Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings: Perhaps the first thing you might do after picking up Kathleen Jennings’ fantasy novella is pull out the map and look for Inglewell somewhere between the Coral Sea and the Indian Ocean. Does it exist? Is it real? In this former mining town, full of withering things, there is a house with the prettiest front garden on Upper Spicer Street. There, 19-year-old Bettina Scott lives with her sickly mother, Nerida, who over the years has quieted Bettina’s curiosities about the mysterious disappearance of her father and her two older brothers. But when an unexpected note makes an appearance in the mailbox, Bettina finds it hard to resist the urge to seek the truth about her family. She reluctantly turns to Gary Damson and Trish Aberdeen, two formerly inseparable best friends who’ve had a bad falling out. But much like everything else in this old town, they, too, are strangely connected to the riddle Bettina is trying to solve. Together, they embark in Gary’s old beaten truck to chase tales of cursed creatures, bewitched vines and desert monsters, all of which seem as much part of their past as Inglewell’s. Jennings grew up on fairy tales on a cattle station in Western Queensland, Australia, and worked as a translator and lawyer before completing a master of philosophy in creative writing. Jennings is also an illustrator, and the cover design and chapter illustrations are her own. Part ghost story, part murder mystery and part fairy tale, Flyaway feels like a perfect combination of all Jennings’ experiences and imagination.
A Royal Affair by Allison Montclair: Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge would like nothing more than to get back to running their business, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau, and perhaps to relocate it to a larger office in their building whose desk has all four legs under it. But their reputation as crime fighters precedes them now, so in addition to pairing off various lonely hearts, they’re working for Lady Matheson, who herself works for the queen, in A Royal Affair, Allison Montclair’s second mystery starring the duo. Discretion is required as Gwen and Iris search for a cache of letters that could derail Princess Elizabeth’s engagement; the loose lips that sank ships during the war can still threaten royalty with scandal. Gwen and Iris follow the trail and quickly realize nothing is as simple as it appears, and that this is information people will kill for. The balance Montclair strikes between humor and hard truths is arresting. Postwar England has its raucous parties and a lot of can-do spirit, but the entire nation is still reeling—and rationing for that matter. (Can a birthday party be any fun if the cake has “tooth powder frosting”?) Gwen and Iris sling banter that makes them sound like the war-hardened women they are, but a scene in a therapist’s office makes the depth of their separate sorrows, and their care for one another, abundantly clear. Descriptions of neighborhoods where one building stands next to bombed-out rubble are unnerving and add to the sense of danger. Have faith, though: There’s not much that can stop this pair, who have friends in high and low places and a delightfully complementary set of skills. The climactic scene laying out the whodunit (and why) is like a maraschino cherry in a complex cocktail. Here’s to the return of these formidable women, and to many more chances to enjoy their company.
To Start a War by Robert Draper: The mistakes in judgment that led to the United States invasion of Iraq have frequently been described as a failure of the imagination. However, as Robert Draper demonstrates in his compelling and richly documented To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq, in reality, imagination drove the policy. Saddam Hussein denied having weapons of mass destruction, but he had used them in the past, and his government had repeatedly lied about them, so his past behavior did raise some questions. Even so, the case for Hussein possessing more of these weapons was based on badly outdated information, almost all circumstantial and often fabricated. President George W. Bush and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz wanted, for their own reasons, to believe the weapons were there and that the U.S. should use that “fact” to oust Hussein. CIA analysts tried to give the president what he wanted. Eventually, the president needed to know if what the CIA had was sufficient to persuade the public that the “Iraqi threat” justified war. Although Secretary of State Colin Powell thought invading Iraq was a foolish idea, when the president asked him to make the case before the United Nations, he went along. Draper’s exhaustive research includes interviews with key figures such as Powell, Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice, as well as dozens of others from the CIA and the State and Defense Departments. He also makes extensive use of recently released documents to give a vivid picture of how events unfolded. There really was not a process, Draper reveals. For example, there was no plan for what to do following a military victory. Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seemed to give more importance to finding fault with other government agencies and micromanaging his department than to urgent follow-through. Vice President Dick Cheney was allowed to make misleading or false public statements without correction. As we continue to live through the ripple effects of this momentous decision in American foreign policy, Draper’s revelatory account deserves a wide readership.
Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline (available as an e-book on the Libby app): Canadian writer Cherie Dimaline blends fantasy, monsters and contemporary First Nation struggles in a powerful and inventive novel. Dimaline drew inspiration from stories of the rougarou—a werewolf-like creature that is always on the lookout for misbehaving boys and girls—that she heard about as a child in the Métis community near Canada’s Georgian Bay in Anishinaabe territory. Set in a small community in rural Ontario, Empire of Wild opens a year after Victor Beausoleil walked out in the middle of a heated argument about land rights with his wife, Joan. Nobody has seen him since, and though Joan’s close-knit family assumes Victor has left the marriage, she is convinced that something is preventing his return. His absence is getting to her when, one hungover morning, she stumbles into a tent revival service set up in a Walmart parking lot and believes she sees Victor there, dressed in a suit and leading the congregation in prayer. The minister, who introduces himself as Eugene Wolff, assures Joan that he is not her husband. But something about the situation doesn’t seem right, especially after Joan encounters the church’s financial backer, the creepy Thomas Heiser. With her 12-year-old nephew riding shotgun and armed with Native medicine and advice from community elders, Joan goes in search of the truth. The quest will take her deep into indigenous traditions and present-day struggles over property and ownership. Like Dimaline’s award-winning Marrow Thieves, a chilling YA novel that takes place in a dystopian future of ecological devastation and gruesome colonization, Empire of Wild seamlessly mixes realistic characters with the spiritual and supernatural. As much a literary thriller as a testament to Indigenous female empowerment and strength, Empire of Wild will excite readers with its rapid plot and move them with its dedication to the truths of the Métis community.