The Dark Days Club by Allison Goodman; Viking, 496 pages ($18.99) Ages 14 and up. Publication date Jan. 26.
The Australian author of “Eon” and “Eona” plunges the reader into the world of Regency London in this thrilling but dark adventure, the first of a series. Eighteen-year-old Lady Helen Wrexhall is about to be presented at the royal court of George III in 1812, despite the disgraceful circumstances surrounding her mother’s death, when she finds herself drawn into investigating the disappearance of a housemaid from her uncle’s household and the horrifying disgrace experienced by an old friend during an elopement. The disreputable Lord Carlston seems to have some connection to both, and Lady Helen finds herself forced to lead a double life, alienating her guardian in the process, as she is drawn into the secret mission of the Dark Days Club. Goodman offers a memorable portrait gallery of characters, a vivid depiction of life amid the wealthy and on the mean streets of London, along with thrilling suspense involving a demonic conspiracy threatening all humankind. Goodman, whose exhaustive research into Imperial China made such a marvelous backdrop for “Eon,” distinguishes herself here with similar pains to re-create Regency London, research she describes in amusing detail in an author’s note. Among the historical events included in her book are the assassination of the Prime Minister and the hanging of his assassin, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders and the opening of Vauxhall Gardens (although she took liberties with the opening date).
– Jean Westmoore
How Machines Work: Zoo Break by David Macaulay (DK, 32 pages, $19.99, ages 7 to 10)
The author of “The Way Things Work” and “Castle,” uses an amusing story of zoo animals Sloth and Sengi plotting their escape for a fascinating lesson about six simple machines: the wedge, wheel and axle, lever, inclined plane, screw and pulley. Popup models and interactive features add to the fun, including a page where a child can build a lever-based seesaw to try to propel the two friends over the zoo fence.
– Jean Westmoore
A Sky the Color of Chaos by M. J. Fievre; Beating Windward, 170 pages ($17.95)
The sense of menace that hovers over M.J. Fievre’s childhood in Haiti, which she documents in her harrowing memoir, “A Sky the Color of Chaos,” is as inescapable as the heat in Port au Prince. It follows her through the streets, lurks in her family’s apartment on Christ-Roi Street and later in their house in Thomassin, a neighborhood southeast of Port au Prince, even within the walls of her Catholic school. The feeling that something horrible can – and will – happen at any moment sticks to her like sweat. Fievre came of age in Haiti after Baby Doc Duvalier’s exile, years that included several coups that ended with the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990. Aristide was quickly overthrown, which led to an embargo and rampant violence, the nightly sounds of gunshots as familiar to Fievre as the rooster’s morning crow.
Fievre’s terror was augmented by the violent torment her father unleashed upon his family, his instability and volatility making Fievre, her mother and sister live in constant fear. The memoir, a brief but dense reflection on her youth in Haiti, chronicles the parallels between these tumultuous years of transition for her country and her family’s struggle to cope with her father’s erratic, abusive behavior.
Fievre’s family was part of the educated upper middle class. Her father was respected, a university professor and author, and her mother worked at a bank, which offered a level of comfort but made them a potential target.
“A Sky the Color of Chaos” is Fievre’s first book in English; she has written nine books in French, the first published when she was just 16. She writes with precision: Every sentence is ripe with flourish. Details often overtake action: the sounds of street vendors, spit that flies from a screaming mouth, the colors of tropical flowers, all the minutiae that provides a retreat for a young girl who is trying to make sense of a senseless world.
The initial chapters plunge the reader into key moments of her life: the day her mother barricades the family in a room to escape Fievre’s raging father; the day she buys a pocket knife for protection; the time she told her father she hates him. Fievre freezes each moment, observes it in slow motion, taking time to reflect on every detail. These moments, fleeting as they seem, add up to a life wrought with fear and insecurity that she would be eager to leave behind.
Perhaps Fievre’s only real haven existed in the world of the imagination. She writes about the many ways storytelling was her refuge. She would listen to the stories of the family chauffeur for hours. She stayed up late frightening Soeur with creepy tales. Even her father stoked her imagination.
“A Sky the Color of Chaos” is a strikingly honest, raw examination of Fievre’s life, of the fears that could have left her as damaged as her own father or as ravaged as her country. And she knows that she will always carry them with her.
– Amy Reyes, Miami Herald