand each other and this silly story delivers a meaningful yet subtle message about accidents and forgiveness. This is a great read-aloud with the girl and bear stomping around shouting HORRIBLE BEAR and HORRIBLE GIRL. It also features Dyckman’s signature humor and lively illustrations by Zachariah OHora.

A1CIvMxnmGL (1)I also read with my 3-year-old niece but of course a 3-year-old is sophisticated and requires more complex and devious narratives. This is why I recently sent her The Wolf, the Duck, & the Mouse by Mac Barnett. When a mouse is swallowed by a wolf, it seems like the end of the world – literally. But the mouse gets new perspective when it meets a duck who has made quite a lovely home in the wolf’s stomach. Their new haven is threatened when a hunter pursues the wolf and the mouse and duck must find a way to save their home. I love the sharp turn this story takes after its grim beginning and the way expectations are constantly subverted. This book also has the benefit of Jon Klassen’s illustrations, who could even make the phone book a twisted delight.

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Vera Brosgol’s Leave Me Alone! introduces a granny who feels straight out of a nursery rhyme. Living in a cramped house with her large family, she sets out to find a peaceful place to knit. She travels far and wide through harsh environments filled with terrible beasts, and even goes to space! This is another story that starts out with a slightly sardonic tone before settling into a heartwarming conclusion. Brosgol’s illustrations are pitch perfect, creating a story that feels like a loving and quirky tribute to Strega Nona.

9780545700580_mresRecently one of my cousins had her first child who is nicknamed Froggy. I’m using this as an excuse to give them Rain! By Linda Ashman. Rain! follows the parallel stories of an older man who is irritated to have to deal with wet weather and a young boy in a frog hat who is delighted to explore the rainy world. This is a sweet story with a wonderfully goofy conclusion. Rain! has the added bonus of featuring the brilliant illustrations of Christian Robinson. Robinson’s work has been on my radar for some time, but it was not until I saw him speak last year at a conference that I took the time to explore his work in-depth. He is a stunning artist who has quickly become a personal favorite.

9780545403306_mresFor the older readers in my life (ages 7 and 9) I like to introduce series that they can fall in love with. The challenge, of course, is getting these books in their hands before they hear about them from friends. This year these series included Whatever After by Sarah Mlynowski and The Ranger’s Apprentice by John A. Flanagan. The Whatever After series follows a young sister and brother, Abby and Jonah, who are swept away into the lands of various fairy tales such as Cinderella and the Frog Prince. This might be a delightful adventure for the young siblings if they didn’t accidentally intervene in these classic stories and jeopardize their traditional plots. Abby and Jonah must frantically save the day, delivering the fairy tale endings we all know so well. Some middle grade series do not hold up for adult readers. These do. Abby’s narration is laced with gentle sarcasm and the two siblings repeatedly delight by finding new and ridiculous ways to disrupt these established stories. Book one in this series is Fairest of All.

The_Ruins_of_Gorlan_(Au)The Ranger’s Apprentice is a slightly older series perfect for lovers of world building or medieval fantasy. These books follow a young man named Will who becomes (wait for it) a ranger’s apprentice helping to protect a kingdom from a multitude of dastardly threats both internal and external. I was nervous to suggest these books to my nephew as I had not actually read them myself, but my nephew has fallen deep into their world. I asked him to tell me what he likes about the series and he explained that he is enjoying the way that the story is told from different perspectives, not just one narrator. He’s also relishing all of the action and appreciates the details that go into the development of different characters. Book one in this series is The Ruins of Gorlan.

New (Enough) Series to Dive into

This winter will be my fifth in Washington, which I am pretty sure makes me an expert by Malcom Gladwell’s standards. But I don’t think I am breaking any news when I say that winter in the PNW is long, grey, and wet. It’s not my favorite weather but it makes for a great excuse to do some of my favorite reading: multi-book series.

I have a method when I jump into these series: Start too early and I can’t deal with the wait between books. Suddenly I have the patience of a two-year-old, without the charm or the excuse of actually being two. But if I wait too long I feel woefully behind the times AND I miss out on the sweet agony that comes with waiting for the final book or two in a series. If I start reading when the series is 2 to 3 books deep, I am golden. I find that this is when a lot of series really start to open up; the world-building has gotten some attention, characters gain complexity, and that one guy who got on your nerves has probably been killed off.

Do you agree? Want to prove that I’m terribly mistaken? Here are a couple of great series that are right at my sweet spot:

coverfullSabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes would have hooked me as a well written YA fantasy series. But throw in the fact that it is loosely based on the Roman Empire? I never had a chance. The Martial Empire is the only clear power in this world. Like the Romans, the Martials wield great power through overwhelming force and ruthless cruelty. Their most fearsome tool is their squad of elite soldiers, the Masks, who possess near-superhuman strength and cunning and execute the will of the Emperor with dispassionate and merciless efficiency. The greatest victim of the Empire’s excesses and greed are the Scholars, once a flourishing tribe that has been largely reduced to an oppressed lower class. Those who have not been slaughtered or enslaved exist in the margins, living in relative squalor and clinging to their traditions the best they can.

An Ember in the Ashes follows Laia, a young woman who finds herself working for Scholar resistance, and Elias, a Mask determined to flee the Martials and reject the dehumanizing and unjust duties that await him as an agent of the Empire. They find themselves thrust together, two players in a dark and dastardly plot that threatens the Martial Empire, the remaining Scholars, and quite possibly the order of the entire known world.

Needless to say there is a ton of great historical fantasy out there. What sets this series apart is the skill with which Tahir patiently develops her world. It is masterfully crafted, with fantasy elements that slowly expand over time and unexpected plot developments that upend genre conventions. There are currently two books published in this series with a third due out in spring of 2018. Considering that the second, A Torch Against the Night, was even better than the first, I’m dying to get my hands on the next book.

81YaK2aYQkLThe Darktown series, by Thomas Mullen, might be a fairly standard police procedural but for one fact: it is set in Atlanta in the late 1940s and 1950s and the cops? They’re the first black police officers in the city. Unsurprisingly, these police officers are forced to negotiate a tenuous existence. They are the pride of their community, burdened with high expectations and a mandate to be model citizens and officers. Their victories will be everyone’s, but so will their failures. And yet they are hamstrung as law officers. They cannot carry guns or drive squad cars and they are forbidden from arresting white suspects. They are also, at best, despised by their white colleagues. At worst, they are cheated, beaten and framed by these officers who are disgusted to serve in an integrated police force.

Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are two of the new officers facing these precarious circumstances. They make for a fun pair. Boggs is the dutiful son of a preacher while Smith likes a faster life, but they are both determined to do their duty and prove their place in the police force. When they begin to unravel the mystery of a young murdered woman and come to suspect a cover-up that involves white police officers and powerful politicians, they must find a way to pursue justice without jeopardizing the fragile and fledgling order that allows them to serve their city and protect their community.

I love the way that Mullen presents a classic detective story through racial and social historical lenses. I was reminded a lot of Richard Price’s police novels, but set in an earlier time where the lines between different communities were a little less blurred. Mullen clearly did his research, and brings a nuanced understanding of a fraught, divisive and transformative time in our history. Darktown’s sequel, Lightning Men, came out in September and I hope we will hear about a third book in the not-too-distant future.

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didn’t plan this, but the themes of otherness, power, and cruelty carry over into Southern Bastards, the third series I’ve been enjoying recently. Written by Jason Aaron, this comic is set in Craw County, Alabama where high school football is sacred and the local team’s legendary coach, Euless Boss, is somewhere between a god and king. The team’s unrivaled success has allowed Boss to run the county. The sheriff is his lap dog, he is widely feared, and he heads the local drug trade while using his players as goonish enforcers. Sometimes it is said that football coaches get away with murder. Euless Boss really does. Earl Tubb finds this arrangement unacceptable. Tubb, an aging, tough-as-nails veteran and former football star, returns to town with a haunted past and very little to lose. This sets the stage for a confrontation between two titans of Craw County, which truly is not big enough for the both of them.

This series is an over-the-top delight. Jason Latour’s illustrations perfectly capture a community rotting from the inside out, while Aaron tells a story that deftly snakes through the shared history of Craw County’s citizens. The focus of this series shifts several times, diving deep into characters’ lives to provide insight into their motivations and empathy for their actions. This is done with such careful precision that even a monster like Euless Boss might win you over. Southern Bastards currently has three published volumes, with a fourth due in February 2018.

Clearly I’ve had a hunger for dark tales of violence and corruption this fall. I promise I also read plenty of lighthearted and uplifting books. You know, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Be sure to sound off in the comments and tell us what series you’re going to dig into this winter!