“Firebrand” by Aaron Barnhart

Firebrand by Aaron BarnhartMy local library has started a new book club called “Check Yo’Shelf,” described as “a teen book club for adults.” The flyer is illustrated with covers of YA books that have been read by huge numbers of over-18s, including John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Veronica Roth’s Divergent.

The YA genre has more to offer than tearjerkers and dystopian fiction, however. My pal Aaron Barnhart (yes, full disclosure, the author is a longtime friend of mine) has started a new publishing venture, Quindaro Press, with a mission to produce works of history aimed at younger readers, but I suspect they’d love to reach adults as well.

Aaron and his wife live in Kansas City, and a few years ago, they published a travel guide to the Kansas-Missouri border region called The Big Divide. Barnhart’s new work of historical fiction, Firebrand, takes place in the same area and deals with the struggles to bring Kansas into the Union as a free state, as seen through the eyes of a young Jewish man named August Bondi.

Bondi was born in Vienna in 1833. When Bondi was just 15, he began to take part in a local wave of student protests, an attempt to bring democratic rule to Austria. His father felt the family would have a better life in America; initially, August was furious that he’d have to abandon the struggle in Vienna, but it didn’t take him long to get caught up in a new, equally dramatic fight for freedom on the other side of the Atlantic.

I must admit that I knew very little about the whole “Bleeding Kansas” confrontations of the pre-Civil War period (they pitted pro-slavery forces, who wanted Kansas to enter the U.S. as a state which allowed slavery, against anti-slavery “Free Staters”). I enjoyed learning a bit about this dramatic conflict, as seen through the eyes of a brave young man who becomes an ally of abolitionist John Brown.

One powerful scene demonstrates how Bondi, still a relative newcomer to the U.S., learns an important lesson. Bondi, working as a clerk on a riverboat, whips a black stevedore in an effort to get him to unload cargo faster:

“Massa,” said the stevedore, “you been the only one who never give me a whippin’. I surely thought you was different from the rest.”

While the stevedore was a free man, the incident served as a wake-up call to Bondi to look at the way slavery was accepted as normal in his new country. Whenever his riverboat pulled into a port, “the dock was crowded with white, well-to-do people. Always, always they had slaves in tow—men, women and children. At first the sight had startled him. Now, he hardly noticed them at all. And that’s just what people want you to do here.

Bondi’s shame causes him to leave the riverboat and eventually head for Kansas to fight against the pro-slavery “Border Ruffians.” But he wasn’t done fighting: he served for three years with the Fifth Kansas Cavalry in the Civil War, leaving the battlefield only after he suffered a near-fatal injury.

Barnhart’s book is based on two sources: Bondi’s own autobiography and an earlier book for young readers, Border Hawk by Lloyd Alexander, which was published in 1957. I haven’t read Border Hawk, but apparently Barnhart’s version is heavier on the coming-of-age angle, and I would imagine the earlier book was written in a style that would not be as appealing to today’s readers. A longtime journalist and TV critic before he switched gears and started writing history, Barnhart crafts smooth, readable prose; his style is unfussy and easy to follow, while never feeling dumbed-down. (After reading a piece from Jewishmag.com on Bondi, it’s clear that the freedom fighter’s life took plenty of twists and turns that aren’t covered in Firebrand; getting the book down to an easily-digestible 160 pages must have been a challenge.)

Barnhart is trying to popularize the #YAHistorical hashtag to let people know about the wide variety of YA beyond vampires and wizards. He’s also started a monthly podcast about the genre, and Quindaro will be publishing a full slate of historical works. With Firebrand, they’re off to a great start, and deserve to be noticed by readers of all ages.

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“They Do It with Mirrors” by Agatha Christie

They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha ChristieA local theater known for presenting edgy, adventurous plays surprised many of its fans by opening “The Mousetrap” late last year. What could be less cutting-edge than Agatha Christie’s 65-year-old war horse? Nevertheless, this theatrical comfort food proved as popular in Berkeley, California, as it has been in London’s West End, where “The Mousetrap” has run continuously since 1952; it sold out every performance, and if the theater didn’t have a new production scheduled for early February, I have no doubt that it could have continued packing ’em in for weeks to come.

Christie’s books still attract millions of readers who love her breezy writing style and ingenious mysteries. Some of the solutions she presents are so memorable that I can remember exactly whodunit and why, even years later. Others are a little more prosaic. I’d put They Do It with Mirrors in the latter category—it’s clever, of course, but not knock-your-socks-off clever. A reader who spent a year reviewing every single Christie novel ranked it at #54 (out of 78).

Like so many of her books, Mirrors takes place at a country house, in this case Stonygates, home to one of Miss Marple’s old school friends, Carrie Louise Serrocold. Carrie Louise’s sister Ruth begs Miss Marple to visit Stonygates and figure out what’s going on there. Ruth is rather vague as to what the problem might be—”Something is wrong down there. But I don’t know why or what”—but Marple readily agrees to investigate. “You’re not a fanciful woman, Ruth,” she declares.

Carrie Louise is on her third marriage, and the book is chock-full of stepchildren and offspring from previous relationships. Her current husband, Lewis Serrocold, has turned Stonygates into a home for wayward juveniles. “There Lewis and Carrie Louise are, living there, surrounded by these boys—who aren’t perhaps quite normal,” says Ruth. “And the place stiff with occupational therapists and teachers and enthusiasts, half of them quite mad. Cranks, the lot of them, and my little Carrie Louise in the middle of it all!”

The “juvenile delinquents” aren’t as big a part of the story as I had imagined they would be. Instead, most of the suspects in the inevitable murder are family members, including Carrie Louise’s granddaughter Gina and her American G.I. husband, Wally; Carrie Louise’s stepsons from her second marriage, Alexis and Stephen; and her spinster daughter Mildred. (The book could have benefited from a family tree in the front, instead of a diagram of the house.)

Mirrors was published in 1952, and to the modern-day reader, it can be surprising to note how the characters’ ethnic backgrounds are handled. Gina is the offspring of Carrie Louise’s adopted daughter Pippa and an Italian count, so of course she is stereotyped because of her father’s nationality: “Gina would say anything. The Italians are never truthful,” Mildred tells the police. “And she’s a Roman Catholic, of course.” Later, Mildred accuses, “I daresay it’s the Italian in you that makes you turn to poison.” Meanwhile, the Inspector investigating the crime notices one of the stepsons’ “un-English Mongolian type of face” (Alexis and Stephen’s mother was Russian). “Anything to do with Russia was bad in Inspector Curry’s opinion.”

These attitudes might elicit a chuckle from the 21st century reader, but one line was downright jarring. Inspector Curry is discussing the crime with Miss Marple, and wants to know who she thinks the culprit is. “Well now, let’s have your point of view. Who’s the n—– in the woodpile? The G.I. husband?”

Anyone who reads Golden Age mysteries has encountered similar slurs, especially those aimed at racial, religious and sexual minorities. Personally, I feel that throwaway “woodpile” line could easily be changed to something less offensive to modern readers, whereas other stereotypes (like Gina’s Italian heritage) are, for better or for worse, important parts of the plot. There’s precedent for this, since Christie’s And Then There Were None had a much more offensive title when it was originally published in 1939. I had no awareness of the original title until long after I’d read the book, so it’s not like the renaming affected my enjoyment in any way.

British crime writer John Worsley Simpson wrote a thoughtful blog post about bigotry in the works of Raymond Chandler, concluding, “[M]aybe what we should take away from this aspect of Chandler’s writing is that it’s an accurate reflection of the values and attitudes of the time, and, on that basis, actually a valuable record of the mores of an era, and we should recognize with gratitude that we are alive at this time in the history of the world and not then, and acknowledge that: there but for the fact we were born later go we.” The same, of course, can be said about Agatha Christie.

“Scientology: A to Xenu” by Chris Shelton

Scientology: A to Xenu by Chris SheltonJune 29, 2012, is when I became addicted to reading about Scientology. That is the date when Tom Cruise & Katie Holmes’ split became public. Usually celebrity divorces are ho-hum—it’s more unusual when famous people stay married—but this one was more exciting than one of Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movies.

Katie used disposable cell phones, procured a secret apartment, and hired law firms in three separate states. Obviously, this was not a friendly “conscious uncoupling” a la Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. Katie was running from something scary.

A link from the comments section of a celebrity gossip blog led me to Tony Ortega’s Village Voice column about the split, and from then on, I fell down the proverbial rabbit hole. For some reason, I couldn’t get enough information about Scientology, and I’ve read every single column Ortega has written since that day, first at the Voice and then at his own Underground Bunker. (That’s probably around 1,500 columns, since he blogs every day, occasionally twice a day if there’s breaking news. The man is the Cal Ripken Jr. of blogging.) To me, one of the best things about Scientology reporting is that the church desperately wants to keep everything it does and believes under wraps, while Ortega is trying just as hard to shed light on all of its secrets.

Of course, by now, almost everyone knows a little something about Scientology, thanks to HBO’s hugely popular “Going Clear” documentary or “South Park”‘s treatment of the cult’s beliefs (which caused one of the show’s stars, Isaac Hayes, to quit in protest). But Ortega’s blog has attracted a large cohort of so-called “never-ins,” people who are not ex-Scientologists and may never even have met an honest-to-God Scientologist, but simply find the topic oddly compelling. The never-ins are the primary audience for all the volumes written by ex-members, from Marc Headley’s amazing Blown for Good to TV star Leah Remini’s best-selling Troublemaker.

The latest addition to the bookshelf is former Sea Org (the church’s “religious order”) member Chris Shelton’s Scientology: A to Xenu: An Insider’s Guide to What Scientology is Really All About. I’ve been a subscriber to Chris’s YouTube channel for a long time now, and what really amazes me about Chris is how he morphed from true believer to eloquent skeptic in a relatively short period of time. (Because of the intense indoctrination and brainwashing, it often takes people many years to recover once they’ve left the cult.) Shelton’s “Critical Thinker At Large” videos have taken on other fringe religions, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Quiverfull movement, and he co-hosts a weekly podcast called Sensibly Speaking which frequently covers a wide range of newsy hot-button topics.

Instead of simply telling his own story, A to Xenu serves as an excellent source for people who may have seen “Going Clear” or read Leah Remini’s book and want to know more. Yes, a lot of the information in the book is online, but there’s so much stuff about Scientology on the Internet that it feels like you’re drinking from a firehose; plus, lots of those web sites are written in “Scientologese,” the jargon peculiar to insiders. Shelton’s book covers topics like the OT levels (the knowledge Scientologists pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for), the lies of L. Ron Hubbard, and the complicated structure of the church (designed to keep “Chairman of the Board” David Miscavige on top) in easy-to-digest segments; he also reveals more of his own painful history with the church than he’s ever disclosed before, including an account of the traumatic years he spent on the Rehabilitation Project Force, a prison duty which he has compared to a “Maoist Reconditioning Camp.” In the end, I felt I had learned quite a lot, and I’ll appreciate having the book around as a handy reference guide.

Shelton self-published the book, but it’s well-edited with very few typographical errors, although I did find one goof: on pg. 233, in a discussion of tax exemption for religious institutions, he mentions how Jim Bakker “and his now ex-wife Tami [sic] still owe the IRS millions in unpaid back taxes.” Tammy Faye Bakker passed away in 2007, putting her well out of reach of the IRS. Of course, Shelton was probably busy with his Sea Org duties when Tammy Faye met her maker.

In case you manage to make it through the entire book and feel that maybe L. Ron Hubbard wasn’t such a bad guy after all, Shelton reprints Hubbard’s “Affirmations” in an appendix at the end, offering a spectacular view of an unhinged mind. The Affirmations were written by LRH in the 1940s, apparently so he could read them into a tape recorder and play them back as a form of self-hypnosis. The Church of Scientology has published reams of Hubbard’s writings, but these are not among them, for reasons which will become obvious once you start reading them. They are truly weird, and a little sad. Many of them deal with sex and masturbation, but there are also gems like, “Snakes are not dangerous to you. There are no snakes in the bottom of your bed,” “You are a magnificent writer who has thrilled millions,” and “You have perfect and lovely feet.”

I hate to quote Hubbard in a non-disparaging fashion, but just this once, here’s an LRH affirmation I can get behind, at least when it’s applied to Shelton: “You start your life anew. Your approach to work is wonderfully clear and fresh. You have suffered much and you are deep in understanding.”

“The Enthusiast” by Josh Fruhlinger

I’ll admit to having been burned a few times by the popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter.com. A documentary, two graphic novels, an album—these are projects I supported that never materialized. You pay your money and you take your chances, as they say, but it’s still disappointing. (Luckily, most of the Kickstarters I’ve backed have been pretty cheap; I’m glad I didn’t pay $500 for a 40-pound, Bluetooth-enabled cooler.)

The Enthusiast by Josh FruhlingerI didn’t hesitate to back Josh Fruhlinger’s novel The Enthusiast, since I was a longtime fan of his Comics Curmudgeon blog. The Kickstarter raised over $20,000 in the summer of 2012; the book’s estimated delivery date was “November 2013,” but writing a first novel turned out to be a bit more challenging than Josh had anticipated (plus, he moved from Baltimore to Los Angeles in 2014). “More than a year ago, when I finished the first draft of the novel, I was significantly overoptimistic as to how much work remained,” Josh told his backers this past August. Explaining his radio silence, he added, “I’d let so many deadlines slip previously that I didn’t want to send out any news until I had something concrete to tell you.”

Well, a few days ago, my copy of The Enthusiast finally turned up, and… happily, the book was worth the wait. It’s a funny, charming, well-written novel, and while there were times I feared Josh was about to make a misstep, he made exactly the right choice instead. (For instance, there’s one point where it becomes clear that Kate, the book’s heroine, is about to have sex; Josh wisely fades to black instead of describing the scene. This automatically makes him a savvier debut novelist than Morrissey.)

Kate, in her midtwenties, works for the Subconscious Agency (“Enthusiasm Is Our Business”), a D.C. firm hired by companies that want to build excitement around their products. Kate’s job is not entirely dissimilar to those of the “brand ambassadors” hired by liquor manufacturers to visit bars and talk about how much they adore Brand X Rum in hopes of creating a buzz. As the book opens, Kate has infiltrated a group of railfans who spend all their time talking about trains on Internet message boards; she has joined them on a “livesite,” an in-person meet-up, that only Kate and her colleague Mesut know is a carefully orchestrated event meant to gin up excitement for a Siemens subway car that the German company is hoping to sell to the D.C. Metro. “[A]s she enjoyed feeling the train’s roar in her guts, other parts of [Kate’s] brain were assessing each of the trainspotters in turn. The client was going to make a multi-million-dollar pitch to a regional transit agency… Which of these guys was going to go to a public meeting at a middle school auditorium on a weeknight? And of those, which of them would come across least like a crazy person?”

Apartment 3GBesides the Siemens gig, Kate also gets an assignment to hold a focus group for fans of a soap-opera comic strip called “Ladies Who Lunch,” which is obviously a loving homage to one of Josh’s favorites, “Apartment 3-G.” Much to Josh’s dismay, “A3-G”‘s final strip ran in November; personally, of the continuity strips, I prefer “Mary Worth,” which at least has half-decent artwork. “A3-G”‘s art got worse and worse as the years progressed, most likely due to the fact that the man who drew it ’til the bitter end, Frank Bolle, is now 91 years old. (A character in The Enthusiast who seems inspired by Bolle is a mere child of 87.) The “Ladies Who Lunch” material in the novel will delight anyone who’s a fan of the Comics Curmudgeon, but anyone who’s ever encountered a soap-opera strip will find it amusing. (While reading through the “Ladies Who Lunch” archives, “Kate could see a consistent direction: every year the characters’ faces took up more and more of the panels, and as the focus got tighter and tighter, there was less room to dedicate to their fabulous clothes and quirky decor… Even though the faces took up more of the panel, they weren’t any more detailed, and you were left looking at unsettlingly vast and undifferentiated expanses of forehead and cheek.”)

Despite Kate’s young age, she’s a bit of a curmudgeon herself—she hates the hip electronic music she has to listen to for a work project, and her favorite restaurant is a “TGI Fridays”-like chain called Pickles. One storyline in the book revolves around Kate’s dogged efforts to find out who owns the movie rights to “Ladies Who Lunch”; that particular plot point made me think now that “A3-G” has gone off to that great syndicate in the sky, what Josh really needs to do for an encore is buy the rights and reboot the strip. I’ll even toss a few bucks his way on Kickstarter.

“The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra” by Vaseem Khan

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraThe very first book I’m reviewing here, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, provides an excellent snapshot of the type of mystery I am always hungry for. I was immediately drawn to the cover, which seemed to promise something in the gently comic vein of Alexander McCall Smith’s Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In my opinion, there are far too few cozy mysteries set in foreign (non-U.S./U.K.) locales.

Inspector Chopra is a bit harder-hitting than the McCall Smith books—for one thing, there are a handful of violent deaths, which rarely occur in Mma Ramotswe’s cases—but it’s likely to appeal to the same readers, thanks to its likable hero and the irresistible baby pachyderm he acquires on Page One. “On the day that he was due to retire, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovered that he had inherited an elephant,” the book begins. The creature, dubbed Ganesha, came from Chopra’s Uncle Bansi, who noted in a letter that “this is no ordinary elephant.” Just how extraordinary becomes clear later in the book.

Chopra’s retirement from the Mumbai police force was an involuntary one; only in his early 50s, the inspector was ordered to leave because of a heart problem that required him to avoid stress and excitement. Of course, as a policeman for most of his life, Chopra finds that he can’t completely leave the job behind. On his last day of work, the body of a young man is brought into the station, and Chopra’s superior, the Assistant Commissioner of Police, insists he was a drowning victim and that the case be closed. Chopra suspects foul play, but what can he do without a badge or the backing of the force? He ultimately launches his own investigation, trying to keep it a secret not only from the police but from his headstrong wife, Poppy, who would surely disapprove.

Vaseem Khan’s debut novel features a touch of magical realism, but the depiction of Mumbai—a teeming city of over 20 million souls that is home to India’s famous Bollywood film industry—is so well-described that it’s practically a character in the book. Chopra’s investigation takes him from high-end shopping malls to the sprawling slums of Dharavi. Mumbai is also a city with a great deal of corruption, some of it in very high places, which also plays a part in the book.

The ending of the book—as well as its subtitle, “A Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation”—makes it very clear that Chopra will continue to solve crimes, despite his dodgy heart. The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown, second in the series, will be released later this year. I’m already looking forward to catching up with Ashwin and Poppy Chopra, but even more so, I want to know how the elephant will help crack the case.