“The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah

  “I’ll be brave,” she said. “You just tell my sister that she needs to start being afraid.”

                                – Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale

As much as The Nightingale is a story of the Second World War, it’s not about the conflict itself: the book has very little to do with soldiers, weapons, generals and presidents and leaders, battles lost and won. Instead, Kristin Hannah’s novel focuses on those trapped in the midst of war, and yet always on its periphery: the noncombatants, those left behind when the men went off to war, who must struggle for survival in a homeland that has become enemy territory. In particular, it is the story of two sisters, as different as night and day, and through them, an exploration of two opposing yet equally valid expressions of heroism. It is a novel of love and courage, sacrifice and survival, regret and redemption, and all of the myriad forms they can take.

In the summer of 1939, Viann Mauriac (nee Rossignol) has come through years of tragedy and heartbreak to build an almost idyllic life for herself out of the wreckage with her husband and daughter. She knows war and upheaval are coming (how can she not?), but she refuses to even think about it, instead clinging to what she has with both hands, paralyzed with fear and desperate to preserve her fragile joy. Nearly ten years her junior, her sister Isabelle has spent most of her nineteen years in boarding schools; their father was such in name only, utterly broken by his experiences in the previous war, and therefore completely unable to care for the girls after his wife died. Viann in turn was too young and too lost in her own grief to take on the maternal role that Isabelle needed, and withdrew deeper into herself even as Isabelle lashed out in a desperate plea for attention and affection. Their relationship is riddled with deep, yawning fissures, with a great deal of pain and hurt over the years on both sides: rarely inflicted intentionally, but there nonetheless. Now on the verge of adulthood, Isabelle is outspoken, headstrong, and utterly fearless; she is frantically searching for a purpose in life, to be wanted and needed by someone, anyone. She doesn’t exactly welcome the war, but she yearns to throw herself headlong into it, to contribute and be a part of something larger than herself.

Then war does come, and with it the German occupation of France.

As The Nightingale makes clear, resistance to the Nazis was largely the work of women, because who else was left to do the job? Who else was above (or rather, beneath) suspicion? Certainly not a young, pretty girl, flirtatious and full of life, or a quiet, obviously terrified mother, whose only seeming concern is the safety and well-being of her daughter. I spoke at length on this topic last year in my review of Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, but men in war-torn France were just as likely to overlook the women in their midst as their counterparts were during the American Civil War, and so both Viann and Isabelle, in their own individual ways, are compelled do what no one else will, what no one else can. They must walk through the crucible of war and occupation, and neither emerges unscathed.

Isabelle, all fire and lightning and rebellion as the novel opens, has cocooned herself in an almost impenetrable armor to hide a marshmallow-soft center, and a desperate craving for love, acceptance and affection. Viann is just the opposite, sweet and soft and yielding, but all of her candy-floss pliability is wrapped around a steel core, unknown even to herself. Isabelle is absolutely fearless, primarily because she feels that she has nothing to lose or hold her back; she is a young, unfocused girl, searching for purpose and meaning. The war and the necessary work of the Resistance gives her that, and so she flings herself into the cause unhesitatingly, willing to risk everything for the chance to make a difference. Viann begins the war terrified, afraid to lose her happiness, happiness she has clawed from a morass of loss and despair. As result, her initial instinct is to keep her head down and remain unnoticed, to hide and protect her daughter, and only gradually does she find the courage to subtly, covertly stand up for what is right. Separately, Viann and Isabelle discover what is worth dying for, but even more importantly, they come to decide what is worth living for: the reasons to survive and to continue surviving, no matter the costs – and the costs are devastatingly high.

It’s a brutal and heart-breaking world they find themselves in, and yet there is still the capacity for joy and compassion after and even in the midst of great pain and suffering. There is love throughout the novel, in all its many forms: love found, love denied, love blighted, love lost and love regained. It is in the little things (that are much larger than they first appear), small moments of love and kindness, that the women of France find and maintain hope that there is still something good in the world, from Viann’s daughter Sophie offering to don the Yellow Star in solidarity with her best friend, to an anonymous policeman protecting Isabelle from her own curiosity, warning her to not question events surrounding the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up to closely. Love provides the impetus for each woman to go to incredible lengths to survive, and to ensure the survival of others. It’s through love that Isabelle finally finds the meaning she has spent her life searching for, and the same allows Viann to open her heart to others beyond her immediate family circle, to become a part of something much larger than herself, and to discover her own particular brand of courage.


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“The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” – Christopher Scotton

“Men like Bubba Boyd think the earth owes them a living. They take whatever wealth they can from the mountains and move on. I actually feel sorry for him, I really do. He can’t for the life of him see the simple beauty in a waterfall or understand the importance of history and place. If I have one hope for you, Kevin, it’s that you never become one of those men.”

– Christopher Scotton, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

In 1985, in the wake of unspeakable family tragedy, fourteen-year-old Kevin Gillooly and his mother come to Medgar, Kentucky to spend the summer with his maternal grandfather. Annie Gillooly is almost catatonic with grief, drifting around her childhood home as a ghost of her former self. Kevin, with the resilience of youth, is slightly better off, but he’s still utterly numb, overwhelmed with anger and sadness (plus an unfair and undeserved burden of guilt), and has taken to starting fires in a vain attempt to feel anything else. Both are reeling, crushed under far more weight than they are currently able to bear. Arthur Peebles (whom Kevin calls Pops) takes that pressure onto his own shoulders, carrying it for them until they are ready to take it back.

Pops becomes the center of Kevin’s world during the course of that summer, a warm, comforting and serene presence; his wisdom, kindness and good humor is a palpable force throughout the novel. With a wry, dry sense of humor, he takes everything in stride, treating everything and everyone both very seriously, and yet not seriously at all. A truly remarkable man, he takes a subtle, nuanced view of the world around him … and yet also able to out-hike and out-climb Kevin and his friends on an extended camping trip. Pops knows that the only thing that will heal his daughter is time, but Kevin needs a great deal more than that to become whole again, and so he provides what he can. He introduces Kevin to the world of great literature as an escape, starting with Treasure Island; he gives him occupation and responsibility as his veterinary assistant; and he leads by example, teaching Kevin a great deal about life, human nature, and how to think along the way, to see the world with the questioning eyes of an adult and not the accepting eyes of a child.

Kevin also benefits from the friendship of Medgar native Buzzy Fink, who keeps an eye on the fires that Kevin starts, and eventually makes him stop by forcing him to face the very real consequences of his actions. Buzzy makes the surrounding mountains real to Kevin, and shows them all to him, along with his own private names for every mountain and the story behind each one. In part, they bond over all the stupid things that all teenage boys do and think and say as part of their maturation, from Buzzy’s truly revolting toenail collection to killing spiders in a barn with hairspray and a lighter. Buzzy opens up a whole new world for Kevin, who learns a lot from his new friend, intentionally or otherwise. And yet, despite their closeness, there’s a huge chasm between them that nothing can erase: Buzzy is desperate to get out of Medgar and build a life somewhere, anywhere else, while Kevin loves his new home and wants to stay forever. However, as Buzzy points out, that’s only because he can leave anytime he wants.

As idyllic as Kevin finds Medgar at first, beneath its placid surface the town is actually in deep turmoil, torn between the desperate economic need for mountaintop removal mining and the employment it provides (especially after the closing of the underground Medgar seam in 1978), and the high environmental cost that comes with it. One man is killed by fly rock in his back yard, his skull completely obliterated by flying debris; many locals find only gray, sludgy water coming through their taps; others are beset by a mysterious and seemingly untreatable rash. And that is only the beginning, as Scotton describes in vivid, scorching detail the sheer devastation that this type of mining has on the local mountains, hitting home and hard about what we are doing to the planet, and yet keeping it intensely personal. Pops knows, and makes sure the boys know, that you can talk facts and figures and graphs ad nauseam, but it won’t really sink in until you actually see something first hand, in all its brutal immediacy. There are no right answers, no easy solution to the problem, and it’s all further complicated by the personal histories of the men involved, as old and deeply set as the mountains themselves.

Paul Pierce is both a local environmental leader and a prominent member of the community, but a controversial figure who has been balancing on a tightrope his entire life. His horrific murder sets off a chain reaction that will task both Buzzy and Kevin’s courage, strength and endurance in ways they never imagined possible, propelling them both headlong into the terrifying journey that is adulthood. Kevin will find himself feeling more helpless and alone than he ever has before; there has always been someone else for him to rely on: his parents, his teachers, Pops, or Pops’ housekeeper, Audy Rae. Now, he’s all alone and facing an almost unendurable journey of bravery and love. Kevin and Buzzy (two brave, brave boys) are put to the ultimate test, in very different ways, and come through the other side better and stronger for the experience.

It’s hard to put my finger directly on what’s so magical about this novel: there’s simply too much woven together to be able to pull out any particular strand and say, “Yes, this is the crucial element: this is it.” Deeply philosophical and yet it’s all subtle and understated, nothing explicit or overt … much like Pops, when it comes down to it. Harrowing and heart-warming, soaringly poetic and richly down-to-earth, cruel and kind by turns, it’s a powerful, visceral, real book. Certainly it’s the story of one boy’s coming of age, and learning to live in a world both harsher and more complicated than he ever thought possible, but it’s so much more than that. There are layers and layers of meaning embedded within and beneath the plot, but you can’t parse or itemize any of it. Whatever you take away from the novel is an underground river, flowing powerfully and secretly, out of sight; you can’t isolate the lessons to be learned and list them one by one. You just have to let the whole thing wash over you, like a memory or a dream.


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Tana French – “The Secret Place”

Joyce: I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about… where you’re coming from, how to relate to you… and I’ve come to a very simple conclusion: I don’t get it.
Buffy: I’m inscrutable, huh?
Joyce: You’re sixteen. I think there’s a, a biological imperative whereby I can’t understand you because I’m not sixteen.
Buffy: Do you ever wish you could be sixteen again?
Joyce: Oh, that’s a frightful notion. (exhales) Go through all that again? Not even if it helped me understand you.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1, Episode 3, “Witch”

There are actually two secret places within the novel, and it’s anyone’s guess precisely which one is indicated by the title; it could be either, or both. One is a place for secrets: a bulletin board where students at the prestigious St. Kilda’s School can anonymously share their private thoughts and feelings. The other is a specific, hidden place, a secluded cypress grove on the school grounds, that four students regard as particularly theirs, the one spot where they can find much-needed privacy away from the prying eyes of teachers and peers.

The two are inextricably linked by the death of Chris Harper, a handsome and popular student from the all-boys school a street or so away, who was found murdered on St. Kilda’s grounds at the end of the previous school year – in the cypress grove, to be precise. As devastating and earth-shattering as his death was for everyone involved, the investigation stalled for lack of evidence and was quietly set aside for over a year, until the card appeared on the school message board. Plain and white, a picture of Chris Harper and five words: I know who killed him.

Holly Mackey (whose detective father Frank appeared in French’s earlier novels Faithful Place and The Likeness) is the first to discover the card, and she brings it straight to Detective Stephen Moran; they met several years ago, when Holly was a witness in a murder investigation. Moran works cold cases, not murders, but he’s been waiting for his ticket onto the Murder Squad, to join the elite, and so he attaches himself to Antoinette Conway, the lead detective in the initial investigation, as she heads back to St. Kilda’s to re-open the case. She lets him tag along because he has an “in” with Holly, since any kind of rapport with the students was the one thing she lacked the first time, and Moran is determined to make the most of this opportunity.

From there, Conway and Moran tackle the nearly impossible task of convincing a group of teenage girls to part with their closely guarded secrets, while also facing down a headmistress closely guarding her school’s reputation, parents fighting tooth and nail to protect their offspring, and colleagues and superiors ready to snatch the case away from them. It’s a very long day, working against the clock, and it’s all they have, their one chance to get things right.

Moran narrates the investigation side of the novel, his timeline unfolding over the course of a single day; for him, time is racing. The rest is a series of chronological flashbacks leading up to the murder, spanning the better part of a school year: a macabre countdown to Chris Harper’s death. To complicate things further, Holly and her three best friends (Julia, Selena and Rebecca) are at the heart of both timelines, along with the four members of another clique at the school. For the girls, time moves slowly, creeping forward to an unknown destination, with all the breathless impatience and anticipation of adolescence, completely unaware of the tragedy they’re hurtling towards. Both timelines spins out gradually, doling out information drop by drop, as they move forwards and backwards simultaneously towards Chris Harper’s death.

For all its superficial prominence within the pages, the murder investigation isn’t really the heart of the novel; instead, it’s the story of four girls, trying to navigate and survive adolescence, while the two detectives try to figure out how, when, and above all why that journey went awry. They’re at an age where everything matters, and matters intensely; it’s easy to forget the energy, the drama, the confusion, and above all, the secrecy. Moran and Conway certainly have no desire to revisit that time of their lives, and their journey into the minds and lives of the girls is fraught with complications. The Secret Place message board was deliberately created by St. Kilda’s as a safety valve on the pressure cooker that is a lot of teenagers in one place, thought to be a better alternative to an anonymous website, and one that the school could monitor, at least to some extent. But these are smart girls, and there’s a good deal more seething and bubbling beneath the surface than any adult is willing to imagine, or remember.

Aside from the masterful construction of the larger plot, a lot of the novel’s intensity and power comes from French’s attention to detail, to the little things woven in and out of the bigger picture, where even the most inconsequential occurrences are taken note of: the universal appeal of new school supplies, lovely onomatopoeia of birdsong in the heat of late summer, a bee landing on Detective Conway’s blouse. And throughout, there’s a song that Holly can never quite catch, only hearing snippets of it, that haunts and puzzles her throughout, always slightly out of earshot.

The Secret Place is an absorbing novel, enfolding you in its pages and never letting go until the bitter end; but it’s not a comforting embrace, not at all. You read with a sort of breathless intensity as the tension builds, just waiting for the proverbial closets to spring open and for all the skeletons to start spilling out: you know something dreadful is coming, something that will hurt a lot of people, very badly, but you don’t know precisely what, or when French is going to spring it on you. In the end, there are still so many unanswered questions and uncertain futures for all of the characters, even with the murder solved. It’s what French does so beautifully: pain, secrets, and things that would be simpler, easier if left uncovered … but not better. It’s gorgeous, but achingly so.


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The Art of Neil Gaiman – reviewed by Hunter Coleman

Neil Gaiman, the master of imagination, has been pleasing his readers for over two decades, and at last there is a book devoted entirely to the man himself, detailing his journey from journalist to comic artist to cult novelist.

Ms. Campbell, the daughter of Eddie Campbell, a veteran graphic novelist, has known Gaiman since childhood, and as such has wide access to Gaiman and his correspondents. (Gaiman’s The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish was dedicated to the ten-year-old Hayley Campbell).

Although heavily illustrated throughout, The Art of Neil Gaiman is more about the art of writing than about visual arts per se. Gaiman is, after all, a writer, not an illustrator. And written he has, from some of the most beloved graphic novels (The Sandman, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader (the last Batman story)), to novels (The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Coraline) to blockbuster movies (Beowulf starring Angelina Jolie), to a biography on Duran Duran (or should that be rockagraphy?).

This is not a straight biography (his wife and children get only a passing mention, and then only to show how they affect the work), and with the possible exception of the first part, Preludes, should not be read as one. The Art of Neil Gaiman is, instead, full of never-before-seen notes, cartoons, personal photographs and drawings from Neil’s own collection. Each project is examined in turn, from genesis to fruition in the book that is divided among Gaiman’s three most influential mediums: comics, novels and screenplays.

The early chapters share episodes in the life of the writer, such as his embarrassment on having to take a sandwich with him to the library (his parents did not want the young boy spending his entire day reading books without food in his stomach) where he tells how he would reluctantly carry around the sandwich while exploring the stacks in the morning before taking his lunch break outside on a bench (all while reading, of course) before happily throwing the bag away and at last being able to return to the library, sans sandwich.

Later, the book does spend many pages detailing the inception of Gaiman’s magnum opus, The Sandman, which he worked on for seven years, and which became one of the most famous graphic novels in history, and justifiably so.

Lavishly illustrated, The Art of Neil Gaiman is the fully authorized account of the life and work of one of the world’s great storytellers, and is definitely a must-have for any fan.

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Sue Miller – “The Arsonist”

“Kids don’t need magic kisses. Only adults are not happy.”

– Sue Miller, The Arsonist


Reid: Statistically 94 per cent of all serial arsonists are male, 75 per cent are white and few, if any, are ever caught.

Prentiss: Few? You don’t have a percentage?

Reid: 16 per cent. And those 16 per cent set thirty-plus fires before they’re ever apprehended.

Criminal Minds, “Ashes to Dust”, Season 2, Episode 19


“We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out.”

– Tennessee Williams, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore

Two things happen simultaneously as The Arsonist opens: Frankie Rowley arrives at her parents’ home, in the small town of Pomeroy, New Hampshire, and the fires begin. Even without the latter, Sue Miller’s latest would be a novel of dislocation and upheaval; as it stands, the escalation of the titular arsonist mirrors (and heightens) the private turmoil in the lives of the characters until the two narrative strands combine, spilling over and entwining until they become impossible to separate.

Frankie finds herself at a crossroads, caught in a curious limbo of indecision; after fifteen years in Africa, working for an NGO, she finds her life suddenly unsatisfying, and isn’t sure if or when she’s going back. At the same time, she has no idea what she does want, and she is terrified of the blankness that rises up whenever she contemplates her suddenly uncertain future. She spends most of the novel living as Schrodinger’s cat, behaving as if both of her options (to stay or to go back) are equally true at the same time – an untenable position. Her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, are in the midst of their own transition, having recently retired to what used to be their summer home, and the move is an adjustment for both of them in more ways than one. Sylvia in particular is trying to craft a new role in life, and feel at home in a place she loved primarily because it was not her home; she’s thoroughly tired of being the one in charge of their joint lives, the nag, the caretaker, the responsible one … a resentment that only builds as Alfie starts showing early signs of Alzheimer’s. Even Bud Jacobs, editor and proprietor of the local newspaper (with whom Frankie begins a relationship as the summer progresses) becomes caught up in the tension of uncertainty, second-guessing his decision to settle in Pomeroy for good, having abandoned a successful career as a big-city journalist.

As a result, the novel is an exploration into the necessary components for … I’m not even sure how to describe it. It isn’t happiness, per se, because there is no such thing as a happily ever after, at least not a permanent one. Perfect happiness is a transitory phenomenon within the world of the book, of which all of the characters in the book are deeply aware. Instead, they are groping blindly after … I suppose contentment would be the best way to describe it. While the precise requirements vary from person to person, they’re all looking to build a satisfactory life – imperfect, to be sure, but better than all of the possible alternatives. In the end, they’re trying to place themselves in a better position than they were in before: one with more potential for happiness.

Because of the arsonist, because of Alfie’s decline, because Frankie has come home to (possibly) stay, exploration of emotions is at the heart of the novel: specifically the hidden, secret ones that we (almost) never admit to aloud, or even in our own minds. These are the thoughts and feelings that we quash quickly and silently and guiltily as soon as we become conscious of them. The bad emotions, that everyone has, and yet we’re all ashamed of: pleasure and excitement sparked by something objectively terrible that benefits us, but that negatively impacts others around us; secret satisfaction at being proved right, even when the right conclusion has devastating results; resentment at an additional burden being placed on our shoulders, even when the source of that burden is in no way to blame. These thoughts are natural, human, bubbling up in the hearts and minds of even the kindest and nicest of us. And yet, they invariably provoke reactions of shame and guilt. We berate ourselves for them, thinking that if we were better, we simply wouldn’t think or feel these shameful, guilty, horrible things. Even as we do, the novel assures us that these thoughts are both perfectly natural and not uncommon. Singularity is the most damning aspect of these thoughts, when we feel that everyone else around us (so much better and kinder and stronger than we ourselves could ever hope to be) is immune to such petty feelings.

The events of The Arsonist unfold during the summer of 1998 (news of the Lewinsky scandal is a ubiquitous topic of conversation before it is displaced by talk of the fires; Frankie is deeply affected by the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7), and yet for all the details tying the novel to a precise date, it’s peculiarly timeless, far more firmly anchored in place rather than time. Miller looks beyond the span of the fires, both forward and backwards. It’s necessary to study the past of the characters and the town of Pomeroy, to understand how everyone and everything arrived at this moment in time. We also get tantalizing glimpses of what will be, after the summer is over and the fires end.

So much of this novel rings true, from the larger currents to the tiniest detail, from the universal truth that putting on fresh eye make-up always improves one’s outlook on life, to the inescapable urge to seek a “grown-up” to talk to in time of crisis, no matter how old we grow. The title is fundamentally misleading, however, because the arsonist is not what matters. Although his actions form a compelling backdrop, and create conflict in Pomeroy, his identity is ultimately irrelevant; he is a catalyst, nothing more. The focus is on the town’s reaction to his crimes, and on Frankie and Sylvia, Bud and Alfie, zeroing in on a mother and daughter and the men in their lives, all of whom find themselves at a turning point, voluntarily or otherwise. You’re initially drawn in because of the idea of crime and mystery; instead, the hypnotizing human interaction is what keeps you spellbound.


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“Lords of the Sky” by Dan Hampton

“We do not consider that aeroplanes will be of any possible use for war purposes.”

— Richard Haldane, 1st Viscount Haldane (The British Secretary of State for War), 1910 – famous last words!


“Albert Ball was typical of the sort of man who became a pilot. He was a paradox – or perhaps he was just a young man trying to find himself during the surreal experience of war. Self-confident, highly lethal, and just a bit strange, he was a man who would unhesitatingly put fifty .303 rounds into an enemy pilot, but could beautifully sing ‘Thank God for a Garden’ to his girlfriend. A man who could have chosen and succeeded at anything in life had the war not interfered. Had he lived, Albert likely would have been a husband and a father; perhaps he would have been a musician, scholar, or a businessman.

It is certain that he was a fighter pilot.”

– Dan Hampton, Lords of the Sky

I’m not a fan of flying personally (my ears stay stopped up for days afterwards, even when the cabin pressure doesn’t cause intense pain), but the pure idea of flight has always fascinated me. I wanted an airplane to come to my second birthday party; thankfully, Fisher-Price and an appropriately shaped Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake sufficed.

Despite my childhood obsession, I don’t actually know very about much planes, or fighter pilots, or even the mechanics of flight, aside from a few bits and pieces picked up in history classes along the way, so I always want to know more. Consequently, when Dan Hampton’s Lords of the Sky: Fighter Pilots and Air Combat, from the Red Baron to the F-16 landed on our shelves, I gobbled it down.

This book is exactly what the title claims: it is all about air combat, fighter pilots, and their planes. Everything else in its pages is just context: necessary and crucial context, but context all the same. Hampton skims along the top of history until he reaches the bits relevant to aviation, whereupon he dives down deep. It’s mind-boggling, the sheer amount of information he parses, paring everything down to its bare essence, except where it pertains to fighter pilots. Each chapter (or section within a chapter) is worthy of a book in its own right … or several. He gives a clear, concise summary, but with enough detail and delicious snippets to facilitate further study into any particular aspect, should one so desire.

It begins in World War I, “the birthplace of the fighter pilot, in the skies above the trenches”, and carries the narrative all the way to 2003 and the current conflict in the Middle East. On Thursday, April 1, 1915 (there’s some irony for you, and a nasty surprise for the Germans), Roland Garros took to the skies, having rigged his plane so that he could fire a machine gun directly through his propeller; previous flights were almost all for observation purposes. This was the first time a gun was mounted directly on the plane, and not simply held by the pilot or observer. From that pivotal moment, Hampton traces the complete overhaul in how aviation was viewed, and exactly why and how the fighter pilot developed as he did. We see the progression of pilot training, from virtually none at all during the Great War to today’s rigorous and demanding standards; we also gain an appreciation for the crazy mental gymnastics necessary to be a successful fighter pilot. Interwoven with the rest is the history of the fighter aircraft, written for the interested layperson rather than an expert.

With each phase of air combat, the narrative begins in medias res, in the thick of the fighting. We see every war, every theater and phase of war first through the eyes of the men in the sky, grounding the reader and reminding us what’s really at the heart of the book: the pilots. Only then does Hampton backtrack to give us context and the larger setting. As good as Hampton is at summarizing the big picture, he is equally deft on the more personal level. Everything is described in a concise, matter-of-fact style, rendering acts of almost unimaginable courage down to their very essence, while losing none of their power.

As a twenty-year decorated veteran of the USAF and an ace himself, Lt. Colonel (Ret.) Hampton has a real love for the subject, and this shines through in every word. Everything is seen through the lens of personal experience – even the poor ergonomic design of Soviet cockpits. Although he inspired tears on several occasions, he still manages to have fun with the topic, and never fails to point out any ironic, ridiculous, or just plain amusing tidbit: from the battle cry of the Luftwaffe (Horrido!, which apparently translates loosely to mean either ‘Fear me’, or ‘I’m a horrible one and you’re going to die’), to the two mottoes of the Wild Weasels in Vietnam (“First in, last out” and “YGBSM“), to Hans Marseilles (the Star of Africa) playing banned jazz music on the piano … in front of the Fuhrer!

Hampton does more than relate history; he goes a step further and speculates, dealing almost as much in the “what ifs” as he does in the “what dids”. Instead of merely pointing out the mistakes of the past, he also considers what might have worked. Granted, he is working with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, but his suppositions do make for interesting consideration of the might-have-beens, ranging from the Channel Battle of World War II, to military strategy in Vietnam, to what Saddam Hussein should have done in the First Gulf War.

There are magnificent examples throughout of exceptional pilots; I particularly enjoyed Lidiya “Lilya” Vladimirovna Lityvak, also known as the White Rose of Stalingrad, and a member of the Soviet 122nd Aviation Group in World War II, the first all-female combat aviation unit in history. Every pilot is described, with a very wide range in personality types, and all of their quirks are vividly captured, peeking inside their minds and hearts. Hampton captures the mentality of a fighter pilot, with all its complex contradictions, and tries to let us understand them, as fully as anyone earthbound can. There’s a very big leap between merely flying a plane, and being a fighter pilot; the latter are different, a breed apart, and Hampton waxes both philosophical and poetic in trying to makes those differences clear. In Hampton’s hands, “Lord of the Sky” becomes an epithet (in the Greek epic sense of the word, a la “swift-footed Achilles” and “grey-eyed Athena”) used to praise and honor the truly remarkable men and women who fill these pages.

Combat in the air developed almost unimaginably fast. In 1917, as Germany prepared their all-out last ditch assault to win the war, they reasoned that if the Allies were swept from the skies, they would also be unable to continue fighting on the ground: something unimaginable only two years previously. Tactics, weaponry, strategy, planes have all undergone exponential levels of change over the past century, and yet the qualities that make up a good fighter pilot remain virtually the same: physical strength and fitness, mental acumen and flexibility, the ability to hit what you shoot at, a fighting spirit, and “good hands” are all as necessary today as they were in the First World War. Even the basic principles of a dogfight today would still be familiar to an RFC pilot in a Sopwith Camel. Everything may have changed since Roland Garros, and yet in the essentials, the true heart of air combat, nothing has.


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“Flying Shoes” by Lisa Howorth

“He had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.”

– Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

In my own life, I am often struck by Gaiman’s unavoidable truth: everything seems to happen at once. No sooner does one major event occur, but others are sure to follow … always at the least convenient moment. This universal constant is never actually vocalized during the course of Lisa Howorth’s debut novel, Flying Shoes, but I have no doubt that the majority of the characters would agree … in particular the protagonist, Mary Byrd Thornton. Her morning begins with the first in a cascading series of events, a phone call from a Richmond detective, informing her that the investigation into her stepbrother’s gruesome molestation and murder nearly thirty years prior is being reopened; would she please come up from Mississippi at her earliest convenience to join the rest of her family for a conference?

This stunning and shocking phone call is immediately followed by another, this one from Lindsay Fyce: a nosy Richmond reporter intent on digging up the old tragedy and hopefully scooping the police on what is sure to be a big story. Mary Byrd can understand, intellectually, why this reporter is drawn to her family’s history, but hates it all the same; she doesn’t want a total stranger trampling all over her life and Stevie’s horrible death … especially for cash. Her family never really talked about what happened, they put all their grief and horror aside, shutting the door on the whole mess – but now that door has swung wide open.

As a result, Mary Byrd finds her world (already full to bursting with the mundane chaos of a husband, two children, several pets, and a host of eccentric friends and acquaintances) spinning out of control, leading her to discover that supposedly indestructible Corelle dishware is, in fact, breakable … if you throw it hard enough against the floor. Then again, what isn’t?

As disruptive and disorienting as the two phone calls appear at first, they prove to be just the beginning for Mary Byrd; there’s a lot more just waiting to leap out at her. A shocking and horrifying tragedy has just touched the lives of a family very close to her own, leaving everyone who knows them reeling. A cold front of apocalyptic proportions is bearing down on town: the infamous Ice Storm of ’96 (as opposed to the Blizzard of ’93, or this year’s Snowmageddon). Trees actually explode from the cold, which does not happen in Mississippi. Mary Byrd actually shoots out of town just ahead of the storm, hitching a ride to Richmond on a big-rig chicken truck; we see the unpleasant fallout of bad winter weather in the South through the eyes of those left behind, while she deals with her own personal storm in Virginia.

This is not just Mary Byrd’s story, although she is the center from which everything else springs. Through many eyes and from multiple angles, we meet all of the fascinating, complex, contradictory people who inhabit her world. The novel is very Southern in the sense that you can’t truly understand a person and his or her story until you know who they are, who they were, who their people were, and where they come from – and so we learn all of these things, in an ever-expanding web as we see the histories and perspectives of everyone whose life touches Mary Byrd’s during the course of the book. Virtually every character has their lives upended during the span of the novel, to a greater or lesser extent, whether by the resurrection of old tragedy, the stunning shock of new tragedy, or simply dealing with the ice storm. As a result, we see them all as fundamentally human: for the most part good-intentioned, sometimes selfish, sometimes truly appalling, all flawed, mixed-up, confused and contradictory.

Flying Shoes is a work of fiction, but it takes its inspiration from the still unsolved murder of the author’s stepbrother, which was front page news at the time. It seems as if Howorth is using this novel as a vehicle to explore, speculate and postulate: “How would things change? What would life be like if this very cold case were finally, finally solved? What would the impact and the ramifications be?” In the end, the answer is: Not much.

Oh, she feels some lifting of ancient lingering guilt, once the truth is finally known: her stepfather blamed her teenage “sluttiness” (insert exaggerated finger-quotes and massive quantities of sarcasm here) for contributing to Stevie’s death, lacking any better target for his grief, rage and venom, and over time she internalized a portion some of that, especially after one of the investigating detectives seemed to agree. It’s a relief, in that sense, to know that this was emphatically not the case, and that knowledge removes at least some weight from her shoulders.

In the end, even though the fictional crime has been solved, there’s no real sense of closure, of finality. The solution is ultimately anti-climatic, as stunning and shocking as it is. Too much time has passed, bringing with it too much baggage. Even now, with the culprit known, there’s a lot of remaining uncertainty – will the true culprit ever be brought to justice for his crime? Is there enough evidence remaining, untampered with, to achieve a conviction? And there have been far, far too many victims in the intervening years for there to be any satisfaction at this resolution. The detective’s phone call throws Mary Byrd’s life into temporary upheaval, but that’s all it is: temporary, before she returns to deal with the ordinary, day-to-day chaos that makes up her life.


P.S. Full disclosure: I especially love this book because Lisa Howorth is a colleague, a fellow indie bookseller. She and her husband Richard own Square Books in Oxford, MS, which was named the Publisher’s Weekly 2013 Bookstore of the Year!

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Delicious! A Review by Hunter Coleman

After penning three much-loved memoirs, foodie Ruth Reichl has at last turned to fiction. Her latest book, Delicious!, is a delightful read that will send you straight to the kitchen as soon as you put it down. (There’s even a recipe at the end of the book for just this occasion.)

Many people know Ms. Reichl through her three memoirs of her life in the culinary industry: Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires. She has also served as food critic for The New York Times, where she received two James Beard Awards for her work, the Los Angeles Times and was editor of Gourmet magazine for a decade until its publisher, Conde Nast, closed the purse. (It was during Ms. Reichl’s reign at Gourmet that the magazine commissioned David Foster Wallace’s classic essay, “Consider the Lobster.”)

Delicious! tells the story of California native Wilhelmina “Billie” Breslin, who comes to New York and lands her dream job of working as the assistant to Jake Newberry, editor of the nation’s premier food magazine, Delicious! (basically a fictionalized Gourmet). Her nearly Rain Man-like ability to identify the ingredients of any dish with just one taste serves her well in her new career, and everything appears to be taking off for the young newcomer. However, this being fiction, and the world being what it is, things soon take a downturn at the magazine and the entire staff is summarily dismissed. The entire staff, that is, except for Billie, who is kept on the payroll to answer the phones so that the publisher may continue to honor its recipe guarantee. It is while performing this task in the magazine’s now empty New York City mansion, that she stumbles upon a secret room and the letters between a young girl from Ohio named Lulu Swan and James Beard himself, who had once been on staff at Delicious!, written during the early years of World War II. Billie becomes so entranced by young Lulu that she soon sets off in search of her, despite the chances of her still being alive being quite low.

This book is very enjoyable, but it will not be winning any literary awards. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Delicous! is still a delight, and whether you fancy yourself a bit of a gourmand or subsist primarily on take-out, you’ll find Ruth Reichl’s first book of fiction a joy to read.

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“The Stories We Tell” by Patti Callahan Henry

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a penchant for linking two otherwise dissimilar things in the course of my reviews. Usually, it’s limited to the little quotation I often include at the top; I’m particularly proud of managing to reference a Disney movie in my post about Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out. My mind is a strange place.

Sometimes, however, there are weird little allusions and connections that just have to make it into the review proper, because they shed light on the book, help me to process and make sense of what I read: a lens to help me see things more clearly. While reading Patti Callahan Henry’s latest novel, The Stories We Tell, my odd little brain kept circling back to kintsugi: the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, silver or platinum, deliberately highlighting the broken places. The damaged pieces of an object are not treated as badges of shame, to be concealed and covered over, but simply facets of being; something to be illuminated and celebrated, art in its own right. It’s absolutely stunning, and a fascinating concept: the idea that something could be all the more beautiful for having been broken.

This is not the philosophy of Eve Morrison, the narrator and protagonist of The Stories We Tell. She devotes so much attention to concealing and smoothing over all the cracks and fractures in her world that she doesn’t even see them anymore. The novel is almost over before she is able to verbally acknowledge that because she has spent so much time and energy over the years trying to make her life look good, she was simply unable to see how not good everything actually was.

To all outward appearances (and thanks to a lot of effort on Eve’s part), her life is … perfect. She and her husband Cooper are wealthy, successful, socially prominent, active in the community, and apparently happy. Things are not as they seem, however, and there are a lot of stresses and strains bubbling and brewing beneath the otherwise idyllic surface. There are financial and business concerns: Cooper’s e-magazine (devoted to all things Southern Gentlemen) is struggling, and he resents the attention Eve devotes to her letterpress business, The Fine Line, Ink. Their daughter, Gwen, is navigating (painfully) the road through adolescence, rebelling both openly and covertly, and Eve’s sister, Willa, has landed with the family while she gets back on her feet, both of which only add to the tension.

Their lives might have continued on in this vein indefinitely, minor fractures spiderwebbing across the facade of perfection, only to be covered up and plastered over, until a hot summer night brings everything to a head. The police show up to inform Eve that Cooper and Willa are in the hospital, badly injured in a car accident, and from there, everything else begins to unravel. Nothing about the wreck adds up, and Eve is faced with conflicting facts and accounts from all sides. As she probes deeper and deeper, trying to understand, she has to decide what is truth, what is fiction … and whom to believe.

It’s a difficult journey for Eve, in no small part because she is finally forced to accept the myriad imperfections in her life. One of the first things we learn about her is that “When I don’t think something is possible, I just don’t notice.” Subconsciously, she’s aware of these broken places, and works very hard to repair them, but she can’t even admit their existence to herself, let alone the rest of the world, until they are forcibly brought to her attention.

As indicated by the title, stories are at the heart of the novel: stories told, mistold, or even never told at all, with the truth somewhere in the intersection of the three. It seems to me that the stories we don’t tell are even more important than the ones we do; silence, deflection and omission can be much more powerful (and damaging) than words spoken aloud. As Eve discovers, real, imperfect truths, honestly spoken, are far better than perfect lies, whether given voice or merely implied by silence.

There are many aspects of this novel that resonated, that really struck a chord (or several) as I read, but two in particular stood out, at least to me. The first is the relationship between Willa and Eve, which should resonate deeply with anyone else who has a sister. For all the myriad ways in which my own sister and I are utterly and completely 100% different, for all the times that we bicker and argue, there are still those moments – flashes of absolutely perfect synchronization. It’s difficult to put into words, but it culminates in an instantof simply knowing that for a brief stretch of time we are totally in lockstep. Patti captures this beautifully, something I struggle to describe, the way siblings are drawn back together even as everything else threatens to pull them apart.

The other part of the novel that really stuck with me were the Ten Good Ideas- the main (and most popular) card line for The Fine Line, Ink. As a child, Eve and her childhood best friend chafed under the Thou Shalt Nots of the Ten Commandments, finding them too full of negativity and things not to do, and instead tried to create the Ten Good Ideas as definitive, positive actions to take to live a good live. As an adult, she and Willa revive them for her business, and they become an overarching theme as Eve tries to remember them, develop images and art associate with each idea, and create the final two rules (they were stopped and punished before they got that far). The Ten Ideas are beautiful, fun, haunting, and thought-provoking, for both Eve and the reader. As the novel opens, Eve’s life had seemed to completely revolve around what to avoid, rather than what to embrace, but as time goes on, she finds the truth of the Ideas in her own life, makes them a part of her story and not just words on a card.

Something to consider, as we tell our own stories.


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Janie Reviews “The Mockingbird Next Door” by Marja Mills

When you think of To Kill a Mockingbird, you might imagine yourself sitting in a classroom as a 15-year-old, scribbling notes on a piece of paper about the importance of Atticus Finch. For other readers, you might recall picking it up at a bookstore on a whim and immediately delving into the old, small town setting of Maycomb. Some people read the book over and over and find themselves taping the spine back together to keep pages intact. One thing is always certain; To Kill a Mockingbird holds a special place for everyone that picks it up. To Kill a Mockingbird is unique to the literary world, not only because of its excellence, but also for its mysterious author, Harper Lee. Curious readers are drawn to Lee and her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama (the small town on which Maycomb is based), but little is known about the woman who penned one of the greatest and most loved American novels. That is, until Marja Mills knocked on Alice Lee’s front door in Monroeville on a hot summer day and was welcomed inside.

This is where The Mockingbird Next Door begins, and for anyone who has ever read Harper Lee’s novel, Mills’ new book is the perfect literary companion. It tells the true, personal account of the journey Mills took to Monroeville for the Chicago Tribune in 2001. She was assigned to cover the Chicago Public Library’s One Book, One Chicago program, which chose To Kill a Mockingbird as its first selection. Next thing she knows, she is on a plane to Atlanta and renting a car to drive the back roads to Monroeville, deep in south Alabama. Hoping to chat with the locals, Mills ultimately finds herself living right next door to the literary icon and her lawyer sister, Alice.

The Mockingbird Next Door draws readers in with its relation to the famous writer, who prefers to be called Nelle by her friends, but it’s the warm embrace the book gives you as you’re invited with Mills to sit down and chat with Nelle and Alice in their living room, go for drives to feed the local ducks, eat at Radley’s, and listen to the “grey-haired posse” share stories of Monroeville’s past that keeps you reading. While Nelle is certainly the focus, Mills doesn’t shy away from getting to know each individual she meets while living next door to the Lees. A favorite figure from the book is instantly Nelle’s sister, Alice, who is described by everyone as “Atticus in a skirt.” As a lawyer in Monroeville, Alice has made a name for herself, aside from her little sister’s celebrity status, and is such a fascinating figure in her own right that readers will yearn for more. When we first meet Alice, she is surrounded by books of all kinds from around the world and poignantly remarks that “This, is how I’ve traveled,” as she thoughtfully admires the books that have allowed her to study every corner of the globe. Alice’s knowledge of the world and passion for exploring through books is evident, but she is also the treasure trove of family history. Her stories of Lee family life, of following in the footsteps of her lawyer father, and of growing up in Monroeville each bring a sense of nostalgia to Mills’ story that show exactly what the Lee sisters believe: no amount of fiction can match the fascinating histories in real peoples’ lives.

Readers will enjoy connections Mills draws between the To Kill a Mockingbird Maycomb and the real town of Monroeville. She describes reading and rereading her copy of the 1960 novel making notes in the margins while learning about her new surroundings and friends. While reading The Mockingbird Next Door, it is hard to keep from going back to your own copy of Lee’s novel for a reminder of just how accurate the descriptions of Maycomb are to growing up in the South. While Mills gets closer to the Lee family than any reporter has done before, she is never reporting in the classical sense, nor does the book read as a biography. Instead, The Mockingbird Next Door immerses itself in a culture with great admiration and respect for its inhabitants, celebrity status aside. The beauty of the book is that Mills forms a lasting, true friendship with Nelle and Alice—there is never any pushing to get the glorious details she has included in her book, and everything is shared openly. The Mockingbird Next Door flows as naturally as the friendship that formed between the women, and it is always evident that there is a sincere care to not only share Nelle’s stories, but to carefully protect the privacy she desires. Whether you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird once or a hundred times, The Mockingbird Next Door is an unforgettable experience every reader is sure to enjoy.

And don’t forget the upcoming Mockingbird Tribute! Wednesday, July 23 at 7:00 PM, at the beautiful, historic Alabama Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama, you have the opportunity to attend the literary event of the decade. For $35, which includes all taxes, you will not only receive a signed copy of The Mockingbird Next Door, but you will meet Marja Mills and hear even more about her new book and Harper Lee, as well as see exclusive, never before seen video on the big screen of Kathryn Tucker Windham telling her own Harper Lee stories. To top it all off, every ticket comes with an entry in the drawing of a 50th Anniversary Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird with a bookplate signed by Harper Lee! How could you possibly miss such a fabulous occasion? All seats are reserved, so hurry down to The Alabama Booksmith today to purchase tickets, or give us a call! We’ll see you there!

~ Janie

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