3 New Novels About Unexpected Heroes and Quests
Are you holding out for a hero? Wait no more. The new releases in this week’s book club show us that heroes can come from where you least expect, and that quests can take any number of forms.
1. The Luster of Lost Things by Sophie Chen Keller ($15): The Lavenders, the bakery run by 13-year-old Walter Lavender Jr.’s mother Lucy in Manhattan, is a curiously magical place. Examples of its offerings include marzipan dragons that actually seem to produce smoke and flame (while remaining delicious, not burnt), penguin cookies that waddle, and tiny vol-au-vent mice that can stand up on their own hind legs. These all stem from recipes in the fabled seven-page Book, a gift from a stranger soon after they opened that has allowed them to survive in a city full of competition. That’s no mean feat, considering that Walter can’t speak due to a motor disorder and that Walker’s pilot father went missing along with his plane just before Walter’s birth.
“I was free to observe. Without the distractions of speaking and being noticed, I could listen more closely to what people said to each other and to themselves. I could watch more carefully as the skin of the world glided and stretched, and when I was open and attentive enough, I caught glimmers of the underlying bones and gears and my understanding of the secret workings of life sharpened,” Walter writes. When the Book goes missing, the cakes fall flat, and their livelihood is suddenly in danger. Walter feels he must act, because though Walter is unable to speak, he does have one gift: He’s able to find just about anything that’s lost, literally able to see the thread that connects the lost item to its owner. He only wishes he could find his father as well.
Walter’s quest (reminiscent of fave Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) brings him in contact with New York’s finest and weirdest, and he just might learn a whole host of lessons about life on the way. For added cuteness and warmth, he’s accompanied by his loyal golden retriever. It’s not only heartwarming, it’s stomach-growling — you might go on your own quest for pastries just via the delicious descriptions throughout the novel.
2. The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard ($26): Anyone who’s eagerly awaiting the upcoming Black Panther movie (and anyone who likes smart social commentary and metaphor) may find herself overjoyed with this book that gives us an inventive new team of crusaders to cheer: The Justice Committee. In the 1960s, the Committee, a family group of black superheroes with unusual powers, earned their name with their ardent defense of the civil rights movement. Johnny Ribkins was able to make exact maps of any place you could name, whether he’d been there or not, which was useful when dealing with dangerous segregated areas. His brother Franklin was able to scale even completely vertical walls, his cousin Bertrand (“Captain Dynamite”) could burp literal fire, and Johnny’s father could distinguish brand new colors invisible to anyone else.
Their powers proved valuable, but not quite enough to change the world, and Johnny and his brother were eventually reduced to committing burglaries to even out an unequal society, while the rest of the group drifted apart. As the novel begins, Franklin is long dead, and 72-year-old Johnny is living in present-day St. Augustine, Florida. Though he’d vowed to live right after Franklin’s death, he’d found himself working for mob boss Melvin. Melvin sends him an unpleasant demand: Come up with the money he’s stolen within a week, or face some dire consequences. “He thought about all he’d been through since Franklin died, how hard he’d tried to put this place behind him only to find himself, at the age of seventy-two, right back where he started. This was especially troubling because Johnny made maps. That was his talent — not just what he did but who he was, same way his brother had scaled walls.”
Now Johnny is on a quest, not just for all the money he’s hidden, but to redeem himself. Luckily for him, he’s got Franklin’s daughter Eloise on his side, and she’s got her own power to catch anything thrown her way. They’ll have to confront a lot of things, including history, family members, race, and class. Winner of the William Faulkner — William Wisdom Prize, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, and given even Toni Morrison’s seal of approval, The Talented Ribkins is a legend waiting to be told, commentary with a comic coating.
3. The Hearts We Sold by Emily Lloyd-Jones ($18): This new YA novel dances between a realistic outlook and a fantasy scenario. In it, demons are real, and they’re doing the thing you’d expect demons to do: offering wishes in exchange for human body parts. (The fact that they announced this campaign via a press conference was a little less expected.) “Dee was once an avid reader of fairy tales… But as she grew older, as her awareness of the world changed, so did the stories.” Dee Moreno needs a wish: Her white mother and Latino father are both alcoholics, and their abuse prompted the teenager to flee to Brannigan, an upper-tier boarding school. Its location in Portland, Oregon helps Dee keep away from her parents, and her scholarship keeps her afloat.
When she loses that scholarship, it’s a choice between going back to the abuse or making a terrible bargain. For Dee, it’s a no-brainer… or, should we say, a no-hearter, as she makes a Little Mermaid-style deal with the demons; they get a lease on her heart for two years, and she gets to stay at school. This means, though, that Dee has a new set of extracurriculars; she has to obey her demon and battle some even worse monsters with her fellow heartless humans. It’s all very Buffy, as they have to shut the openings that pop open suddenly to let these monsters in.
What really starts to bother Dee about the bargain she’s made is that not only is she constantly risking her life, but she might be developing feelings for fellow heartless heartthrob James. She doesn’t even know if that’s possible, given that her heart doesn’t really belong to her at the moment. Can she get it back, get the guy, and save the world? It’s a quest you might fall for, if it doesn’t steal your heart first.
What books send you questing? Tag us in your next heroic read @BritandCo.
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