Pale Highway By Nicholas Conley
The panoramic view from the windows of the Bright New Day Nursing Center offers stupendous views of the restless, turbulent Atlantic Ocean — but none of the briny, ever-so-salty air that Gabriel Schist craves.
He can’t leave the facility. He has Alzheimer’s, and the world has become an endless series of prisons — his stark little room, the common area dotted with other hopeless patients, and, of course, his own body, which has, in the end, betrayed him and exiled him to this endless netherworld where he resides, neither living not dead.
Pale Highway is the poignant story of one man’s journey into that cold, lonely, ever-narrowing corridor called Alzheimer’s. His attendants patronize him, his roommate talks too loud, and his daughter dutifully visits — but not too often, because the place depresses her almost as much as it saddens him
Author Nicholas Conley has clearly been a caregiver at some point for someone with this debilitating condition. He writes eloquently of the emotions and daily indignities endured by patients around the world. This story puts a face on the disease, and forces the reader to climb inside the disoriented body of Nobel-winning resident and famed microbiologist Gabriel Schist — the man who cured AIDS in this fictional tale set in the near future.
The writing is painstakingly vivid, evoking unexpected emotions from the reader that cut like the point of a serrated blade:
“Somewhere in the distance, the Crooner’s never-ending singsong echoed through the halls. Looking to his side, Gabriel noticed that Edna Foster had rolled her wheelchair up next to him. Her sons were gone, too. Together, they were childless parents of parentless children.”
And, so go the days, one folding endlessly into another — until fellow resident John Morris contracts what is euphemistically being called the Black Virus. Gabriel is galvanized into action, trying to persuade the nursing home’s staff to let him crack the code that will provide a desperately needed cure.
But, once again, Schist’s body betrays him, and he finds himself battling his own mental shortcomings as he searches for the elusive microbiological solution. He begins talking to the ever-present slugs that infest the nursing home — and they talk back to him! Reluctantly, they even agree to help in his quest for the cure.
This brilliant sci-fi work is a tour-de-force of great writing and meticulous research, all wrapped into a scientific thriller that will have you hoping that Gabriel can solve the life-threatening dilemma before it’s too late — both for him, and for mankind.
Five stars-plus for Pale Highway. It is a striking example of what can be achieved when imaginative writers tackle socially significant themes. We’re all the beneficiaries.
Penny Dreadful By Cynthia Lee
Belle Fortune’s remarkable journey begins on the day she’s bundled off to the Glass Town Establishment for Girls. Belle is an imaginative young woman, and that’s the problem. This excellent and exceptionally well-written novel is the story of how Belle uses her imagination to transform her plain, ordinary life into one of untold possibilities.
Belle quickly learns that there are mysteries to be solved in the school and near Glass Town. Strange numbers scrawled on walls and dark hints of eerie goings-on at The House on the Island intrigue her and serve as welcome distractions from the dull work of learning to become a Well Brought Up Girl.
A grisly and disturbing play is performed at the palatial home of Horace Glass, the town magnate. He becomes irate and makes the mistake of slapping one of his daughters, who arranged for the theatrical production at the party. Will Reynolds, a footman and admirer of the daughter, Amity, lays him out, then must flee for his life.
Belle, who wrote the tale upon which the play was based, resolves to write more penny dreadful stories to delight her friends and the oppressed children who toil all day in Glass’ prisonlike factory. As a result, she is rounded up by Glass one day and banished to work in the factory herself.
From there, the narrative twists and winds, as Belle is rescued from the clutches of the oppressive overseer, Mr. Pinch, and Will is stricken with an insidious fever.
Can Belle liberate the poor children working like slaves at Glass’ onerous factory? Does Will finally recover and requite the desperate love of young Amity? And what other secrets will be uncovered in the course of this well-paced piece of fiction?
The book is filled with superb turns-of-phrase and lyrical passages that transport the reader into the pages. Early in the novel, the author describes the chilling, barren countryside:.
“The wind blew in a gust and the light flickered over something that moved there, a figure in the shape of a person with hair the color of old bones in moonlight, or a faded wedding gown.”
And later, describing Will’s fierce devotion to his friends and one true love:
“There had been anger in him, like a shiny black stone in his stomach, but also laughter that was a gaslight in his chest, and kindness that was a flashing silver streak running along his spine.”
Rich characterizations and superb story development make this nineteenth century-era novel resonate with hope, courage, and triumph. I give Penny Dreadful five unqualified stars, and recommend it to anyone who is looking for a rewarding read.
Generation Dementia By Michael Hartnett
Generation Dementia is at once a cautionary tale of our times and a hilarious, in-depth look at the current collection of kids who make up Generation Dementia.
The story starts innocently enough as we join high school senior Hash O’Connell on his rounds through his tiny village of Frick, rat-holing cast-off items of trash as he lurches along on the back of the town’s sole garbage truck.
Hash is good for a zinger-a-minute:
“The three times I spoke to him he called me Master Hash, which made me sound either like a rapper, or an expensive brand of canned meat.”
“To see the future, I clearly had to see past a forest of apes.”
And my favorite: “Artie’s mouth twisted north, like he’d caught me eating dog food.”
Don’t get me wrong. This is a serious work of fiction, mining the deep veins of rich characters and outre situations in the tradition of Michael Chabon and John Irving. But that doesn’t take anything away from its ability to endlessly entertain.
Hash is part of a sudden movement to introduce today’s youth to hard work by starting up a program to have them become trash collectors, rolling noisily through Frick’s suburbs early each morning, and attracting enough national attention to turn their endeavors into a prime-time reality show.
The long-buried diary of a Pulitzer Prize-winning local journalist turns up, and Hash relates portions of the 1960s meanderings in his own narrative, imparting off-handedly that he has to look up the actors John Wayne and Sidney Poitier in Wikipedia in order to understand a story an entry in the writer’s ancient accounts.
For such is the fate of Generation Dementia and every new generation in future years — to wonder amusedly at icons of their parents’ past while “sitting in a circle silently texting each other.”
Five-plus stars to Generation Dementia. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen writing this good.
Aerisia: Land Beyond the Sunset By Sarah Ashwood
Hannah is just a country girl at heart — but to the people of Aerisia, she’s the Artan, savior of their world. This excellent fantasy saga is the story of how Hannah — transported from Earth to the land of Aerisia by magic one afternoon — grows into one of the finest female heroines of her time.
The Moonkind and the good people of the city of Laytrii at first don’t know what to make of Hannah, standing before the Council in jeans, running shoes and a tee-shirt. Could this indeed be the One foretold to lead their people to victory against The Evil? Many have their doubts, including the dark-eyed, immortal men who will serve as her warriors in the coming fight.
They are the Simathe, and their leader, High Lord Ilgard, with his bronzed, muscular body and flowing black hair, is charged to protect her with his very soul.
This vow is soon put to the test as a pack of vicious drocnords burst from hiding in a field near the palace and threaten to kill Hannah. Ilgard, however, summons a troop of the Simathe and they beat back the creatures’ wild charge, allowing Hannah and her strong protector to escape to the city on the back of a racing stallion.
“We must now be Joined,” Ilgard announces firmly, but Hannah, fearing further separation from all the things she has known for all her young life up to this point, resists firmly. However, her resistance, as they say, is futile and she is carried off to the High Lord’s home city of Treygon, where she begins the long task of donning her destiny.
One vivid strength of the author is her ability to paint a compelling word portrait of the beautiful land of Aerisia, making the reader feel as though he or she is there:
“On the opposite side of the palace, more fields quickly gave way to scattered trees, which, in turn, yielded to a vast, dense forest. And encompassing the entire vista — city, palace, fields and beyond — stretching as high and far as the eye could see, were great mountains, shimmering a bluish-purple sheen.”
It is this very gift for description of Aerisia’s fantastic landscape, as well as its people — from well-bred Moonkind to the wonderful Fairies of the forest — that bring this tale to life. And the characters, including the impetuous Hannah and the mysterious High Lord Ilgard, who dominate this YA standout, add color and plenty of realism to a fantastic storyline.
I give Aerisia five stars and recommend it to anyone who loves tales of other worlds and lands beyond the sunset.
the Split: Part 1 By Noel Thomas Fiems
Aurik hears voices. They’re in his head all the time. It’s weird, but not as weird as when his father can hear his innermost thoughts. He’s got The Change — a worldwide condition of the young, brought on by a thoughtless scientific experiment years earlier.
This is the premise that drives the story of what happens when the earth is kicked back almost a century in technology, forced to live once again by the barter system and constantly on the lookout for the warning signs that signal the DNA resequencing unique to The Change.
Author Noel Thomas Fiems brings a complicated quantum theory backstory to life as we follow a driven, yet kindly, scientist father and his only surviving son, at work in the Adirondack Mountains repairing broken items for neighbors after The Split — the cataclysmic event that is bringing about The Change.
Nineteen-year-old Aurik heads out through the dense forest to The Island, where doctors and clinicians have gathered to perform operations on those who aren’t yet fully consumed by The Change. But will such an operation make Aurik’s voices go away?
While Aurik seeks a way through the mountains, federal forces are trying to collect him for “special” study. It seems his DNA results are worthy of much closer scrutiny, and they’ll do anything to capture him.
Meanwhile, Aurik picks up a couple of traveling companions on the trail, and they all go in search of a guide who can get them through a mysterious forest that stands between Aurik and his destination. Among other dangers, it harbors vicious packs of virulently mutated wolves.
The author turns a good phrase now and then amidst the adventure. He describes the uneasy yet peaceful quiet of the forest that lies ahead of them:
“The sun’s rays sliced through the tops of the trees in the back of the clearing, casting thousands of individual beams. Before hitting the forest floor, they reflected off floating pollen and dust; the air was on fire. The quiet reminded Aurik of the Notre Dame in Paris.”
Why are the wolves hunting Aurik? Their dark secret harbors fierce thoughts of revenge. “The beast landed on the ground quietly. The size of a steer, its tail flicked out behind it. . .”
And what of The Island? Will Aurik and his friends arrive safely? And what will they find there?
Five stars to this diligently-researched, well-written novel that will appeal to YA readers, post-apocalyptic fans, and science fiction aficionados as well.
Britain at War 1939 to 1945 By James Lingard
“Who cares about Poland? Where is it, anyway? What is to become of us?”
So exclaims author James Lingard’s mother at the beginning of the murderous world conflict that would ultimately claim millions of lives on both sides of the Atlantic — and indeed, from both allies and foes alike.
As a young boy in Britain during the critical war years of 1939 through 1945, Lingard and his mother and father endured many hardships and constantly lived in peril, as did all of the U.K.’s citizenry. This is his excellent story, well-researched for historical accuracy, but highly personalized to maintain the interest of even the most casual reader.
Recalling his first air raid, Lingard tells us the first words of an air raid warden, who had been looking for them while they huddled in a nearby wood — survivors of a picnic dangerously interrupted:
“I was about to say you should have been in your shelter. But the shelter received a direct hit. There’s no trace of it. Just a huge crater. You’d all have been blown to smithereens.”
It is war’s capriciousness in dealing out life and death that the author documents so eloquently in this book. Bombs fall in regular and terrifying numbers. The nation’s leaders come dangerously close to making disastrous decisions. And the stalwart British people do what they must to survive yet another day.
On a trip to the shore, Lingard waves happily to a low-flying airplane. Its German pilot waves back. And the small boy narrowly escapes arrest as a spy.
Lingard’s mother frequently listens to the wireless for war news, but is often more captivated by music such as “Run Rabbit Run,” played at a fast tempo to speed up production in the factories.
“We still had no effective answer to the German might. Hitler’s bombers continued to harass us, and he tried his utmost to starve us into submission. In the period May to December, 1940, the enemy sank 745 merchant vessels with a gross tonnage of over three million tons. On 17th to 19th October, German U-boats sank 33 ships, twenty of which were in one convoy . . .”
It is this very attention to detail — combined with the book’s inherent human interest — that elevates it above so many books about World War Two. For me personally, it put a very real face on a dark period in civilized history — a period which I, like so many others of my Baby Boomer generation, only experience through watching dry documentaries on The History Channel.
How refreshing, then, to have this warm and intimate look inside a great nation’s stalwart struggle against almost insurmountable odds — and to rejoice with the author at its ultimate survival.
Five stars to Britain at War, and a hearty recommendation to librarians everywhere to acquire a copy so future generations can become enlightened.