Mysterious Traveler by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham; illustrated by P.J. Lynch; Candlewick Press ($16.99).
Husband and wife creative collaborators Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham offer old-fashioned, great storytelling in this marvelous tale inspired by Graham’s fascination with Timbuktu, the gold and salt caravans and guides that would lead them through the Sahara Desert. (According to a note at the end of the book, one of the most famous desert guides was blind.) As the tale goes, riders are rushing through the desert with precious cargo – a baby in a basket – when they are overtaken by a sandstorm. An elderly desert guide finds a camel half-buried in the sand, and behind it, a baby. He names the child Mariama, teaches her the secrets of the desert and she becomes his eyes when he loses his sight. But then new travelers arrive seeking a way through the desert but don’t believe a blind guide can help them. This story has everything: an exotic setting, suspense, emotion and a marvelous twist. P.J. Lynch’s sumptuous illustrations include lovely portraits and striking landscapes of desert and mountain. Peet won the Carnegie Medal for Young Adult novel “Tamar.” Peet and Graham previously collaborated on another marvelous picture book, “Cloud Tea Monkeys.”
– Jean Westmoore
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball; Pantheon, 256 pages ($23.95)
Jesse Ball’s “Silence Once Begun” resists the standard narrative tropes of contemporary novels. It pushes against them with antique, gentlemanly language, a conflicting set of stories that clearly reference “Rashomon,” and a structure like a funnel that starts at the wide open end. The novel begins with the narrator (Jesse Ball) telling us that his relationship has ended because of his wife inexplicably falling silent. His need for an explanation leads him to Japan and the story of Oda Sotatsu. Years before, Sotatsu was arrested for a crime he did not commit; he signed a confession, then refused to speak up to defend himself.
Sotatsu’s family and friends sit down to tell Ball their stories, which follow as transcribed interviews and letters. With only the tenuous connection of silence, their cooperation with Ball’s project is improbable, but realism is not his style. An assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the actual Ball teaches classes in lucid dreaming and lying – at least, that’s what his bio says. So the “Jesse Ball” who appears in the book’s text as the interviewer and narrator is only to be partly believed. And the novel, while presented in a straightforward documentary format, is fiction, and slippery fiction at that.
Sotatsu was a quiet 29-year-old working at a thread factory when he was tricked into signing a confession by two new friends. We don’t immediately know what the crime is, only that it is something awful.
As in Kafka’s “The Trial,” the justice of “Silence Once Begun” is both tragic and absurd. But while Kafka’s characters are trapped, Sotatsu actually has the power to change his fate – he could free himself if he told the courts of the false confession and the people who made him sign it.
The book is dedicated to the Japanese writers Kobo Abe and Shusaku Endo, whose 1969 novel “Silence” is a clear antecedent.
– Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times