The Life of Louis XIV
France’s Louis XIV, known as “The Sun King,” has long been an enigma. On the one hand, he was visionary, practical, and probably the greatest patron of the arts the world has ever known. On the other, he was ruthless, vain, susceptible to flattery, and inclined to make devastating mistakes.
Philip Mansel’s King of the World chronicles Louis’s seventy-two-year reign, the longest of any monarch in history, revealing how the young boy once described as kind, modest, and intelligent grew into the tyrannical despot who, obsessed with his own glory, ravaged much of Europe, savagely persecuted his Huguenot subjects, and taxed France into misery, starvation, and revolt.
Comprehensive and eminently readable, the book is enlivened by surprising facts about Louis, including how his voracious appetite in infancy (he is reported to have thoroughly exhausted eight wet nurses) foreshadowed his cult of self-glorification. And it lays the cause of the French Revolution to his having left behind a faulty financial system that prioritized palace building and continual warfare over the needs of French citizens. Among his gravest errors, Louis’s 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had granted rights of worship to the Huguenots, caused severe social and economic consequences, as French Protestants fled massive killing and destruction to bring their skills and work ethic to neighboring countries.
Enhanced by lavish, full-color illustrations and meticulous notes and references regarding France’s turbulent history and the lifestyle of its royal court, Mansel’s book reveals both the glory and depravity of Louis XIV’s reign. Despite his lofty goals to expand the borders of France “from the Mississippi to the Mekong” and become the ruler of worldwide Christendom, it is now only his most opulent creation, the Palace of Versailles, that reflects the glory of the man who wanted to be “king of the world.”
KRISTINE MORRIS (February 27, 2020)
Self-identity, status, and gender are at the core of Girls Lost, Jessica Schiefauer’s bold and compelling story in which three teenage girls who are social outcasts transcend boundaries by temporarily transforming into boys.
Kim, the inquisitive narrator, is lanky and afflicted with eczema; Momo, a clever artist, is spurned as a bohemian outsider; and Bella, a botanist who nurtures exotic plants in her greenhouse, is overweight and shy. At school, the girls are harassed and even violated; as friends, they create a private world that is inventive and playful.
Their transformation comes from a mysterious flower in Bella’s greenhouse. Sipping its nectar, the girls become boys until the next morning. They move through the nighttime world with newfound ease. But this freedom has a dark side, too, and the girls face a sinister domain of gangs and aggression.
Momo and Bella shed their male identities like discarded costumes. Kim, however, is intoxicated by the power of her male form and is infatuated with Tony, a gang leader. Kim drinks the nectar night after night, distancing her girlfriends, as Tony draws her deeper into a world of crime and danger.
The story’s tension is palpable, even as its magical realism and lyrical prose conjure a timeless, fairy-tale quality: the enchanting flower “rose like a queen under the glass roof” and her head “was sturdy and held high and seemed to be looking up at the night sky.”
Girls Lost is captivating as its three leads explore the universal challenges of teenage angst, conflicts between perception and reality, and the power of another’s gaze to free or entrap you.
KRISTEN RABE (February 27, 2020)
Grab some safety goggles and put on your thinking caps along with Izzy as she does her best to wow the judges at the invention convention. Izzy is a high-energy innovator with a bold fashion sense, wild hair, and big red glasses who is determined to succeed despite interfering rivals. Lively rhymes and colorful contraptions, doohickeys, and “thingummyjigs” will inspire tinkerers everywhere as they cheer Izzy on in a race to create a meaningful gizmo.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (February 27, 2020)
Stuff That Happens After the World Blows Up
In Kyle Smeallie’s Softies, a young girl survives the explosion of Earth and explores the galaxy via spaceship.
In the aftermath of Earth’s destruction, Kay is rescued from space by Arizona, an alien waste collector, and Euclid, his part-cyborg pet. With nowhere else to go, Kay hitches a ride, making stops at planets and meeting a wide variety of alien creatures. Wacky adventures ensue along the way, featuring—among other things—a space library full of inaccurate information, an unfunny stand-up comic, and crop circles.
The book is arranged as a continuing series of individual, chapter-length short stories; most pages end with a joke, some of which are surprising because of their unusual vocabularies—an egg joke plays on the word “albumen”—and high references, as to the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks.
Softies has its idiosyncrasies. Kay’s sentences often end without periods, exclamation points, or question marks; overlapping word balloons indicate a person being talked over, which gives lines the sense of real conversations and results in some humor.
Smeallie’s art is bright, colorful, and fun; it delivers laugh out loud moments, as when a Picasso-esque bird with both eyes on one side of her head slams her skull to the ground in an effort to free some food that’s stuck to her beak.
The book invests in the characters’ futures when, in its final section, Kay deals with the loss of Earth on an emotional level previously unseen. With laughs aplenty and a universe full of crazy situations, Softies is breezy, satisfying science fiction.
PETER DABBENE (February 27, 2020)
Fantasy is an outlet for grief, fear, and transformation in the pop culture-inflected novel Evie of the Deepthorn from André Babyn. A single story becomes the emotional outlet for three very different people who are drawn together in Durham, a small town outside of Toronto.
Kent, Sarah, and Reza are bound by a single story: Evie of the Deepthorn, which is a poem, a fantasy novel, and a cult classic film. Kent struggles with his brother’s death; Sarah copes with the ways that her dysfunctional childhood impacts her as an adult; and Reza embarks on a harrowing pilgrimage. Symbols and characters from the Evie mythology manifest for Kent, Sarah, and Reza in different ways, offering courage and insight and binding the three together.
At a higher level, the novel explores how stories enable survival. The book’s essential plot lines are realistic, but the shared, prevalent themes from Evie, and the deeper longing that each person feels to be seen and known, elevate the characters’ day-to-day struggles, making them seem heroic. The book’s villain is not a person, but Durham itself, a backwater where dreams go to die, which a character describes as “functionally as small as the coffee cups we drank out of.”
The text focuses on moments and scenes that are life-sized in contrast to the fantasy of Evie of the Deepthorn. The text builds in a slow but steady way, layering backstories with detailed descriptions of homes, objects, landscapes, and people. The final act is the book’s most incisive, bringing Kent, Sarah, and Reza together with finesse.
Evie of the Deepthorn finds magic in the details of everyday life and creates meaningful connections that vanish as fast as they are drawn.
CLAIRE FOSTER (February 27, 2020)