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Life in the Wings, and Lives That Take Flight: 6 Reads for September

Six fresh reads about theater, magic, mystery, and more, that will have you turning the pages in delight!

The Broadway stage, mystery and magic, a life of service on the railways, and an appreciation of the finer things in life—here are six novels that vividly bring these themes to glorious life.

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The Astonishing Life of August March by Aaron Jackson

Literally a child of the theater, August March is delivered by his stage actress in between her scenes, and she abandons him. Discovered by the stage seamstress, August grows up within the confines of this 43rd Street theater and can quote Shakespeare even before he can recite the alphabet. This fantastical birth happens in the late 1930’s, and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict this novel will be a wild and wooly picaresque of August’s life. His adventures on the streets of Manhattan when the theater is demolished, on to his directing school plays, and life as a petty thief. 


It’s comedy that feels like the love child of Charles Dickens and John Irving, with eccentricities abounding, and deadpan humor a constant element of the writing. Early on, it’s said that it was easy to keep the toddler August undetected “because actors are, by and large, a self-absorbed lot.” There are wonderful larger-than-life characters who play major roles in August’s life, none more entertaining than Sir Reginald, stage actor and part-time Hollywood star, who insists nothing ever good came out of France or Hollywood. Funny, charming, and in love with the theater world; this is a great read.


Shakespeare for Squirrels by Christopher Moore

After eviscerating King Lear in Fool and wreaking havoc on the Merchant in The Serpent of Venice, Moore turns his sights on his personal favorite of the Bard, Midsummers Night Dream. In Shakespeare for Squirrels, it’s once again best to think of Shakespeare being turned to prose and rewritten by Groucho Marx. I think that’s the best way to describe Moore’s approach to this book series starring his creation, Pocket the Fool, and his behemoth apprentice, Drool. What Moore basically does is let Pocket loose on one major play, while mashing up other plays of the Bard in the process. It’s hilarious, it’s entertaining, and they are joys to read.


This one takes the cast of Midsummer, but then Moore sets up the novel as a whodunit. Rather than having both Pocket and Puck swiping at each other’s thunder, Puck is murdered, and it’s left to Pocket to discover who committed the deed and why. Hilarious is how the characters of Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius are brought on as a group of simpering, shallow-minded YA ‘heroes’. They flit in and out of the storyline, and they’re annoying as hell. And true to form, Pocket reserves his utmost disdain for the people in charge, the Duke, the Queen of the Amazons, and from the realm of magical forest creatures, Titania and Oberon. For some, there may be a point when it all gets too silly, but you can’t fault Moore for keeping his part of the bargain.

The Corpse in the Garden of Perfect Brightness by Malcolm Pryce

This is an old school adventure yarn with a twist, as Pryce takes us back to 1948 and the birth of the nationalized British Rail, which trumpeted the end of small, local railway companies that had been servicing particular lines and areas. Jack Cantwell worked as a railway detective for one of these local lines, and he’s now out of a job. A railway orphan, Jack gets a summons from out of the blue to visit Lady Seymour, one of the local grand ladies. There, he’s told about a missing son of Lady Seymour, and how it’s connected to startling news about Jack’s birth mother, who Jack had never met and had presumed passed away.


What follows for Jack and his new, young wife is a voyage halfway around the world to a period in Singapore and Bangkok that’s wonderfully depicted. A hothouse of dubious expats, locals with ulterior motives, and law enforcement with “Bribe Me” stamped on their foreheads—it isn’t long before Jack and his wife are enmeshed in the subterfuge, rivalries, and dark secrets that surround the guests at the hotel called the Garden of Perfect Brightness. And, of course, finding the missing son turns out to be much more difficult than had been planned, with a mysterious man with a burned face, lurking in the shadows.


The Dining Car by Eric Peterson

Here’s a novel that’s executed with near perfection. Jack Marshall is an ex-football star with a checkered past, when he takes on the job of bartender and steward in the private railway car of Horace Button. Button is a renowned food critic and society columnist; infamous for being pedantic, eccentric and bull-headed. Along with Button, Jack gets whisked into a world of fancy cuisine, the best alcohol money can buy, the hotels and restaurants of renown, the North America Food and Wine Literary Festival, and meets celebrity chefs and politicians. Button’s sister is an ultra-conservative, controversial US Senator. And one very popular celebrity chef, Giselle, has something for Jack.


It is when unexpected tragedy strikes, threatening to cause the collapse of the world Button holds so dear, that Jack is forced to make important decisions about service, commitment, and loyalty. The novel changes tone in an effective and appropriate manner, giving us more than what we had at the outset, a broad comedy of manners. Suddenly, while there’s still comedy and irony, there are also some very pertinent lessons about life and how second chances are there to be recognized and grasped. Peterson’s world of trains, of privilege and impeccable service, are wonderfully rendered, and it’s a delight to get lost in his pages.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

An author noted for his compassion and making the issues and themes of his novel seem to be about you and me, Haig’s latest is a charmer. In The Humans, he took on extra terrestrials and how their humanity could outshine even our own; while in How to Stop Time, his time travel book became more about emotions and feelings rather than technology and possibility. Here, he talks about a library that represents that between life and death; with his main protagonist, Nora Seed, one of those malfunctioning people we run into so often in life. In the library, the books represent opportunities to change our lives and the choices we made. The quandary is whether it will actually change things, and if they are worth exploring.


Lead singer/rock star, glaciologist, living in Australia with her best friend, retired Olympic swimming champion and motivational speaker, there are countless lives Nora could have chosen to lead other than working in a music shop, living with a cat, and having shied away from life altogether. What’s interesting is how Haig displays each possible life, with ramifications that show no life is ever perfect or the idealized one. When resolution eventually comes, it has arrived with enlightenment and a strong affirmation for life in the here and now and the realization that it’s never too late to make the changes and not rely on the ‘What if’s’. A literary journey well worth taking.


False Value by Ben Aaronovitch

Think Harry Potter grows up and joins law enforcement—you get an idea of how this police procedural mixes elements of magic and the supernatural. The 8th installment of Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series of books, this one heralds the return of Peter Grant, with his river goddess girlfriend Beverley Brook, infanticipating. Within this domestic arrangement, there’s a whole lot going on as Peter goes undercover and joins a world-leading tech firm headed by Andrew Skinner, and it’s a corporate environment where even the geeky Peter acts like a neophyte when interacting with his fellow employees.


The blend of crime action with magical fantasy works in entertaining ways; as at the core of the novel’s plot line is the notion of an advanced version of AI (Artificial Intelligence); and the question of who is really in control and in charge of such a resource, if it in fact exists. The beauty of Aaronovitch’s storytelling has always been how he makes the magical elements still play service to the mundane and ordinary. Throughout the novel, there are instances when Peter has to face and contend with issues to speak of the everyday and humdrum, making his magician persona something we can easily relate to and feel empathy for.


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Lead photos from Goodreads