Arts & Culture

Book Reviews: July 2016

The latest from James Magruder, Ron Tanner, and Susan Hood.

Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall

James Magruder (Queen’s Ferry Press)

Ah, college: the time when we were the most adventurous, open-minded, rebellious—and, perhaps, promiscuous. Magruder’s romp of a novel showcases this period perfectly, exploring the ambitions, travails, and romantic lives of residents at the Yale University residence Helen Hadley Hall during the early 1980s. This eccentric crew is in the throes of life changes—questioning majors, careers, sexualities, and relationships—while the news of the AIDS virus hovers ominously in the background. It may sound like little more than a sex romp, but it’s Magruder’s excellent character development that makes this a great book. Though he’s writing across gender, age, and ethnicity, Magruder—a playwright and author who teaches at Swarthmore College and lives in Baltimore—never makes you feel as if he doesn’t understand each person completely, showcasing faults and strengths, troubles and triumphs in equal breath. Their external and internal narratives are stitched together by Helen Hadley herself, a postmortem omniscient narrator, who adds the right amount of commentary and empathy.

See our Q&A with writer James Magruder.

Missile Paradise

Ron Tanner (Ig Publishing)

More often than not, we depend on nonfiction to teach us about parts of the world we’ve never seen and to spell out complicated histories. But fiction is just as capable of delving into that territory, and Tanner’s novel is a fine example. It transports us to the Marshall Islands, an island-nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that was once an American testing ground for nuclear bombs. There a mixture of native peoples and U.S. engineers are tasked with making and testing missiles have created a challenging climate. Instead of showering us with statistics and historical details, Tanner—who teaches writing at Loyola University Maryland and has won a Pushcart Prize—weaves together four stories that introduce us to this exotic place and the culture clashes that define it. His characters experience guilt, frustration, and confusion in their dealings with one another, giving us a better understanding of the complexities of foreign relations and the atmosphere surrounding the world’s superpowers and developing countries. All the while, Tanner’s riveting prose carries us through these troubled waters, creating an expertly crafted, gripping tale.

Ada’s Violin

Susan Hood, Illustrated by Sally Wern Comport (Simon & Schuster)

It’s common knowledge that children’s books aren’t just for kids. Why would any adult turn down the opportunity to page through a richly illustrated tale that is beautiful in its simplicity? Ada’s Violin is such a book, with lush illustrations and a story about the transformative power of creativity, love, and determination—a story that just happens to be true. Ada, our heroine, lives in the small Paraguayan town of Cateura, which was built on a landfill. She longs to play the violin, but her musical dreams are put on hold as her family can’t afford the instrument. Then, music teacher Favio Chávez arrives in town and soon hatches a big plan—to form an orchestra based around instruments found in the landfill. Chávez’s vision became the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay, which has since toured the world. The book is available in Spanish and English, and Annapolis resident Comport’s illustrations—which have a collage feel that is perfectly suited to a book about putting together something from nothing—strike just the right tone no matter what the language.