Our librarian Henry’s book choices this month will take you on an epic journey involving a small town in Virginia, a solitary island and an impenetrable wall… via the Mexican borderlands. Don’t worry though, you can put down your passport for this trip – your library card is all you need to enter this wonderful world of reading. Safe travels!
Top non-fiction: American Fire: Love, Arson, And Life In A Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse
“In November of 2012, the Eastern Shore of Virginia was old. It was long. It was isolated. It was emptying of people but full of abandoned houses. It was dark. It was a uniquely perfect place to light a string of fires.”
One of those ‘surely that’s not true!’ true crime books. Firefighter, misfit, thief and former addict Charlie Smith and his fiancée Tonya Bundick really did set fire to 67 abandoned buildings in a five-month arson spree.
But this story is so much more than that, a vivid cast of characters that include: firefighters; police officers; detectives; psychological profilers and amateur sleuths, it’s a fantastic portrait of how the fires affect “a 70-mile-long small town where everybody knows everybody”. At the heart of the tale are the improbable outlaws Charlie and Tonya.
Top fiction: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
This warm, funny, sad, strange and angry novel is the story of a family road trip to the Mexican borderlands. The mother is researching the Lost Children –undocumented children entering the US from Mexico – while the father is documenting the lost Native American tribes.
The parents are on the brink of separation, trying to hold the family together for one last road trip; and the book riffs on literary and musical journeys – Kerouac’s ‘The Road’ and Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’.
While driving, the family spend their time laughing, joking, arguing and listening to audiobooks. The car CD defaults to Cormac MacCarthy’s ‘The Road’ whenever switched on, so everyday their journey begins: ‘When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.’
Then one morning in the desert, the children run away.
Top audio book: The Border trilogy by Cormac McCarthy
This is actually three books: ‘All The Pretty Horses’; ‘The Crossing’ and ‘Cities Of The Plain’ now published in one volume.
Billy and John Grady are two existential cowboys born 100 years too late. They drift around the Mexican borderlands contemplating life, the universe and trying against all odds “to keep the flame alive.”
McCarthy is a master of dramatic foreshadowing, beginning his chapters “the last time he ever saw his parents alive…” which elicits a wonderful sense of foreboding in the reader.
The Border Trilogy is bleak yet beautiful; the descriptions of the land and our place within it are awe-inspiring. “He lay listening to the horse crop the grass at his stakerope and he listened to the wind in the emptiness and watched stars trace the arc of the hemisphere and die in the darkness at the edge of the world and as he lay there the agony in his heart was like a stake.”
Top children’s book: The Island by Armin Greder
This is a stark and sombre picture book about refugees, xenophobia, multiculturalism, social politics and human rights.
The people of The Island find a man on the beach – “he wasn’t like them”. So they lock him in a goat pen, refuse him work, and feed him scraps they would normally feed the pig. Greder’s powerful illustrations reference Munch’s The Scream; in fact this whole book seems to be screaming at you!
There is no redemption, no happy ending. The climax of this picture book for older readers is shocking and harrowing. This is no Paddington.
Librarian’s choice: The Wall by John Lanchester
This is Cli-Fi reminiscent of John Christopher’s ‘The Death of Grass’ , John Wyndham’s ‘Day of the Triffids’ or Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. It is set in a terrifyingly plausible future Britain; sea levels have risen, there are no beaches and the country is surrounded by The Wall.
The Wall is defended by young people; a National Service, if you let over any ‘others’ in you are put to sea. If any ‘others’ get over The Wall they are offered death or a life of servitude; their children get to be UK citizens.
The Wall is the story of Kavanagh, along with the rest of his squad, he will endure cold and fear day after day, night after night. But somewhere, in the dark cave of his mind, he thinks: wouldn’t it be interesting if something did happen, if they came, if you had to fight for your life?
Have you read any of the books featured this month? We’d love to hear what you thought! Leave your reviews in the comments below. Missed last month’s top five? Catch up on them here.
You can find out more about libraries in East Sussex by visiting the East Sussex County Council website.