A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery by Albert Marrin; Alfred A. Knopf, 207 pages $19.99. Ages 12 and up.
The author of numerous critically acclaimed nonfiction books for young readers (including “Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy”) turns his considerable skills as writer and historian to abolitionist John Brown in this fine book that doubles as biography and a history of the events and attitudes that led a young nation into a bloody Civil War, touching on issues that still resonate today. Marrin paints a vivid picture of the horrors and economic realities of slavery and of the explosive politics of the period. A childhood experience witnessing brutality against a slave boy near his own age, along with his father’s fierce abolitionist views, were pivotal in forging Brown’s hatred of slavery. He was deeply religious, a “Puritan of Puritans,” mostly self-educated, prone to lying, an imposing presence with a fierce gaze that reportedly could “make a dog or cat leave the room.” Marrin painstakingly re-creates the turmoil that led up to Brown’s 1856 slaying of a family of pro-slavery Kansas settlers (who did not own slaves) and the details of the raid on Harper’s Ferry (including the interesting fact that Brown and his raiders did not bring any provisions and wouldn’t eat the food ordered from a nearby tavern, fearing it might be poisoned). Marrin notes Brown’s skill at dealing with the newspapers of the day as he awaited execution and also offers a fascinating postscript exploring Lincoln’s views on slavery, noting that fierce patriotism about saving the Union, rather than anti-slavery views, inspired many Union soldiers. As with all Marrin’s books, this one is accompanied by fascinating photographs, maps and detailed footnotes.
– Jean Westmoore
Catnapped! by Elaine Viets; Obsidian (276 pages, $24.95)
Elaine Viets’ “Dead-End Job” series has come a long way since heroine Helen Hawthorne began taking off-the-grid jobs as a way to avoid paying alimony to a cheating husband. Those “dead-end” jobs are still a part of Helen’s life, because she now does undercover work for the detective agency she owns with new husband, Phil Sagemont. What hasn’t changed is the effective humor and the often poignant look at those who toil at low-paying jobs.
Viets’ energetic 13th novel in this series takes Helen and Phil into the world of high-end cat shows.
“Catnapped!” starts out as what should be a simple job – retrieve the expensive Chartreux show kitten owned by Fort Lauderdale socialite Trish Barrymore. The kitten, January’s Jubilee Justine, has been spending the weekend with Trish’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Mort. When the detectives arrive at Mort’s estate, they find the financial adviser dead and the kitten missing. Trish is the main suspect, even when a ransom call comes in demanding $500,000 for the “cat-napped” kitten. To learn about the world of show cats and investigate likely suspects, Helen takes a job as a cat groomer.
“Catnapped!” moves at a brisk pace as Helen learns the difference between pet owners and those who pamper their star felines to the extreme. An intriguing subplot in which Helen’s longtime landlady may be forced to sell her apartment building adds an extra boost to Viets’ witty story.
– Oline H. Cogdill, Sun Sentinel
Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken; Dial ($26)
The stories in Elizabeth McCracken’s latest collection land as swift and true as a prizefighter’s blows, and often they feel just as powerful, emotionally speaking. “Thunderstruck” – how apt the title is. So many moments in these stories leave you stunned and reeling. The psychological punches McCracken delivers, with her keen sense of irony and mordant humor, are unforgettable.
A faculty member at the University of Texas, McCracken is best known for her fiction: another story collection, “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry?” and the novels “Niagara Falls All Over Again” and “The Giant’s House.” But ghosts of her past – chronicled in “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination,” a wrenching, exquisite memoir about her stillborn son – flit through this new work. She has made that long climb to the top-floor Parisian apartment in the title story; she has lived among the careless, wine-soaked expatriates in “The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs.” She has rented that discouraging, filthy cottage in “Property.” Once a public librarian, she has even worked among the stacks where a poignant drama plays out in Juliet.
In other words, McCracken knows the men and women and children in her stories. They’re poised on the edge of revelation, their pasts haunting the present.
– Connie Ogle, Miami Herald