Foreword Reviews

Book of the Day Roundup: September 26-30, 2022

In the Neighborhood

Book Cover
Rocio Bonilla
Charlesbridge
Hardcover $17.99 (32pp)
978-1-62354-360-0
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

A neighborhood full of anthropomorphized animals (and one ogre) lives in a tenuous sort of harmony: they all mutually ignore one another. But when Mrs. Paquita, a literal night owl, loses her internet connection, her neighbor, a tech-savvy pig, comes to her aid. Their interaction initiates a cascade that transforms the neighborhood into a community. Muted watercolor illustrations lend their brush to this story about the friends we can find if we let go of assumptions and reach out to others.

DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (August 27, 2022)

The Opera Sisters

Book Cover
Marianne Monson
Shadow Mountain Publishing
Hardcover $26.99 (352pp)
978-1-63993-046-3
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Driven by their convictions and their passion for music, two English sisters provide aid to German Jewish families in Marianne Monson’s kaleidoscopic historical novel The Opera Sisters.

In the 1930s, Ida and Louise are typists in London. They buy gramophone records, scrimp for opera tickets, meet fellow opera fans, and befriend opera stars. While traveling, they meet Mitia, a German woman who shares her ominous concerns about Adolf Hitler with them. They decide to smuggle jewels to Mitia to help keep her family safe. This decision leads the sisters to help others, too. They hasten their way through paperwork, working to find charitable guarantors and to purchase a flat in which they can house refugees. They are wide-eyed, sincere, and bolstered by their belief in musical artistry.

As Europe’s situation worsens, a sympathetic opera house director gives the Cook sisters a cover story so that they can visit Germany. There, they enter into luxurious spaces, hearing stories that cause them grief; they work to keep their intentions secret. They leverage their unassuming appearances at military check points, and they are bold and evasive when they are questioned.

This story about moral courage in the face of risk stays warm and light. Ida moonlights as a serial romance writer and novelist, and her repartee with Louise is loving. In scenes together, they are delightful, and their impact on others is clear. Elsewhere, though, there are instances of violence and uncertainty as the world moves toward war. Fears grow in Jewish communities, complemented by distant sketches of historical figures, including Neville Chamberlain. Beyond the sisters, many other individuals are only covered in glimpses, though Ida and Louise are haunted by those whom they are unable to help.

In the historical novel The Opera Sisters, ordinary women find their inner strengths, engaging in determined, clandestine actions to give others hope.

KAREN RIGBY (August 27, 2022)

Must Read Well

Book Cover
Ellen Pall
Bancroft Press
Hardcover $27.95 (284pp)
978-1-61088-542-3
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

In Ellen Pall’s absorbing novel Must Read Well, a trip down memory lane proves to be both emotional and treacherous.

At Columbia, Elizabeth struggles to write her dissertation on famous feminist writers. She’s coming up short on information about landmark novelist Anne Weil, who now lives in seclusion in Greenwich Village and refuses to answer her inquiries. When Anne places an ad for a cheap live-in tenant who will also read to her, Elizabeth jumps at the opportunity. She poses as an innocent renter, plotting to gain access to Anne’s private journals and complete her research. But as Elizabeth reads the journals to Anne at her request, a buried tragedy comes to light, and an unusual bond forms between the two women.

Elizabeth narrates, and there are subtle, effective shifts in her tone as her original plan gives way to doubts, sympathy, and plain curiosity. Much of the book is also devoted to Anne’s recollections of the 1960s, especially an illicit affair that’s described in terms of frank sexuality and emotional tumult. In the process, parallels are drawn between Elizabeth and Anne: both are betrayers and betrayed, and they are similar in their intelligence and their passion for their work. If they have any hope of redemption, both must accept a measure of responsibility for their actions. They are flawed, but their humanity is centered.

Though the novel revolves on obsession, it also includes dark humor via Anne’s sardonic personality and Elizabeth’s mounting desperation. It builds toward a late twist and a resonant conclusion that indicates that people are more than the sum of their experiences. Must Read Well is an incisive novel about reckoning with the past.

HO LIN (August 27, 2022)

News of the Air

Book Cover
Jill Stukenberg
Black Lawrence Press
Softcover $22.95 (320pp)
978-1-62557-040-6
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Jill Stukenberg’s gripping, atmospheric novel captures the restless moodiness of a family living in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

In a near future that’s threatened by ecological collapse, Allie and Bud flee the sirens and checkpoints of Chicago to buy a resort in Wisconsin—“eleven ramshackle structures perched along the north rim of a small lake.” Eighteen years later, their tranquil setting can’t conceal the tensions seething under their fraying lives.

Allie is distracted by perpetual remodeling projects in the cabins, “debris like a glacial sheaf ready to slide.” Bud, feeling their “property like a weight,” is conflicted over his recent affair with a local bartender. And the couple’s fearless, reckless daughter, Cassie, harbors secrets about her plans—and about the recent death of her friend. The mysterious arrival of two children in a canoe prompts events that further fragment and unsettle the family.

Via sharp details, the novel depicts a dingy, dying town wherein summer tourism is fleeting, “grown adults greet … the morning with the crack of a beer,” and winter brings a “long white shock and breathlessness.” It also describes, with quirky humor, the strangeness of visitors seeking a quaint retreat—including a “truly rich” woman who complains of cilantro allergies; the affluent kayakers and venture capitalists with fancy watches; and an executive’s three-story cabin, where guests “ascend or descend [the stairway] in their pajamas in search of bagels and herbed cream cheeses like royalty.” An impending environmental catastrophe simmers underneath it all, reflected in the odd booms and flashes of heat lightning in September, and the Lake Michigan beach that has become a “muddy black expanse contoured by the debris of a changing tide.”

News of the Air is a poignant, captivating, and troubling novel about people searching for connection in a rustic, bucolic setting that is far from utopian.

KRISTEN RABE (August 27, 2022)

Hidden on the High Wire

A Holocaust Remembrance Book for Young Readers

Book Cover
Kathy Kacer
Second Story Press
Softcover $13.95 (264pp)
978-1-77260-251-7
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

A Jewish circus artist’s daring spirit sees her through World War II in Kathy Kacer’s latest Holocaust Remembrance novel, Hidden on the High Wire.

Irene is a fifth-generation performer with her family’s Lorch Circus. She thrills in performing tricks far above the ground, without the comfort of a safety net. But Irene’s nascent career is threatened when the Nazis begin imposing rules against Jewish-owned businesses and Jewish employment, putting the entire circus at risk.

When Irene’s father is sent to fight at the front, she, her grandmother, and her mother relocate to a city apartment, where they are at constant risk of discovery. Irene can pass as a gentile; her grandmother cannot. A terrible day at the market leads to another family separation—and to Irene making a bold request of Adolf Althoff, another circus owner: that he hide her and her mother in plain sight.

Buzzing with tensions both pronounced and implied, this true tale highlights defiant circus settings and the leaders who worked to keep their spaces fair. Althoff, one of the Righteous Among the Nations, is welcoming when Irene approaches him, determining that there’s no right choice but to help her: to allow her to fall into Nazi hands, he says, would make him “a murderer as well.”

Kacer is cognizant of her audience as she narrates horrifying historical events: realities such as transport trains and concentration camps are named, and their purposes are alluded to, but the book avoids cataloging the nightmarish details in full. Still, Irene’s is a sobering story, and young readers will benefit from the truths that it reveals—including about the bravery that’s required to do what’s right. Hidden in the High Wire is a fast, conscientious Holocaust story that centers survivors and their benefactors alike.

MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (August 27, 2022)

Barbara Hodge

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