New Books and Featured Reading Lists

Each week on the 49th Shelf homepage, we highlight new releases. We also make theme-based lists and showcase lists from guest contributors and 49th Shelf members. This page archives these selections so they are always available to our members.

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New Children's for the week of February 17th : New Kids' Nonfiction
Jordin Tootoo

Jordin Tootoo

The highs and lows in the journey of the first Inuit player in the NHL
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P.K. Subban

P.K. Subban

Fighting racism to become a hockey superstar and role model for athletes of colour
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Little Cloud

Little Cloud

The Science of a Hurricane
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Willie O'Ree

Willie O'Ree

The story of the first black player in the NHL
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Tree Books

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New Children's for the week of February 10th : New YA
Blood Sport

Blood Sport

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Easy Street

Easy Street

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Laundry on the Line

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Sports Lit

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New Fiction for the week of February 3rd : New Fiction
Evie of the Deepthorn
Excerpt

When I told Jeff that Lauren had said I should do my media class documentary on Durham, he told me it was a good idea. We were in the kitchen after school. He was making a peanut butter sandwich and I was still raiding the cupboards, looking for something better, without much hope of finding it.
It’s weird, but some days it is difficult for me to remember Jeff ’s face or voice. I know what he looked like — there are pictures everywhere — and I know what his voice sounded like, but it’s one thing to know something and another thing entirely to have that thing available to you, easily accessible, which you take for granted until it’s gone.
But on this day, for whatever reason, it wasn’t hard. He was right there in front of me, like he had never gone.
“It’s not a good idea,” I said. “Durham sucks.”
Jeff agreed that Durham sucked, but he said there were lots of ways I could do it, anyway. For instance, I could just set up the camera on a tripod in the centre of town and leave it running for twenty minutes.
Last year the documentary only had to be a maximum of seven minutes (maximum! ) and Mrs. Scala (now on maternity leave) baked cookies for the final presentations. If I could remember now who told me that media would be a cakewalk, I would egg their house.
“That sounds like it would be horrible,” I said to Jeff.
He said that it would be “conceptual,” and that I would seem “deep.”
It was a good joke, but I knew that Wright would never buy it. He wanted something with a “traditional” narrative and at least four cuts. At least, he had said. Bare minimum. And music, too. (We were supposedly being tested on our editing skills, but I wondered if he had foreseen himself watching twenty twenty-minute documentaries of twenty intersections.)
I also had my potential audience to consider.
“I want my documentary to be good,” I said. “I mean, at least okay.”
“Why?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“That’s your problem,” said Jeff.
Jeff stopped getting decent grades after middle school, even though he was probably the smartest kid I’d ever known. Or at least it sometimes seemed that way to me. His effort cratered after that. Or maybe it had never been very high to begin with, and it was just that school was asking more from him. He claimed that he didn’t care. That it wasn’t worth putting in the effort to do well, to be liked, to not to stick out. That he was fine with the way things were. Sometimes I believed him.
I’d heard Mom whispering to her friends on the phone that she thought he had “emotional problems,” but I always thought he was just misunderstood. That he’d find his way in some other fashion, although not as radically as he hoped. It was too easy to say he had problems and to leave it at that. If he had a problem it was that he wanted to turn the world to do his bidding, to fold it in half in order to solve a geometry question that only required drawing a line from one point to another.
“Why don’t you start with what you know?” he told me. “Isn’t that what they always say? ’Start with what you know’?” He had a mouth full of peanut butter and Dempster’s soft whole wheat and some of it flew out and landed on the counter. He reached his hand out past me, toward the sink, letting it hang mid-air, and I interpreted his motion and threw him the rag hanging around the faucet.
The problem was that I didn’t know what I knew.
According to an article I read a while back in the Durham Enterprise, Durham is the fastest-growing small town within two hundred kilometres of the city of Toronto: “small town” being defined as containing less than twenty thousand people and “fastest-growing” determined via an aggregate score of year-to-year population growth, that population growth relative to the previous year’s population, and relative growth of infrastructure.
After I showed the article to Jeff and told him that we finally had something to be proud of, he laughed and said that their criteria basically meant nothing. It was just a way to get people who live in Durham to feel like they’re important. Which they’re not, he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Duh.”
But he looked at me like I was stupid and I knew then that I was, in a deep way, at my very core.
I was probably fourteen and I remember feeling that way all of the time.
It’s been two years since he died and I miss him a lot, enough that sometimes I pretend he’s with me, even to the point of making up conversations with him about what I have to do for school.
If Jeff were still around he probably wouldn’t be at home anymore; he’d be working at some crap job and living on his own somewhere far away, or he’d have figured his shit out and be doing some kind of mathematics or science degree at a university downtown. Or in another province, or country, or on another planet.
We were different in a lot of ways, but we had a lot of things in common, too. He wanted to get out of Durham by any means necessary.
So do I.

Here are some facts about Durham.
Durham, the municipality, counts about fifteen thousand residents. We have an arena, a hospital, three strip malls, a bus system, multiple hamburger places, two cemeteries, a newspaper, a Tim Hortons, a Pete’s Donuts, and a large chunk of real estate on Highway 89. We also have a single high school which is shared with all of the surrounding towns, including Saffronville, which is notable because students who live in Saffronville are often made fun of because it’s one of the few towns that is an even bigger hole than Durham. We take a lot of pride in saying so. (Saffronville: half an intersection; one decrepit grocery store; an off-brand donut place; three sneering teenagers on the main drag at all times, in basketball shirts without sleeves; scary dogs barking somewhere; an old man heavy in a torn white T-shirt lying on someone’s lawn, burping.)
In honour of our namesake, the late John George Lambton, first Earl of Durham, the high school is named Upper Canada Secondary School and the K–8 elementary school is Lower Canada Junior Middle School. Old Lord Durham was the one who drafted the report recommending the unification of the two Canadas (hardly rocket science) back in the heady days of BNA (British North America, for the uninitiated). The symbolism is idiotic. Not only because our great pride is in being accidentally named after a man who helped destroy French and Indigenous culture in the service of our British colonizers. The sports teams for both schools have the same name, the “Canadas,” which, if you’re following carefully, you know means that the full names of each team contains the semantically ridiculous repetition “Canada Canadas,” as in “Upper Canada Canadas.” No one actually says that, of course, because they’d sound like morons if they did (instead, they eliminate the first “Canada”), but it’s there, lurking underneath the scores on the morning announcements, cheers on Spirit Day, and the sentimental hoo-rahs in the Enterprise (“Bobby Booby, son of David and Liz Booby of Booby Auto, north Saffronville, scored the lone goal in the Canadas’ hard-working loss.”)
Barring some miracle, the only teams our teams will ever play are teams from Canada, and so in that light, “Canada Canadas” becomes even more meaningless, both humiliating and demoralizing at once. At least if we were the Badgers or something we could claim exclusivity until we met another team from podunk-nowhere with the same spirit animal: at least a badger is fearsome, at least there is some menace in that name. And what if, say, the Lower Canada Canadas did ever make it to a national tournament and ended up playing a team from Quebec? The Upper Canada Lower Canada Canadas vs. the legitimately Lower Canada Kanata Canadiens —?
The problem with doing a documentary on Durham is that teachers don’t usually like it when you’re too negative, even if you’re being realistic. I don’t know why. Maybe they get nervous about the world they are about to throw us into, and they’d like to keep us insulated from all of the shit we’re going to eat as soon as we get out.
But maybe it should be a documentary about how Durham is a hole and we are all trapped. Or about how I am going to get out of here somehow. Or about how if you live here for too long the hope in you dies and you become one of those walking corpses working at the Canadian Tire their entire lives. My cousin Peter told me last Thanksgiving that he saw an old friend of his there the last time he visited, and that when he said hello his friend looked right through him as he passed carrying a fresh shipment of lacrosse sticks. There are teenagers and there are capital-A Adults with serious jobs and in-laws and mortgages and everyone else is dead, dead.
Can I put that in a school project?
Let me do you a favour.
When you pass through the pines flanking Highway 89 on the approach to Durham you might feel light and cheerful driving in the sun, and when the town rises up in front of you, imagine that this is a place like any other, that we have lives here, that there is life, that in some haunted past or nostalgic future you might settle down in the sun and the grass and the asphalt and build a home and have children …
But please don’t be deceived — keep driving.

My best friend Walid told me that I should do the documentary on sex. I don’t know anything about sex — I mean, nothing first-hand — and he knows that. That’s the reason he suggested it as a topic. He is a dick. I said I wasn’t sure what that documentary would even be and he said, “Are you kidding?” and started thrusting his hips at a locker. “You could make it, like, a nature documentary.”
I told him to fuck off.
He said, “Okay, what if the documentary was about sex, but, like, actually in nature, with animals?” I thought that could be pretty funny. But I know even less about that than I do about human sex, which I only understand on account of all the human “nature documentaries” I have watched online. But, uh, that’s a topic I doubt that Wright would let me explore. And I’m not sure I’d want to, anyway.
I didn’t know what my documentary was going to be about, but I wanted it to be good. I wanted it to inspire the same kinds of feelings in others that my favourite movie, Evie of the Deepthorn, did in me. I wanted to make people feel like there was something urgent rising up out of them, something beyond themselves that was scary and insightful and beyond their control. I think it’s important for you to understand, too.

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Pallbearing
Excerpt

The coffin was awkward to carry; the weight threw off the pallbearers’ balance, and their closeness to each other caused them to walk in a short, shuffle step. Jonathan was surprised by the weight; it seemed heavy, at first, but a few steps later, he wondered if maybe it was actually lighter than it should be. The wood was, after all, quite dense. But by the end she had been so thin, something he then tried not to think about. He decided that he had no basis for comparison. There was no reason to think the coffin was either heavy or light; experientially, it was exactly the weight all coffins he had ever handled weighed.

Jonathan tried to counterbalance by throwing one arm out to the side, but then thought having one arm flapping maybe looked disrespectful. Instead, he put it across his body and used it to help with the weight. The others struggled too. The natural burial field was riddled with little holes and clods of dirt. He wondered again why they hadn’t lifted it up on their shoulders. He was sure that’s what they should have done, but it was too late to do anything about it.

Then they were coming up on the hole in the ground. There were wide, canvas straps across it, the straps wrapped around a metal frame so the coffin could rest over the grave. The pallbearers walked on either side and stopped. A pallbearer opposite Jonathan shifted his grip, the coffin rocked and when it stopped, something inside kept moving for a moment. Jonathan tried not to think about that while they lowered the coffin into place.

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True Patriots
Excerpt

“TARGET THEIR BRIDGE.”
Claire gave the order. She could feel the gaze of her crew. Would she deliberately kill? She’d been captain for barely two months. Too junior. Not tested. And a woman.
Only minutes earlier, she had watched endless waves pound a small fishing boat, the spray and incessant snow rendering it invisible at times, despite the blazing cone of light from the helicopter above. Off the coast of Nova Scotia, the winter nor’easter that had paralyzed New England with two feet of powder retained enough of its fury to imperil any ocean vessel.
A kilometre away, the CH-149 Cormorant, shaking violently a few wave heights above the turbulent ocean, was trying to keep its searchlight fixed on the ship that bucked between mountains of water.
“It’s the MV Atlantic Mariner. Out of Boston,” the pilot said over the radio.
Claire squeezed the microphone dangling from the ceiling. “Captain O’Brien, do you see anyone on board?”
A moment of white noise and then, “There must be. Will advise.”
The sailor manning the radio on the bridge of the coastal patrol vessel HMCS Kingston, Petty Officer Second Class Sullivan, turned to Claire. “Maritime Command said that the vessel never acknowledged radio contact, ma’am.”
“They never asked for any help.” Lieutenant Wiseman, executive officer and second-in-command, brushed past in the tight space, as Claire sat in the captain’s chair.
“Doesn’t matter, XO.” Something’s not right, Claire thought.
“There’s no transponder signal,” Sullivan said.
“We’re not going anywhere.” My first rescue.
“It must have drifted.”
Wiseman nodded. “And it looks like a lobster boat anyway.”
“Isn’t lobster season here in the spring?” Sullivan kept his gaze on the radio’s lights and buttons.
“Agreed.” Claire leaned forward in thought. “There’s something weird about this. We keep trying.”
“They shouldn’t be out in this storm, ma’am,” said Sullivan. “How could they not have seen it coming?”
O’Brien’s voice crackled on the radio: “No one sighted. Do you want us to continue?”
Claire framed the distressed vessel in her binoculars for a moment, lowered them, then pointed to Wiseman. “Distance to target?”
“Weather’s interfering with radar accuracy.”
“Best guess.”
“Three thousand metres and closing, ma’am.” She noticed a new spike of stress in Wiseman’s voice.
Claire raised her binoculars, flicked some loose strands of hair out of the way, and continued looking at the tiny shaft of light blinking between shifting mounds of black water. My first chance to do something good. She’d wait it out. She grabbed the microphone again and squeezed the button. “O’Brien, this is the Kingston. Hold position. Continue the search. Advise when low on fuel.”
“Acknowledged.” A moment later, the pilot’s voice returned with a new edge. “There’s someone down there.”
Claire saw it, too. A single dark figure emerged from the bridge of the helpless vessel. The helo narrowed the spotlight until the person stood like an actor alone on a stage. The man — he walked like a man even at this distance — took a few steps and held what appeared to be a short pole.
Wiseman turned to her. “Vessel at two degrees starboard, ma’am. Range, one kilometre.” A change in the familiar background rustle told her that the six-person bridge crew had moved into a higher state of readiness.
She saw the fishing boat suddenly spring to life, with running lights bright. The boat swung toward the Kingston, appearing as a small supernova against the black of the frothing sea.
This was not a normal reaction. “XO, report,” she said. Wiseman watched the radar display for a moment. “Target approaching. Ten knots and accelerating.”
Don’t they want to be rescued? “Collision course?”
Wiseman turned to face her. “Roger, ma’am.”
Was the boat deliberately trying to collide with the Kingston? They were supposed to be on a rescue mission. None of the threat simulations during her training at CFB Esquimalt had ever foreseen this situation. She remembered what her instructor had said: When in doubt …
“Sound action stations,” she ordered.
A perceptible pause told her they were wondering if she was serious. Then the XO acknowledged her command. “Roger, ma’am. Sounding action stations.” Most of the crew was older than her thirty-one years, and she wasn’t sure how they would react to a new and untested officer in what might become a crisis.
The looping klaxon blared on the bridge and throughout the ship.
“Ship-to-ship.” She pointed to Sullivan.
“Ready, ma’am.”
She gripped the microphone: “Atlantic Mariner. This is the captain of the HMCS Kingston. We are here to assist you. Acknowledge.”
Only static crackled on the speaker.
“Repeat message every thirty seconds.”
“Aye aye, ma’am.” Sullivan scribbled the message on a small pad.
She didn’t have much discretion as the captain of a coastal patrol vessel. She needed permission from her superiors back in Halifax to use the Bofors 40-mm cannon that could annihilate the boat in one shot. With a long chain of command that went up to the minister of defence, she was unlikely to get it within a day. Until then, she could use the M2 0.50-calibre machine gun mounted to the starboard side of the bridge.
She had a single machine gun to defend the ship.
But was the fishing boat a threat? Its action was strange and unexpected, but she wasn’t sure if it posed a danger or if there was some other, more innocent explanation. Maybe the boat’s crew was merely trying to get closer to aid in their rescue.
Any threat situation had to meet three criteria. First, there was intent. The boat hadn’t threatened anyone. It seemed to ignore the helicopter with the blazing light.
“Let’s see if that ship is deliberately trying to ram us. Steer one three five.”
The helmsman repeated her command and swung the wheel.
She grabbed on to the overhead handle as the ship veered dramatically to the right, still pitched by wave after wave. She watched the fishing boat’s reaction.
“Midships,” she said. The light from the Atlantic Mariner dimmed for a moment, then quickly brightened again.
“Target is following our move, ma’am,” said the petty officer on the bridge, scanning the fishing boat from the bow.
So that’s intent, Claire thought. Or do they just want to get rescued? Why didn’t they acknowledge our hail or the helicopter hovering above them? Her indecision felt familiar: Should she pursue a law degree and satisfy her parents’ ambitions, or join the navy?
Simple. Keep it simple. Stick with the three criteria, she told herself.
The second criterion was proximity.
“Distance?” she called.
“Six hundred metres. Closing at thirty knots,” said the navigator. A quick mental calculation and she estimated that the boat would penetrate the ship’s three-hundredmetre safety perimeter in less than twenty seconds. Then she would consider it a mortal threat.
Seconds to decide.
O’Brien returned on the radio. “There’s something else, Kingston …
She watched the man and saw the pole shift until it pointed directly at the helicopter.
“RPG! RPG!” O’Brien’s voice sounded more angry than scared.
A flash from the ship ahead.
The rocket-propelled grenade ripped past the chopper as it banked sharply to the right, dipped, and accelerated away.
“Confirm RPG,” Claire said into the microphone, suddenly oblivious to the klaxon blaring in the bridge.
Captain O’Brien answered in short bursts over the radio. “RPG. Confirmed. Taking evasive action.” She could see the helicopter veer away from the boat at an extreme angle.
“Did they just fire at the helo?” said Claire to no one in particular, standing in disbelief.
Wiseman looked at the tactical screen in front of him. “They missed, ma’am. The helo is leaving at high speed. Recommend we do the same.”
She hopped back into the captain’s chair and glowered at the XO. The MV Atlantic Mariner now satisfied the third criterion: capability. They had a weapon that was a threat to the ship and her crew. One RPG could do serious damage to the bridge or the engines, or blast a hole below the waterline, potentially sinking the ship.
“Close up, M2,” she ordered. It was the only weapon she could command in the time that she had. You couldn’t stop the boat with the gun, but you could stop her crew. “Target their bridge. Now.”
She stared into the XO’s eyes until he repeated the command.
The sailor hesitated for a second before answering “Aye aye, ma’am” over the commlink. She could feel the gaze of the other crew on the bridge. Their unease about her qualifications as captain weighed on her like a physical force. Too young. Too inexperienced. Too female. She fought her drifting doubts. “Ship-to-ship,” she said to Sullivan.
He flicked a switch on the radio console. “Ready, ma’am.”
She yanked the microphone: “Atlantic Mariner, this is the Canadian warship HMCS Kingston. We are trying to assist you. You have fired on our helicopter without known reason. Do not approach this ship. Stop your engines, cease fire, and acknowledge, or we will fire upon you.”
She stood up again. “Range and speed,” she said with a distinctly more serious tone: one she knew the crew would notice.
“Four hundred metres. Thirty knots.”
She squeezed the mike in her hand. “I say again. Stop your engines and acknowledge or we will fire upon you.”
Only a few seconds before it got too close.
“Three hundred metres.”
The boat had just entered her exclusion zone.
“Any change?”
Wiseman said, “No, ma’am. Collision course. Recommend —”
“M2.” She heard herself gulp over the noise of the bridge. “Open fire.”

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Lion's Head Revisited

Lion's Head Revisited

A Dan Sharp Mystery
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

One
Blood Money

PI Dan Sharp sat with his back to the window. Behind him, the Don River murmured quietly after the previous night’s storm. His office on the top floor of a warehouse import-export business had long been a sanctuary for him. Currently, however, it was feeling a bit crowded.
The three people facing him looked to be in their late twenties. The blond had multiple piercings and tattoos on her arms. The young man, slender and bearded, was agitated. The third, a quietly attractive woman, watched him with gentle eyes. They were waiting for his answer.
“You have no choice,” Dan said. “You have to report it.”
“But we want to keep it private. At least for now,” the man insisted.
His face was ravaged with red eruptions, like a perpetual adolescent. While his concern was evident, it wasn’t anything Dan could agree to.
“It can’t be private, Eli. This is a police matter. Kidnapping is a criminal offence.”
“It might be a hoax,” the pixie-haired blond, Janice, argued. “We don’t know for sure if a crime has been committed.”
“Do you want to take that chance?” Dan asked. No one answered. “Why do you think it might be a hoax?”
Janice frowned. “Because when they called, they never mentioned Jeremy. They just said they were raising money for missing children. When I asked how much, they said a million dollars.”
“They were probably playing it safe in case someone was listening in,” Dan said. “Your son has now been missing for three days. The police found no trace of him on the trails up on the mountain or anywhere near the shore where you were camping. You’ve already had one phone call and soon you’ll get another. The only choice you have to make is whether you’re going to pay the ransom or not.”
Eli shook his head. “But what if it’s someone who heard Jeremy was missing on the news and is trying to extort money from us? We need to buy ourselves time.”
“Time is a luxury you may not have, but whether the kidnapping is real or fake, you need to let the police know.” Dan hoped he sounded sympathetic.
“But so far they haven’t found anything useful,” Eli persisted. “We don’t have faith they can help us, to be honest.” “Look — even if you think the police aren’t doing their job, the best I can do is run a parallel investigation. I can’t interfere with what they’re doing. If you know something, you have to tell them.”
“But we don’t know anything!” Eli exclaimed.
Janice put a hand on his arm. “No, Dan’s right. We do know something — we know that we were asked for money.”
Eli threw his hands up in the air. “And where do we get this blood money from? Is there some government fund for kidnap victims that we can apply for? Or maybe I should just ask my boss for a raise of, oh, I don’t know — a million dollars?”
He wrapped his arms around his chest and slumped into his chair. Dan had had enough of his petulance.
“Eli, I appreciate that this is difficult for you, but what you do now could make all the difference in getting Jeremy back safely.” He turned to Janice. “Did they say anything else?”
“Yes. They said not to mention the call to anyone.”
“That’s to be expected. How’s your back, by the way? I understand you had quite a fall coming down the escarpment.”
“She nearly got gored by a bull, but a crazy man came out waving a tea towel and chased it away,” Eli interjected.
“That was after I fell.” Janice gave Dan a rueful smile. “The doctor said I’ll live. Though I’m not sure I want to right at this moment.”
“Janice!” The rejoinder came from the other woman.
“Please! Let’s have none of that.”
Her speech was clipped, almost a bark.
“Oh, go to hell, Ashley!” Janice snapped, then she turned suddenly contrite. “I’m sorry. I have no right to act like this.”
Ashley nodded. “It’s all right. You’ve been through a lot.”
The name suited her, Dan thought. Lithe and willowy, with hair the colour of ash wood.
She turned her eyes to him. “We don’t know what to do. We need you to advise us.”
“Thank you. The first thing you need to do is report the call to the police. That’s what I advise.”
“Then what?” Eli asked, still sulking.
“Then we start looking. For now, tell me everything that’s happened.” Dan picked up a pencil. “Start with anything irregular or noteworthy you recall in the days before Jeremy disappeared.”
Janice nodded. “There was something odd. I saw an older woman outside the house twice right before the camping trip. She seemed to be waiting for something. I went out to see what she wanted, but then Jeremy came out with Ashley and she walked away.”
“Did she say anything at all?”
“She called me Kathy.”
Dan glanced up from his notepad. “Kathy?”
“Katharine is my first name, but no one ever calls me that. I go by my middle name, so I don’t know how she’d know that.”
“Can you describe her?” Dan asked.
“She was plain. Mousy looking. The sort of woman you barely notice even if she’s right beside you.”
Dan looked at the pert blond with triple ear piercings. There was no chance of not noticing her.
“Was she short? Tall? Slender? Overweight?”
“Average height. Dumpy, but not huge. A little bulky. She had brown hair going grey.”
“Was there anything memorable about her face?”
“Her eyes were sad. That was my first thought.”
“Good. Anything else?”
Janice shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Okay. That’s a start,” Dan said. He turned to the others. “Did either of you see her?”
Eli shook his head. “No.”
“I did. Briefly,” Ashley replied. “She looked exactly as Janice described.”
“Any idea who she was?”
“None. But what sort of monster kidnaps a child?”
Janice caught her breath and turned aside. Her shoulders shook.
“Give us a moment,” Ashley said, putting an arm around her.
“I’m fine,” Janice said, regaining her composure. “You were asking what sort of person would kidnap a child,” Dan continued. “That’s the most important question we need to answer right now. Why would someone target you?”
“Definitely not for the money.” Janice rubbed away a tear. “I mean, do we look rich? I work in an art gallery on commission. Eli’s a designer. Ashley isn’t working at the moment. We barely scrape by.”
“Apart from the money. Is there anyone who would be likely to do such a thing? Someone who might bear a grudge against any one of you?”
“What about Sarah?” Ashley prompted.
“Jeremy’s a surrogate child,” Janice said. “Sarah was his birth mother.”
“And you suspect the birth mother? Why?”
Eli snorted. “She was bad news from the beginning.”
“We couldn’t know that,” Janice said, her voice icy.
“It was obvious,” Eli said. “I warned you right at the start.”

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Alone in the Wild

Alone in the Wild

A Rockton Thriller (City of the Lost 5)
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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New Children's for the week of January 27th : New Middle Grade Fiction
The Lost Scroll of the Physician
Excerpt

ONE

THE COBRA HISSES IN STRIKE POSITION, forked tongue flickering, hood flared wide. Its icy, flat stare remains unbroken except for the vertical blink of its eyes. My fingers move up and down the long wooden reed, covering some holes and releasing others, as the notes float up and up. Gaze locked with mine, the snake slowly undulates from side to side and my body relaxes a fraction as our spirits entwine. A crowd has formed.

This is what I want.

Vendors walk toward the spectacle, attention drawn. People point and laugh, momentarily distracted from the oppressive heat of midday as they move in closer for the show. My eyes don’t leave the snake’s, but I know Ky is weaving through the carts, lifting a plum here, palming a fig there, taking whatever is most easily on offer. Hopefully he’ll find some bread, maybe some nuts and fruits, though there hasn’t been much variety of late. My ears strain for shouts, an exclamation of “thief!” over a rumbling stomach, but the crowd is as mesmerized as the serpent.

Snake charming is not common knowledge here. My father taught me the art, just as he taught me to read and write, also not so common — especially for a girl. But he believed that learning and knowledge bestow power on their possessor. Unfortunately, all his knowledge and power were not enough to keep him and my mother from being killed.

Pain blooms raw and fresh, as if the cobra has struck my heart. Has it only been one moon since they were stolen from us?

Focus.

I need to focus or the snake’s Ka will break with mine. Then I will not be so safe. Though safety is mostly an illusion, I think.

Higher and higher, the snake rises in the air, out of the basket woven with grasses picked from the banks of the Nile by my own hands. Ky’s and mine. His are much faster. I pray to Amun they are fast now and try not to think what will happen if they are not. A fruit vendor, bald and fat, clothes stained with the juices of his wares, thrusts a finger in my direction and jeers.

“The snake is drugged. See how slow it moves.”

I do not stop playing to tell him the snake is moving slow because it is entranced. Also, the heat of this day would make any creature sluggish. My heckler himself is sweating, a hairy, meaty arm coming across his dripping brow. Others begin to murmur, debating the state of the cobra’s consciousness, attention wavering.

This is dangerous.

I move the reed in dizzying circles, notes coming faster. The snake follows the instrument, not taking its eyes from the wand, regarding it as a predator. It does not matter what tune I play, as the reptile can sense the sounds but not the individual notes. Those are for the audience, and so I try to make them as pleasing as possible. Unlike the fat man, I do not want my clothes splattered with rotten fruit.

There is a noise at the back of the crowd. My body tenses. A dog barks, then barks again. Time slows as the fat man turns, upper body twisting as he cranes neck over shoulder, double chin coming last, pointing in the direction of the commotion.

Please don’t let it be Ky, please don’t let it be Ky.

But Amun must be sleeping because there is my brother, scrawny arm held tight in the grip of an angry woman, dark hair frizzing around her shoulders like pregnant storm clouds. She is yelling and my brother’s face is pinched and scared.

My foot shoots out, kicking the basket over. Screams erupt from the crowd as Apep goes slithering off in search of cooler and calmer surroundings. The flash of regret at the hours of now-wasted training is quickly replaced by an intense fear that my brother could possibly lose the arm the woman is clutching.

Or worse.

Running through the panicked crowd, Ky and the screeching woman disappear in the churning masses. Frantic, I whirl in all directions, desperately trying to catch a glimpse of the pair.

A dog barks again and I look in its direction, eyes landing on the fat man.

“Don’t let him go!” he shouts, enraged. Following his gaze, I see the woman with my brother.

“If you were not so lazy and distracted, thieves could not steal so easily!” she yells back. I realize she is my heckler’s wife. He thunders toward them, one hand on the large knife at his side, sun glinting off the deadly blade. For a fat man he is quick as a crocodile, with a grin twice as evil. I dart under arms and around unwashed bodies, coughing on dust kicked up by sweaty feet.

“Sesha,” Ky cries, catching sight of me.

“Release him,” I say. The woman sneers at me in perfect imitation of her husband, who is only seconds from reaching us.

“I don’t think so.” Her lips twist in a cruel smile as her nails dig deeper into Ky’s arm, making him cry out. “He is going to pay for what he took.”

“He has nothing.” I pray she will not lift his tunic where the cloth sack is tied around his skinny waist. The fat man is almost upon us, knife gripped low. My mind races for a way out and comes up with nothing. I cannot leave Ky.

Then the dog is there, growling deep in its throat. It stares menacingly at the woman.

She takes a step back, unsure, pulling Ky with her. “Call off your dog.”

“He is not mine to call.”

“Liar.”

And then the man is also there, lunging for me. I go boneless like Apep, and slip through his hands. He lets out a roar, rotten breath enveloping me as he fumbles for the knife. Reaching my brother, I grab his arm and pull with all my strength in the opposite direction. The man is on his knees, scrambling for his knife in the dirt. Tugging harder, I yell again at the woman to let go. She will not. She is too strong.

The dog lunges forward, jumping up on her front, teeth snapping. She screams, hands coming up to protect her face, releasing Ky so suddenly that I stumble backward and we fall hard to the ground. But only for a second.

Jumping to his feet, Ky extends a crescent-marked arm to help me up. We race through the market, dodging around stalls and people too preoccupied with their own lives and the possibility of a snake underfoot to pay much attention.

I hear both the man and the woman shout behind us, but we are lightning, darting into shadows that even the sun’s rays cannot dispel. When at last we are sure of our safety, we stop, hands on knees, breath coming fast and hard, tracks of sweat running down our dusty faces. It is several minutes before we speak.

“I’m sorry, Sesha,” Ky says, distress in his dark brown eyes. “My hunger made me careless.”

“Do not apologize for being hungry, little brother.” I ruffle his brown hair, curly like our father’s was. He brightens.

“Look.” Untying the cloth satchel at his waist, he lets the tattered sack fall to the ground. Out rolls a fig, some grapes, a few berries, and one overripe plum, conjuring with it the smell of the man’s decaying teeth. My stomach turns.

“Well done.” I gesture to the food. “Eat. I am not hungry.”

“Are you sure?” Picking up the fig, he has it in his mouth before I can nod. He needs it more than I. Noting the dark circles under his eyes and the pallor of his face under skin coloured by the sun, I gesture to him to sit as we lean back against a pitted wall behind one of the temples.

“Apep?” he says between ravenous bites, juice dribbling down his chin.

“Gone,” I say, and he lowers his eyes. “Back to the riverbank where she’ll be much happier.”

“But … all the time we spent with her …” There’s a slight tremor in his voice.

“I can find another snake.” I pat his back and smile to let him know I’m not upset. “Another brother may not prove to be so easy.”

He holds out some bruised grapes. “Have some, Sesha, they are delicious.”

I oblige, knowing he will not relent until I eat something. We finish the food together, leaving only the mushy plum, which Ky pockets. A rustling sound to our left has us on our feet, heads swivelling in its direction. The dog from the market trots around the corner and we relax, slumping back against the wall. It walks up to Ky and licks his face, making him giggle. It nudges me next with a wet nose and I scratch its pointy ears. There’s a chunk missing from the left one, an old injury leaving the skin soft and smooth.

“Do you know this dog?” I ask, curious as to where it came from.

“He saved us,” my brother says, laying his head on the lean torso. “He is ours now.”

“Just what we need.” I sigh. “Another mouth to feed.” The dog barks and a hind leg comes up to scratch vigorously behind his torn ear. “And fleas.”

 

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The Jigsaw Puzzle King
Excerpt

“How’s it going, Warren?” asked Mom, that first day in our new house.

“I’m bored,” I said, picking at the scab on my knuckles. I got the scratch the day we left the old farmhouse in Smiths Falls when I was trying to make Jelly, my cat, go into her kitty kennel. Looking at the orange furball now curled comfortably on my bed, I figured I’d been forgiven, because she looked as if she didn’t have a care in the world. Life was like that for cats — simple. As long as they had their people, a bowl full of food, and a place to sleep, that was enough. “I wish I had a friend to play with.”

“Now that you’re unpacked, why don’t you go outside and play with your brother?”

“Aw, Mom. All he wants to do is play make- believe. I need a friend who likes to do the same things I like. Bennie can barely kick a soccer ball — and forget about hockey.”

Mom smiled. “Well, maybe he’ll grow into those things one day. But as for make-believe, he’s outside with a bunch of kids right now and they sound like they’re having loads of fun playing one of his games.”

“He is?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Mom,” I sighed, “you let him out alone? You should’ve told me.”

“Well, I’m telling you now. Besides, he’s not far.” She was almost laughing at me. “So what are you waiting for?”

Outside, I followed the sounds of laughter and screams coming from the empty lot two houses over. There was Bennie, moaning and staggering after some boys and girls who darted in and around him, laughing hysterically. They urged him to catch them, but they were much too quick. My guts twisted into a knot as I watched my plan for a carefully crafted fresh start melt away in the late August sunshine. Sometimes people who didn’t know Bennie thought he was weird. I liked to ease him into new situations slowly so we might avoid that.

Just then, Bennie saw me.

“Hey, everybody, that’s my big brother, Wart. Can he play, too?” Blood rushed to my cheeks when some kids snickered at my dreaded nickname. I wished I had arms like Plastic Man so I could reach out and whack him for that. Instead I pretended I didn’t hear him and tried to sneak away. Of course, Bennie had a different plan, and before I had time to leave he wagged his chubby arms at me and shouted, “C’mon, Wart, it’s all right. You can play, too. Don’t be afraid. These guys are nice.”

Shoot. I was stuck. “Ha. I’m not afraid,” I said as I shuffled over to the group, pretending not to notice all the stares.

“We’re playin’ The Walking Dead, and I’m the zombie,” Bennie said. That explained all the moaning and staggering. “If I tag you, you’ll be a zombie like me.” He started up his act again, and the kids scattered in different directions, screaming. When he staggered toward me, I darted past him and joined the others running and hiding behind shrubs.

Bennie chased us as quickly as his flat feet could carry him. I knew he would be a lonely zombie if I didn’t help him. It had always been like that, ever since I could remember: me helping him and keeping him from getting hurt. I was just about to step out and let him tag me when someone tapped my shoulder.

“Quick, hide behind here,” said a girl, who ran behind some trees. I followed her and found some other kids were hiding there, too.

“Hi, Wart. I’m Maya. This is my brother, Taylor, and that’s Luke,” the girl whispered.

I picked at the bark on the tree and tried to act casual. “Actually, my name’s Warren. Only Bennie calls me that.”

“Well, that’s a relief. It’d be seriously unfortunate if that was your real name,” said Maya, giggling. The two boys sniggered.

“Bennie’s funny. Does he always call you that?” asked Taylor. My stomach muscles tightened and my mouth suddenly felt parched.

“He’s not supposed to call me that in public, but he forgets. It started when we were little.” Just then Bennie stomped past our hiding place and moaned some more. Again Taylor and Luke laughed like it was the funniest thing on earth, and again it felt like someone was squeezing my gut.

“What grade are you in?” Maya asked, taking no notice of them.

“Six.”

“Oh yeah? Me, too. Going to Rosemary Brown Elementary?”

I nodded just as the zombie tripped and fell. I heard him whimper in pain. I would have gone to help him, but Maya grabbed my arm. “Wait for a second,” she whispered. “There, you see, he’s all right. He’s getting up now. Sometimes little brothers just have to learn to manage on their own.” Maya laughed lightly as Bennie got up and stumbled after some kids, who darted around him like sparrows. “How old is Bennie?”

“Eleven,” I said, peeking through the branches. I hoped he’d catch at least one kid and turn him into a zombie.

“Eleven?” Maya looked confused. “Well, then, how old are you?”

“Eleven.” I glanced over at Taylor and Luke. They looked baffled, too. “But he said you were his big brother,” said Maya, now looking suspicious.

“Technically, I am his big brother … by four minutes.”

“No way!” declared Taylor. “Twins? That can’t be true. He’s so small and so weird —”

“No, no, no. You mean different,” Maya corrected. I shrugged, hoping they would let it drop. And they did, but it was an awkward silence. Finally, Maya said, “Well, he’s a neat kid, and look, he’s doing great.”

“Right. He hasn’t even tagged anyone,” I said. “I should go and help him.”

“Aww, he’s doing fine. And he sure looks like he’s having fun. So is everyone else.” She was right. Bennie did look happy.

“He sure has that creepy zombie act down pat,” said Taylor. “Hey, he should be a zombie for Halloween!” Ouch. And then it came, the question someone always asked. “So anyway, what’s your brother got?” Instantly my upper lip felt prickly from beads of sweat.

Maya swatted her brother on the arm. “Shut up, Taylor,” she said. “Sorry, Warren.”

Taylor sneered at her. “What? I’m just asking —”

“Never mind.” Maya cut him off.

“You’re not my mother, Maya. I just want to know what’s wrong with the kid.”

I tried to laugh it off and change the subject. “Wrong with Bennie? Well, for starters, he takes my stuff without asking. And calls me Wart in public, which is pretty embarrassing. And —”

“No, not like that,” Taylor blurted. “His face is weird and he acts different. Is he a retardo or something?”

Maya gasped and her cheeks turned beet red. “Just ignore him, Warren. That’s what I do.” She glared at him. “Sometimes I even pretend I don’t have a brother.”

It was too late, though. The question hung in the muggy summer air like the smell of dog poop stuck to someone’s shoe. Before I could say anything, Bennie staggered across the field trying to tag some kid who was running circles around him and laughing.

“Bennie, you run like a duck,” the boy teased. “Quack, quack, quack!”

That’s when I snapped. “It’s called Down syndrome, and yeah, maybe he’s slow, but he isn’t stupid! Not like some people, Taylor.” I stepped out from the trees and shouted, “Bennie, come on. It’s time to go. Mom needs our help with the unpacking.”

Bennie stopped running and let out a sigh of relief. “Good, ’cause I’m pooped.”

As we walked back to the house, I heard whispers and giggles. My fists clenched. Then someone yelled out, “See ya, Bennie. Bye, Wart.”

When we got to the end of our driveway, Bennie turned back and shouted, “See you guys later! And you better watch out, ’cause next time I’m gonna catch ya and eat your brains. You’ll see.” Then he chuckled and waved goodbye.

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