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Books in Brief: My Lady Jane, Makoons by Louise Erdrich


My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows; HarperTeen, 512 pages($17.99) Ages 13 and up.


Three Young Adult authors teamed up to fix history “one sad story at a time,” and this hilarious, romantic fantasy about Lady Jane Grey rewrites history in a most entertaining way, involving a plot to poison Edward with his favorite blackberry dessert, the engagement of Lady Jane Grey to Gifford Dudley, who spends daylight hours as a horse, and political tension throughout England between the Edians, humans who transform into creatures (Henry VIII was a lion), and the 100 percent human “Verity” folk who wish to burn the Edians at the stake (the pro-burners include, of course, Bloody Mary). The novel gets campier as it proceeds but still entertains with its colorful characterizations, its suspenseful action-packed plot, its amusing riffs off actual events and the chemistry between book-loving, red-headed Jane and her would-be poet of a husband.

– Jean Westmoore


Makoons by Louise Erdrich; Scholastic Press, 342 pages ($17.99). Ages 8 to 14.


The sadness of what is to come for the Ojibwe clan we have come to love through Louise Erdrich’s marvelous “Birchbark House” series is ever-present for anyone reading this excellent new installment in the series, which finds Makoons (the Ojibwe word for little bear) and his twin Chickadee making a new home in the Great Plains of the Dakota Territory where they must learn to hunt buffalo. Erdrich’s gorgeous writing brings to life a whole portrait gallery of marvelous characters, the grouchy Yellow Kettle, wise great-grandmother Nokomis, self-important and vain Gichi Noodin. Erdrich beautifully tells the story from a child’s perspective; here Makoons and Chickadee adopt an orphaned buffalo calf, even as they know their very existence depends on slaughtering their pet’s relatives. The year is 1866; a scene where the boys witness a fearsome steamboat for the very first time foreshadows the threats to come for the buffalo and the Ojibwe and other native peoples who depend on them. The realistic descriptions of the hunt, the hard work of butchering and preserving the meat are almost cinematic in their wonderful detail. These books deserve to be classics, as the flip side of the story Laura Ingalls Wilder told of white settlers moving West. We eagerly await the next installment of the tale, even as we dread to find out what is to come.

– Jean Westmoore


Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty; Flatiron Books, 418 pages ($26.99)


Liane Moriarty usually packs her books with dishier secrets than those that give “Truly Madly Guilty” its title. And you need to get through endless hinting, foreshadowing, stalling and chapters that end with loud noises (“there was a piercing yell from upstairs”) even to find out what they are.

This Australian author’s winning formula always relies on such tactics. In her very popular “Big Little Lies,” she used them to good effect, even though the book revolved around a kindergarten.

“Big Little Lies” focused on a terrible night that Moriarty used as a tease, by endlessly dropping in glimpses of it and then cutting away. “Truly Madly Guilty” unfolds on a much smaller scale: It’s about the day of a terrible barbecue, and features only a small group of characters. They are well delineated and saddled with various pathologies.

The author gives each character enough baggage for a world tour, even though this is just an afternoon in a showy suburban backyard in Sydney. The event happens spontaneously when Vid, a rich electrician said to look like Tony Soprano, impetuously invites his dreary next-door neighbors, Erika and Oliver, over for the day. Vid is cagey enough to know that Erika has a much more attractive friend, a cellist named Clementine. And he suggests that Clementine and her husband, Sam, come, too.

None of the guests, who include Sam and Clementine’s two young daughters, know much about their grandiose host. But the men can’t keep their eyes off his wife, “the smoking-hot Tiffany,” who is treated by Vid as one of his prized possessions. Add Vid and Tiffany’s quiet, spooky daughter, Dakota; their yappy dog; and a cranky old man, Harry, who often comes by to complain about the noise, and you have almost the full cast. But since Erika and Clementine have known each other since childhood, they have irritating mothers lurking in the background, too.

Now what life-altering event(s) could emerge from a gathering like this? It’s worth plowing through the first half of the book just to find out.

As Moriarty peels her onion of a plot, we begin to see that Sam and Clementine’s suburban marriage, all but sexless, is on the rocks. And that when Erika and Oliver bring up the subject obliquely, pre-barbecue, they have lit the fuse to much more trouble than they can imagine. – Janet Maslin, New York Times

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