Memento Mori by Muriel Spark. What a peculiar book. I mean that in the best way. Maud Newton’s enthusiasm for this novel spurred me to read it. An assortment of elderly folks are being disturbed by anonymous phone calls—the caller’s voice varies—addressing them by name and saying “Remember you must die.” The narrative has a kind of deceptively Agatha Christie flavor, but it’s quite rich literary fiction, not pulp; and you’re never quite sure if you’re reading a mystery or a meditation. I loved that about it. The characters are so finely drawn I felt as if they were people I knew, which sounds like a book-review cliche but it’s one of those observations that is widely used because it matters, and when an author manages this feat, it’s an accomplishment worth noting. But really the only thing familiar about these people is that they’re so specific and unpigeonholeable. Real people never do fit perfectly into literary archetypes; we’re too inconsistent and layered. Spark’s characters are like that.
Shark vs. Train by Chris Barton, illustrated by the great Tom Lichtenheld. There’s a genre jump for you! This is a picture book—a perfect picture book, I tweeted the day I read it. “A perfect marriage of art and text” is another reviewer’s cliche but by golly it’s no overstatement in this case. Two little boys run for a toybox and brandish their selections in triumph and challenge. Shark vs. train—who wins? It depends…what’s the competition? Pie-eating? Diving? Marshmallow roasting? The stakes keep escalating, to hilarious effect. Rilla and Wonderboy sit and pore over the art, which is sharp and comic and enchanting. I find myself wishing my nephews and nieces hadn’t all grown up so much: this would be my birthday book of choice this year.
A Long Walk to Water by Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park. I received an advance review copy of this middle-grade novel—a digital galley, actually, the first review copy I’ve read on my Kindle. It’s a book I’ll be passing on to my 9-and-up kids. The narrative weaves back and forth between the tragic (and true) struggles of a Sudanese boy, Salva, separated from his family in 1985 and, like so many of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” cast into a dangerous landscape in search of asylum, and a contemporary (2008) Sudanese girl, Nya, who spends her entire day making a long trek to a muddy, bacteria-ridden pond to fetch water for her family. I won’t give away how the two narratives intersect. It’s a true story, deftly told, and it’s a story—a real and present hardship—I want my children to know about.
Similarly, Mitali Perkins’s new novel, Bamboo People, both moved and edified me, and I handed it to Jane the moment I finished. Before this book, I had only the haziest understanding of what’s going on in Burma: teenage boys being conscripted into military service, forced into the jungle to hunt down ethnic minorities they are taught to hate and fear. This novel, too, is told by two voices: there is studious 15-year-old Chiko, horrified to find himself torn away from his home and thrust into a military training camp, and young Tu Reh, a Karenni boy whose village has been destroyed by the Burmese government and who longs to join his father in the fight for freedom and revenge. When their paths intersect, the tension ratchets higher. What I love about Mitali Perkins’s writing is that she draws her characters with such tenderness and blunt honesty. These boys are in an ugly situation and both fervently want to do the right thing, but in these horrific circumstances the “right thing” isn’t always easy to define.