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May 5, 2011 Edition

Minding Ben, by Victoria Brown

When 16-year old Grace arrives in Brooklyn from her home in Trinidad, she finds that her promised job, home, and schooling have evaporated. In order to survive, she takes a job as a nanny with the Bruckners and falls in love with their 4-year old son, Ben. But there are things about the job that she doesn’t love: documenting her boss Miriam’s pregnancy with photographs every evening and dressing up in a maid’s outfit to serve Seder, and trying to figure out what the other nannies’ agendas are when she meets them in the park. In the end, though, Grace finds her new life is as full of opportunities as disappointments.

Pym, by Mat Johnson

Taking Edgar Allan Poe’s only full-length novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket as its inspiration, this parody of an already absurd adventure features a black American Literature professor who has been fired from his post for refusing to play his role as the only bit of diversity at his otherwise all-white university. Having become convinced that Poe’s book was not a work of pure fiction, Jaynes uses his settlement money from the university to finance an all-black expedition to Antarctica with a distant cousin who owns a ship, in search of the island of pure blackness that Poe described with such horror. Jaynes imagines it to be the last holdout of the African Diaspora and his own personal salvation, but of course, that isn’t quite true, either. Full of twists and turns, witty and literary, this is a humorous and yet striking commentary on the state of race relations.

Cleaning Nabokov’s House, by Leslie Daniels

Loading a dishwasher seems such a small thing to precipitate the downfall of a marriage. After her husband stands by to direct the proceedings one time too many (without handling so much as his own coffee mug), Barb Barrett walks out of her marriage with sleeping bags, tent, and the kids in tow. This turns out to be a big mistake, since within the week she is arrested for kidnapping and the kids are returned to their father, beginning a bitter custody battle. When the dust settles, she buys a house once owned by Vladimir Nabokov and finds what might be a lost manuscript. Barb’s quest to authenticate the nearly-complete book helps brings her out of her self-imposed isolation, but it’s only slowly that her life improves.

Butterfly’s Child, by Angela Davis-Gardner

What happened to the son of Madame Butterfly and her American lover, Benjamin Pinkerton? Davis-Gardner imagines that three-year old Benji has been plucked from Japan after his mother’s suicide and brought to live with his father’s family on a farm in Illinois. She writes about a lonely boy with blonde hair and startlingly dark Japanese eyes who is an anomaly and a focus for discrimination in both his birth country and in his new home. His father, who cares for him deeply, is stretched between his wife and his mother and strained by the rebuilding of a derelict farm. His stepmother is frustrated by her inability to conceive a child of her own and by Benji’s slow adjustment to their family, and oppressed by her mother-in-law’s constant presence. And his grandmother knows who he is, but will not acknowledge him as anyone other than a poor orphan, charitably taken in. A beautifully-written meditation on character and destiny.

The Rise of the Iron Moon, by Stephen Hunt

Garnering comparisons to Philip Pullman, Tolkien, and Frank Herbert, this third in a series is part steam-punk, part fantasy, and part adventure. Purity Drake is the last of her line left after the Invasion, living in the Royal Breeding House where someday she’ll help keep inbreeding at bay in the royal family. Suddenly, “someday” is here and she makes a break for it, only to find herself in the midst of an invasion more puzzling and more deadly than the previous one. The previously unknown Army of Shadows is on the march, destroying all before it and forcing two enemy countries to find a way to work together. In the struggle, Purity finds a use for the mad fits that have brought her so much trouble in her life. This works as a standalone, but you’ll find yourself wanting to go back to read the others, too.

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