Great Reads

Skyhorse, Brando. The Madonnas of Echo Park

Skyhorse’s affecting novel-in-stories offers unsentimental, clear-eyed tribute to the working class LA neighborhood of Echo Park and the Mexican Americans who live, work, and die there.  Lurking at the center of all of the stories is a tragedy…a young girl, shot and killed in a drive-by on the streets of Echo Park. Her death is the stone in the pond, and the stories presented here are the ripples.  Among those whose stories are presented are Aurora, a young woman who was also on the street corner that day; Aurora’s mother Felicia, a cleaning woman who becomes her employer’s only true friend; Felicia’s mother, a wealthy woman who gave Felicia away as a child and now can never get truly warm; Felicia’s ex-husband, who takes a construction job that turns out to be more than he bargained for; several gang members involved in one way or another with the shooting; a bus driver proud to have escaped a life in that same gang but who is nevertheless involved in a preventable tragedy of his own.  Haunting and vibrant, The Madonnas of Echo Park is recommended for fans of Sandra Cisneros, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Ana Castillo, but can be appreciated by anyone with a taste for thoughtful, character-driven stories.

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Warrington, Freda. Midsummer Night

Former Olympic-class runner Gillian Shaw, in the wake of a career-destroying injury, seeks solitude and solace and rents Robin Cottage on the grounds of Cairdonan, the isolated Scottish estate of eccentric artist Dame Juliana Flagg.  What peace she’s scraped together crumbled quickly when, on a tramp through the wooded grounds, Gillian unknowingly crosses a border between her reality and the realm of the fae folk.  Before she realizes it, Gillian is swept up in a series of events that have haunted Dame Juliana’s family since the end of World War I when Juliana’s uncle, then a young man, disappeared without a trace while he and his sisters were playing a prank on their own uncle—an eccentric who believed in faeries.  Is the disturbed and confused young man who followed Gillian back from the fae realm that long-lost uncle? Or is he someone nearer and dearer to Dame Juliana—her own adopted son, who also disappeared while still a toddler?

The second book in Warrington’s “Aetherial Tales” series, Midsummer Night can nevertheless be read as a stand-alone.  Realistically troubled characters, lush descriptions of the Scottish countryside, and a superbly told story balance the fantastic elements to firmly ground this modern-day fairy tale.

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Perrotta, Tom. The Leftovers.

Ever wonder what life would be like if The Rapture had actually taken place? In The Leftovers, the small town of Mapleton, along with the rest of the world, never have to imagine. On October 14, millions simply vanished, leaving behind family and friends to cope. One family that is not coping very well is that of Mapleton's mayor, Kevin Garvey. Although he did not lose anyone in his family to the rapture, he still finds his life falling apart; his wife has left him to join a cult, "The Guilty Remnant", his previously straight-A student daughter is hanging out with a gang of misfits, and his son has dropped out of college to follow a self-proclaimed prophet around the country. Still, even amongst his personal turmoil, Kevin finds himself drawn to another woman, Nora Durst, who lost her entire family on October 14, and is still struggling to accept her newly-single self. The novel follows Nora, Kevin, and the member's of his family as they attempt to "find themselves" after The Rapture in a world where many things don't make sense anymore.

Even though there is a sci-fi slant to this novel, it is still quintessentially Tom Perrotta. With his trademark style, he introduces us to a community of characters who are finding their own special ways to grieve, all the while infusing their stories with originality and humor.

Towles, Amor. Rules of Civility.

In Amor Towles debut novel, 1938 New York City comes alive and two friends, Eve and Katey, are in the middle of it all. When they meet a mysterious and wealthy young man, Tinker Grey, on New Year's Eve, their lives change in ways they would never have expected and suddenly the two women are catapulted into the social jungle of the elite upper-class. However, when a horrible car crash leaves Eve disabled and badly scarred, the previously lighthearted competition between Eve and Katey for Tinker's affections turns serious. Out of guilt, Tinker becomes Eve's caretaker, leaving Katey alone and fending for herself in her new and unfamiliar circle of ever growing acquaintances. While she casually climbs the New York social ladder, she becomes more and more ambitious and independent in other areas of her life, all the while unable to forget Tinker and Eve.

The book finds a good balance between action and introspection through Katey and readers will quickly be drawn into her bittersweet story. Towles is truly gifted in the way he is able to create an authentic feeling of the thirties through his vivid detail, slang and style. Rules of Civility is not just for historical fiction lovers. It is a smart novel with plenty of drama, sure to please anyone looking for a good read.

Walton, Jo. Tooth and Claw

A noble patriarch, on his deathbed, tells his parson son make certain the unmarried children he leaves behind receive their fair share of the inheritance.  The parson assures him it will be done.  But the greedy, arrogant husband of the eldest heir bullies his way to the fore and takes much more than his due.  Now the other heirs…two sons and two daughters…must find their own way in the world.  The unmarried son wants to sue for wrongful damages. The daughters agree, but are fearful of their position in the world. One daughter will be going to live with her elder sister and the bullying husband, after all.  The other daughter, who will be living with the parson son and his wife, wishes to pursue the lawsuit, but the parson and his wife  fear losing the protection of their patron due to scandal.  Both daughters wish to find good husbands, but their dowrys are not large and the honor of one daughter has been wrongfully impugned by an impertinent neighbor.

A novel of manners à la Austen or Trollope, a novel of political intrigue, a novel of the delicate savagery of uppercrust life,  a novel of custom and tradition…a novel of a sort with which we are all very familiar.  Or are we?  All of the characters in Jo Walton’s clever, original, and quite compelling “Tooth and Claw,” you see, are dragons.

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