An evocative novel set in 1969’s counterculture, Cassandra’s Eye focuses on the almost-grown daughter of intransigent bohemian parents.
In Portland, Maine, Shanti is caught between her parents’ heedless lifestyle, her desire to break free, and her need to take responsibility for her two younger sisters and physically impaired brother. The story of her eighteenth year is also a striking portrait of the times.
Observant Shanti is a compelling lead who describes herself as “eighteen going on forty.” She cooks meals and looks after her siblings while her father, an unsuccessful abstract painter, opens an art gallery with the money meant for his son’s corrective surgery. Meanwhile, her mother wants to study the classics and works in a market to bring in what little cash the family has.
The story features women who wear Indian print dresses to parties, Chianti bottles holding dripping candles, and the tangled emotions of casual sex—a constant threat to group tranquility. Nuanced and succinct language is used to develop complex characters: Shanti sees her father as a man who yearns for a revelation, who views his paintings as steps along a “sacred journey.” Portland’s combination of misty beauty and shabby melancholy mirrors the novel’s underlying themes of ambition-tainted lassitude and underscores the feelings within Shanti’s first serious relationship.
The text is sparing and skillful, driven by Shanti’s compelling voice. The eventual fallout from her parents’ heedless behavior triggers dramatic events that lead to painful realities, though they give Shanti the breathing space she needs.
Recreating a unique time and place, Cassandra’s Eye is a strong coming-of-age novel whose lead is hard to part ways with.
SUSAN WAGGONER (December 27, 2019)
Shadow Skye, Book One
The Good Hawk imagines a mythological medieval Scotland whose mainland was devastated by plague and whose outer island clans are struggling to survive.
On the Isle of Skye, Jaime is a reluctant teen from the Clann a Tuath. He’s destined for an arranged marriage with a girl from a nearby clan. Meanwhile, developmentally disabled Agatha, a fellow clan member, struggles against prejudice and yearns to protect their land as a hawk sentry. When the bulk of the tribe is betrayed and kidnapped by imperious Norse invaders, both Jaime and Agatha grow up in a hurry. They set off in pursuit, contending with shadow monsters, a mad queen, and other unforeseen dangers.
The first book of a planned trilogy, The Good Hawk mixes Celtic dialect and folklore with Scottish characteristics: ruined castles, wild wolves, expressive descriptions of forbidding lands and seas, and a rousing sequence in which Jaime and Agatha are captured by a tribe that rides indigenous Highland bulls. Assured storytelling propels the narrative, which is divided between Jaime and Agatha and their distinctive points-of-view.
The story springs plenty of surprises, from Agatha’s telepathic abilities with animals, which come into play at crucial moments, to the mystery surrounding her origins. That mystery portends major revelations in future installments. As the teens’ quest widens in scope, juicy tidbits of backstory arise, detailing a Scottish-English war in which dangerous gambits threaten to wipe out thousands of people on both sides.
Given the high stakes, violence and tragedy play in, and plenty of good people lose their lives. Amid this darkness, Jaime and Agatha emerge as sympathetic heroes, their fortitude and humanity in the face of danger giving their adventure a beating heart. As a first chapter of a sprawling fantasy, The Good Hawk is a vibrant yarn that promises further riveting adventures to come.
HO LIN (December 27, 2019)
An Ellie Stone Mystery
James W. Ziskin’s Turn to Stone pulls Ellie, an enterprising reporter, into a slow-burning search for the truth behind a professor’s reputation.
In 1963, Ellie is in Italy for a literature symposium. When the body of Professor Bondinelli, who organized the event, is found in the Arno River, his colleagues decide to continue on in his memory. At a weekend retreat, Ellie uncovers conflicting details about the professor, including that he wasn’t always a devout Christian; she tries to find out what really happened to him.
Steeped in erudite banter, the novel unfolds over several days, leaning on gastronomic pleasures and heated conversation. Bondinelli’s presence is felt through veiled hints at his wartime past, conveyed through retellings of the The Decameron. Painful histories and present-day revelations come home to roost in the prickly frisson between Ellie and Locanda, the retreat’s brooding host, who displays an ability to attract and repel others with aloof calm. Other noteworthy characters include Bernie, Ellie’s fellow American friend and wise foil, and Mariangela, Bondinelli’s orphaned daughter whom Ellie takes under her wing.
The sparse plot hinges on contrivances, including a quarantine that forces everyone to stay at the retreat; a photograph; and an off-stage investigation that yields little information beyond a confirmation that Bondinelli’s death was no accident. Ellie’s ability to link details is a nod to her persistence more than to any remarkable sleuthing.
Italy’s fascist period is presented in a multifaceted way that avoids assumptions about people’s motives. The energetic, contentious relationships among Bondinelli’s colleagues result in an academic edge, and Ellie’s particulars are well divulged against the book’s gorgeous, old-world backdrop. Turn to Stone is a thoughtful mystery that questions whether forgiveness is always possible.
KAREN RIGBY (December 27, 2019)
A Passover Tale with a Tail
As night falls, a boy and his family gather together for a traditional Passover Seder. With wide eyes and an infectious smile, the boy shares all of his favorite activities and stories, illustrated in warm, candlelit scenes. Meanwhile, outside in the shadowy moonlight, something lurks. The night is full of contrasts—dark and light, joy and sadness—that build until the boy reaches his most cherished ritual of all: opening the door for Elijah the Prophet.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (December 27, 2019)
The Japanese Secret to Lasting Change: Small Steps to Big Goals
If change is the primary law of the universe, why is it so difficult to make lasting changes to our own personal habits and routines? Why does our body/mind vigorously rebel when we set out to cut down on our sugar intake, commit to taking a jog before work in the morning, save an extra $25 a week, or some other modest goal? Is it because we’re creatures of habit, beholden to routine?
If so, is there a proven technique to help us modify our behavior and put us on the path to positive change?
In a word, kaizen—Japanese for small, incremental improvements—is an idea developed by the US government and introduced to Japan in the aftermath of WWII as a means to rebuild the country’s all but destroyed infrastructure and economy, with Toyota as the preeminent example. The Japanese soon came to realize the concept of kaizen is ideal for personal improvement, as well.
In Kaizen: The Japanese Secret to Lasting Change, Sarah Harvey applies the easy, achievable steps approach to making positive changes in one’s health, work, money, relationships, and modern life. Awareness, she stresses, is vital to recognizing the parts of your daily routine that hamper your progress. Once identified, these impediments can be dealt with calmly and methodically, using steps so small and doable as to be barely noticeable.
Harvey’s experience living in Japan greatly informs her writing. She is the ideal West-meets-East guide to kaizen’s profound benefits.
MATT SUTHERLAND (December 27, 2019)