Lightless by C.A. Higgins (Del Rey, 2015)
I haven’t figured out the reason for the title yet, but it probably has something to with physics. The author has a bachelor’s degree in physics and her main character is a woman engineer; each of the three main sections of the book is prefaced by one of the laws of thermodynamics. Whatever the title might mean, this is an excellent work of science fiction, with lots of suspense and a minimum of dry facts. It takes place at some point in the future when the solar system has been colonized. There is a strong solar system-wide government which offers the security of constant video surveillance of its citizens. The three officers on the top-secret military spaceship on which the story takes place seem to have accepted it, at least. Then a couple of anti-government terrorists invade the ship and mess with the ship’s computer. In the course of trying to fix the computer (which is in fact prone to turn the lights off randomly), the engineer makes some far-reaching discoveries, and the terrorists eventually pull victory from the jaws of defeat. I predict that first-time author C.A. Higgins will have a successful career as a sci-fi writer.
The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson (HarperCollins, 2016)
For a novel I picked up randomly off the new books shelf at the library this was surprisingly good. The characters feel very real, events keep the reader guessing, and the ending is a surprise. The main character is a female lawyer in her thirties who had a very tough childhood, wandering the American South with a mother who was in and out of jail. The author’s descriptions of life in foster homes and group care are sometimes hard to read, but very important to the plot. The protagonist’s private eye boyfriend is also still working to overcome some serious problems. In some ways this is a mystery novel, the kind where the characters play detective and eventually solve the mystery, but the event they are researching is not a murder. On the cover Sara Gruen is quoted saying “I loved this book and you will also” and she was right.
The Thomas the Tank Engine Man: The Life of Reverend W. Awdry by Brian Sibley (Lion Books, 2015)
This is the 20th anniversary edition of the biography of Rev. Awdry originally published in 1995, coincidentally the year I remember as the peak of Thomas mania in my household. The 1990’s were a period of resurgence of interest in the Railway Series for young children because that is when the books came to American television. As I learned from this fascinating book, the books I read to my three year old daughter were originally published in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, the Rev. Wilbert Awdry’s son Christopher took over the series in the 1980s; Rev. Awdry died in 1997. The book is full of details about Wilbert Awdry’s life as a Church of England clergyman, father of three children, and writer of the series of children’s books about anthropomorphic steam engines that continues to be popular today. At the Philadelphia Flower Show yesterday there was a track layout with Thomas, Henry, James, Gordon and Percy that had toddlers very excited. Rev. Awdry, not surprisingly a lifelong model railroad enthusiast, would have been pleased. Sibley’s biography, with chapter headings in keeping with the railway theme and dozens of photographs, provided much insight into the book production process and in particular the succession of illustrators responsible for the iconic colorful engines that became my daughter’s favorite toys.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell (Riverhead Books, 2015)
Fans of Sarah Vowell’s work have been waiting for this book, and it doesn’t disappoint. If you knew that there’s currently a Broadway show about Alexander Hamilton, you’re probably the sort of history geek who will enjoy this book. This biography of the Marquis de Lafayette definitely has to be the funniest biography of him out there. I was interested to learn that Lafayette was only 19 when he came to America – and that he left his young wife and children behind in France. Vowell’s casual style combines real historical research (using primary sources) with in-person visits to all the relevant parks and battlefields, providing great travel reviews for those of us who like to listen to visit historical sites. Vowell visited Valley Forge, Brandywine, Monmouth, and Yorktown and recounts the highlights of those battles from the modern perspective (with special attention to Lafayette’s role of course). I recently visited Valley Forge park, so this was a genuine help to me as well as an entertaining read.