The ACB with Honora Lee; by Kate De Goldi; drawings by Gregory O’Brien; Tundra Books, 128 pages ($17.99) Ages 10 and up.
This marvelous, whimsical tale from an acclaimed New Zealand author, surprisingly, takes place mostly in a nursing home. Perry is the daughter of extremely busy people who believe she too should be extremely busy with self-improvement activities – piano lessons, clarinet lessons, after-school tutoring, music and movement classes, whether she likes it or not (and she mostly doesn’t). But her favorite activity is Thursday afternoon visits with her grandmother, Honora Lee, who has dementia and never remembers her name. Perry decides to capitalize on her forgetful grandmother’s fascination with the alphabet by writing and illustrating a special alphabet book with the help of her grandmother and the other nursing home residents. De Goldi unfolds her original story in a charming, unhurried way, weaving together laugh-out loud and poignant moments, as she explores deep subjects of life, death, love, kindness and appreciating small things, from the perspective of a child. Not a word is wasted in her straightforward, delicious prose. Perry, impatiently watching her mother embroidering a cushion cover, observes “she had been doing it for almost a hundred years” and “embroidery certainly wasn’t much of a spectator sport.”
– Jean Westmoore
California by Edan Lepucki; Little, Brown (393 pages. $26)
The dystopian future envisioned so darkly in Edan Lepucki’s chilling first novel doesn’t involve nuclear Armageddon or zombies. The world hasn’t ended in fire or ice . Disintegration of society has been slow, steady, irrevocable. Money, gas and oil are in short supply. Goods are limited, stores ransacked. Crime is rampant. The government has crumbled, and cities have become lawless centers of poverty and disorder. The wealthy enclose themselves in protected communities. Everybody else hunkers down and hopes – or flees.
Frida and Cal, Lepucki’s young married protagonists, choose to flee, escaping the wreckage of Los Angeles – shuttered stores and restaurants, overgrown parks, people starving on the streets – for the wilderness beyond. They find a shed for shelter. They plant a garden. Cal tries his hand at building snares. Every few months a man in a cart shows up to barter goods, their lone connection to the outside world. They even meet a small family with children, the Millers, who live a few miles away.
After two years, Cal has grown to appreciate some parts of their lonely, primitive life. On the other hand, Frida remains restless. As the novel opens, she has discovered something momentous, something sure to change the status quo: She’s pregnant. And suddenly, the dangers of looking for other survivors in the neighborhood are outweighed by her desire to connect.
Lepucki, a staff writer for the online magazine The Millions and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Program, has written a swiftly paced, nerve-racking novel, one of those books that produces simultaneous desires: You want to keep plowing through it but dread what surprises she is going to spring. And you should. By keeping the fearful scenarios firmly rooted in reality, she makes “California” all the more unsettling. You don’t need zombies when you can so effectively remind us how hard we lean on the social order for peace of mind.
But Lepucki isn’t just singing the “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” blues. She uses this disturbing framework of a society without a safety net to examine our need for community and how we find solace in the presence of other people – even if their best interests are not ours.
Frida and Cal stumble into a forbidding settlement a few days’ journey from their home, where they make a startling discovery.
Initially, Frida is thrilled, and even wary Cal finds himself blossoming as he is drawn into the community’s inner circle. But troubling revelations pile up. California is also a shrewd exploration of a marriage; Lepucki astutely charts the ebb and flow of Frida and Cal’s relationship.
– Connie Ogle, Miami Herald