In small towns between the North Carolina Piedmont and the coast the best scenery is often in the sky. On flat sweeps of red clay and scrub pine the days move monotonously, safely, but above, in the blink of an eye, dangerous clouds can boil out of all four corners of the sky and do away with the sun so fast that, in the sudden quiet, birds fly shrieking to shelter. The flat slow land starts to shiver and anything can happen.
In such a storm, on Annie Peregrine's seventh birthday, her father gave her the airplane and minutes later drove out of her life. When thunder scared her awake she found herself in their convertible, parked atop a hill near a barn. Off in the distance rose a large white house with a wide white porch. A white pebble road curved away behind the car, unreeling like ribbon on a spool. Annie looked past two rows of rounded black trees to where fields of yellow wheat spilled to the edge of the sky. Her father and she must have arrived at Pilgrim's Rest, the Peregrine family house in Emerald, North Carolina, toward which they'd been driving all day.
Sliding from their car, she saw him, slender and fast-moving, his white shirt shimmery, as he ran toward her out of the barn and across the dusky yard.
"Annie!" Reaching her, her father dropped to his knees and hugged her so fiercely that her heart sped. "I'm in trouble. I've got to leave you here a little while with Aunt Sam and Clark. Okay?"
She couldn't speak, could only shake her head. How often had he told her that the house where he had grown up, that Pilgrim's Rest had been for him a pit of snakes, a cage of tigers?
He kept nodding to make her nod too. "Okay? I'll be back. Just hang onto your hat." Pulling a pink baseball cap from his pocket, he snuggled it down onto her head. Colored glass beads spelled ANNIE above its brim; a few beads were missing, breaks in the letters.
Across the driveway a tall woman with short thick hair banged open the large doors of the barn. She called out to Annie's father. "Jack? Jack! Jack! Jack!"
Annie's father turned her around to face the woman but kept talking with that nodding intensity that always meant they would need to move fast. "See my sister Sam over there? I told you how nice she is." The sound of sharp thunder flung the child back into the man's arms. "So's Clark. They'll take care of you. I'll call you. Remember, you're a flyer." He yanked her small hard blue suitcase out of the convertible, dropping it onto the gravel beside her. "Give Sam the cash."
"Stop it. Where are you going!"
"Annie, I know. It's rotten." A drop of rain fell on his face like a fat fake tear. Drops splattered on the suitcase's shiny clasps. "Go look in the barn. There's a present for you. 'Sorry, no silver cup.' " She kicked him as hard as she could. And then she kicked over the blue suitcase. "I want to go with you," she said. "You!" But before she could stop him, her father had run to their car and was driving away.
She raced after the Mustang, down the pebble road between the dark rows of large oak trees. It was hard to make her voice work loudly but finally it flamed up her throat and she could shout at him to come back. She was already crying, already knowing she couldn't run fast enough.
Behind her, the tall woman named Sam kept calling, "Jack! Jack!"
Annie echoed her, hoping it would help. "Dad! Dad!"
The convertible braked to a skidding stop, her father twisting around in the seat to call out, "Your birthday present's in the barn, go look in the barn! Annie! Don't forget. You're a flyer!"
She screamed as loudly as she could, "You stop!"
The wind caught his scarf as he sped off; it flew into the air behind him. Then he was gone and the green silk scarf lay coiled near her feet. She ground it into the pebbled road with her small leather cowboy boots; they were as green as the scarf and stitched with lariats. She had wanted these boots so badly that only a week ago her father had turned their car around, drove them back fifty miles to some small town in the middle of a flat state; he took her to the store where she'd seen the boots in the window and he bought them for her. "Never wait to say what you want," he told her. "It's no fun to go back. And sometimes you can't."
But now she'd said what she wanted and he'd left her anyhow. Dust and rain stung Annie's eyes shut and the world turned black. The tall woman's voice was calling again. "Annie! Annie!"
Furious, the child flung herself into the gully beside the road, tumbling down a tangle of vines and underbrush; she lay there in the rain, hiding from the woman Sam until her voice, solicitous and worried, passed by, still shouting, "Annie! Annie!"
After a while, the woman's voice faded and there were no sounds but the hard wind and rain. Annie decided to walk along the road in the direction her father had gone. Maybe he would stop for gas or food and she would find him again.
But suddenly her pink baseball cap blew off, whisking over the bank. She chased the cap onto a path that wound up to a hilltop, where it caught against a pair of closed white wooden gates. On a post beside these gates there hung a wood sign with painted letters. It said, "Pilgrim's Rest, 1859." And above that, "Peregrines" was carved in the wings of a wood hawk flying. She undid the heavy iron latch of the gates and pushed her way through the opening.
In the yard, gusty stinging rain and wind slapped at her, shoving her against the front of the barn. Its immense gray weathered doors blew suddenly apart as if she had knocked on them in a fairy tale and some invisible sorcerer with power over the elements had ordered the wind to sweep her inside.
The barn was an enormous dark empty space, with high rafters and a sweet strong smell. Outside, the storm was close and noisy, but the barn was quiet. Annie walked into the middle of the shadowy space. There, alone, sat an old airplane. It was a fixed-wing single-engine plane, a Piper Warrior painted cherry red with blazing yellow stripes and a silver propeller on its black nose. The door to its cockpit was swung open. From the seat the beam of a large red battery lantern was shining on the plane so clearly she could see the fresh footprints of her father's shoes in the thick dust on the wing. She ran over to the plane, crawled behind its wheel cap and beat her head against her knees in a shout of grief so hopeless that the noise she made scared her. She cried until she heard an unfamiliar man's voice call her name, "Annie." Quickly she bit at the cloth on her knee, quiet, listening. The voice moved away.
Above her, beneath the airplane's low curved wing, she could make out spiraling green letters curled like a dragon's tail, spelling the words, King of the Sky.
While they'd traveled on highways together, her father had told her about his old airplane, the King, how he and she could have been moving much faster back and forth across America if they'd only had the use of the King of the Sky, how the plane was "just sitting there in the barn" at his childhood home Pilgrim's Rest, in a town called Emerald. He'd told her that someday they'd go get the King and they'd fly it all over the country. Annie had never much believed such a plane existed, any more than the lost treasures and magic elixirs and prison tunnels he'd also described.
Now she hugged the King of the Sky's wheel with both arms and legs. "I'm a flyer," she said. "A flyer. A flyer."
Excerpted from The Four Corners of the Sky. Copyright 2009 by Michael Malone. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks Landmark. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Your reading this summer may involve brushing the sand off page five — or firing up your Kindle. However you do it, we have some reading suggestions for you, straight from independent booksellers Rona Brinlee, Chris Livingston and Lucia Silva.
This year, the booksellers' picks take readers on a variety of adventures, spanning from the great outdoors in Amy Stewart's Wicked Plants to the inside of a Scrabble factory in Kevin Wilson's collection of short stories Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. Whatever your reading pleasure — be it fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir or graphic novels — you're sure to find page after page of pleasant escape in the recommendations that follow.
Rona Brinlee, The Bookmark
Recommendations from a store by the sea, The Bookmark in Atlantic Beach, Fla.
'The Four Corners Of The Sky'
The Four Corners of the Sky, by Michael Malone, hardcover, 560 pages, Sourcebooks Landmark, list price: $24.99
Prepare to be enchanted by a masterful writer who knows how to tell a story. Michael Malone's skills derive partly from his work writing for the popular daytime soap One Life to Live, and partly from his affection for good literature. On the one hand, he knows how to script good dialogue and flesh out characters that capture your attention (if not always your heart). On the other, he can't resist the opportunity to pay homage to the classics.
It's the characters who make The Four Corners of the Sky compelling. Abandoned in Emerald, N.C., by her con artist father when she is 7, our heroine Annie doesn't hear from him again until nearly 20 years later, when he needs her help to recover a hidden treasure. His big con involves a jeweled gold statue, which may or may not be real. Joining Annie in her adventures are Aunt Sam, who believes movies can teach you everything about life; Uncle Clark, the punster; Annie's neighbor, who hopes that archaeologists will find her body a thousand years from now and comment on her good bone structure; and her father's sidekick, who loves quoting Shakespeare. Part Wizard of Oz and part Maltese Falcon, The Four Corners of the Sky is a wild ride full of twists and turns.
'The Housekeeper And The Professor'
The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa
paperback, 192 pages, Picador, list price: $14
Emotion and caring triumph over intellect in Yoko Ogawa's poetic novel, which features three main characters: the professor, the housekeeper and the housekeeper's son Root (so nicknamed because his flat head reminds the professor of the square root sign). Due to a traumatic accident, the professor's short-term memory lasts only 80 minutes, and each day the housekeeper must reintroduce herself. Nonetheless, she, the professor and Root manage to form a lasting friendship helped, in part, by numbers, which provide order to the professor's truncated world. Every morning when the housekeeper reintroduces herself, she is greeted by a question about her shoe size or perhaps the date of her birthday, and the professor then finds a relationship or pattern in those numbers that reconnect the two. This poignant story reminds us that the heart remembers what the mind forgets, and that people can find order and solace in unexpected places.
'The School Of Essential Ingredients'
The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister, hardcover, 256 pages, Putnam Adult, list price: $24.95
In Erica Bauermeister's debut novel, The School of Essential Ingredients, eight people come to cooking school, even though most have no real interest in learning how to cook. Instead they come for various other reasons, ranging from loneliness to the need to honor a gift certificate. Their teacher is as interested in how people cook as in what they cook. She recommends, for example, that couples bake a wedding cake together before they get married, and muses that if this were indeed required, many would change their minds. Her extraordinary understanding of the relationship between food and emotions allows her to see two sides of the cooking equation. In the end, her students do learn how to cook, and each one's life is made better.
If you judge a book, as I often do, by whether you'd like to spend time having lunch with its characters, you're likely to decide that Bauermeister's novel merits a three-course repast. Whether you love to cook or not, you will be charmed by this book. You need to be warned, though: You will want to eat your way through it.
'The Selected Works Of T. S. Spivet'
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen, hardcover, 352 pages, Penguin Press, list price: $27.95
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen is a uniquely constructed novel whose story is enhanced by drawings, separate stories and musings in the margins. The titular hero is a 12-year-old boy who maps everything, including faces, the dinner table and the geology of his home state of Montana. After seeing his work, the Smithsonian, not realizing the boy's age, invites him to be a keynote speaker at an important gala. His journey across the country on a train (hiding in a Winnebago being shipped) is a great adventure filled with wit, humor and fundamental truths about life and family. And unlike many other books' footnotes, which beg to be ignored, the maps and stories that occupy the book's marginalia are an extra treat that need to be devoured as part of the main feast.
Stone's Fall, by Iain Pears, hardcover, 608 pages, Spiegel & Grau, list price: $27.95
Iain Pears, the author of the best-selling An Instance of the Fingerpost, knows how to deliver a complex historical mystery. He starts Stone's Fall with London financier John Stone's fatal fall from a window. But knowing the end to Stone's story raises more questions than it answers: Did he commit suicide? Was he pushed? Or did he just trip on the corner of the rug? And who is the mysterious child he mentions in his will?
Three different narrators reconstruct Stone's life at different times, starting in London 1909, moving backward to Paris in 1890 and, finally, Venice in 1867. Along the way, the reader is treated to a series of "aha" moments as things start to make sense. In unraveling Stone's story, Pears also delves into the financial markets and arms race of the time, plus the role of greed, the need for power and the desire for war. Stone's Fall is one of those gloriously long books that is never long enough.
Chris Livingston, The Book Shelf
Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities, by Amy Stewart, hardcover, 223 pages, Algonquin Books, list price: $18.95
I consider myself the "outdoorsy" type. Camping, hiking, rock climbing, canoeing, fishing — I love it all. And as you may have experienced yourself, being outdoors has a calming and rejuvenating effect. However, after having read Amy Stewart's Wicked Plants, I will be looking over my shoulder a bit more often. Stewart, the best-selling author of Flower Confidential, has brought us a fascinating botanical lexicon loaded with plants that "kill, maim, intoxicate, and otherwise offend." From deadly nightshade to mandrake root, killer algae to hemlock, pitcher plants to — if you can believe it — Kentucky bluegrass, this book has them all. Each entry includes compelling historical tidbits and anecdotes. For instance, did you know that a fungus that attaches itself to grains like rye and wheat most likely caused hallucinations in eight young girls suspected of demonic possession in Salem, Mass., in 1691? I found this wicked little book a delight, and you will, too.
The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, by Kao Kalia Yang, Paperback, 296 pages, Coffee House Press, list price: $14.95
In the late 1970s, Kao Kalia Yang's parents met while on the run. They were fleeing from Laotian soldiers who were wiping out the Hmong, a people who assisted the United States in its fight with the Viet Cong. In The Latehomecomer, Yang beautifully recounts her parents' journey from refugee camps in Thailand to their eventual arrival in St. Paul, Minn. Her memoir crafts both a portrait of an immigrant couple, but also one of the Hmong, a people without a place. Yang's grandmother, a woman whose strength and faith keeps the family united through almost impossible odds, looms large at the center of her story. More than simply a memoir, The Latehomecomer is an affirmation of the human spirit.
'The Stolen Child'
The Stolen Child, by Keith Donohue, paperback, 336 pages, Anchor, list price: $13.95
Keith Donohue's novel The Stolen Child is a modern retelling of the eastern European changeling myth. The story begins when 7-year-old Henry Day is kidnapped by a group of childlike beings reminiscent of the Lost Boys from J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and replaced by one of their own — a doppelganger who must try to convince the Day family of his authenticity. Narrated by both Henry and his replacement, this novel follows both boys as they attempt to define who they are, or were, before they traded places in the world. Donohue explores what it is to be human without getting overly sentimental. I highly recommend The Stolen Child and am looking forward to Donohue's next offering.
'Laura Rider's Masterpiece'
Laura Rider's Masterpiece, by Jane Hamilton, hardcover, 224 pages, Grand Central Publishing, list price: $22.99
Laura Rider's Masterpiece truly lives up to its title. Rarely has a book made my face tired, but Jane Hamilton's first comedic novel had me smiling for its entire 214 pages. Hamilton's protagonists, Laura and Charlie Rider, own and run Prairie Wind Farm in rural Wisconsin, where Laura listens to the Jenna Faroli Radio Show and dreams of writing a romance novel starring host Jenna. When Charlie has a chance encounter with Jenna on the side of the road, Laura sees it as a chance to conduct a character study. Together, Charlie and Laura begin corresponding with Jenna via e-mails that are at first friendly, but become increasingly intimate. Soon they are all crossing lines they never thought they'd cross. I don't know about you, but Hamilton is one of my favorite authors, and I was delighted with her change of pace with this novel. It's romping fun!
'A Reliable Wife'
Laura Rider's Masterpiece, by Jane Hamilton, hardcover, 224 pages, Grand Central Publishing, list price: $22.99
A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, hardcover, 291 pages, Algonquin Books, list price: $23.95
Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife is my must-read recommendation. Set in rural Wisconsin just after the turn of the 20th century, the novel features Ralph Truitt, an obscenely wealthy landowner and businessman who lives a life of solitude and despair. Desperate for companionship, he places an advertisement in a Chicago newspaper for a "reliable wife." Catherine Land, the woman who answers, travels in the dead of winter to begin a new life with Ralph. Both Catherine and Ralph are intent on a new beginning — but both also have hidden motives and are not exactly whom they portray themselves to be. This engrossing and addictive novel will leave you both chilled and satisfied.
Lucia Silva, Portrait Of A Bookstore
Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen, paperback, 256 pages, Picador, list price: $14
When Dr. Leo Liebenstein's wife, Rema, comes through the door of their apartment carrying a little dog, he knows instantly that she's an impostor. First of all, Rema doesn't like dogs. And secondly, though this simulacrum has the same "hayfeverishly fresh scent ... same tucking behind ears of dyed cornsilk blond hair," and does a perfect imitation of Rema's Argentine accent with "halos around the vowels," he's certain she's not his Rema. Either Leo's mind is fracturing or the reality of the book is fractured, and the novel perches on this dangerous ledge. As we follow Leo's desperate search across the globe to find out what happened to the "real" Rema, we become entwined in twin mysteries — the mystery Leo believes in, and the mystery of whether or not we believe him. Anchored by the arc of a simple love story (man loses woman, tries to get her back), Galchen touches deeply on ideas about how we sustain love and attempt to repair it when it begins to fade, and how we reconcile the person our lover becomes, with the person we fell in love with.
'Tunneling To The Center Of The Earth: Stories'
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories, by Kevin Wilson, paperback, 240 pages, Harper Perennial, list price: $13.99
Like the pen-and-ink love children of Aimee Bender and Lorrie Moore, or George Saunders and Amy Hempel, the 10 stories in Kevin Wilson's Tunneling to the Center of the Earth are potent mixtures of weirdness and tenderness, deeply human tales with a delicate touch of the absurd. The opening story, "Grand Stand-In," is narrated by an older, unmarried, childless woman who answers an ad in the paper: "Grandmothers Wanted — No Experience Necessary." Soon she's employed by a Nuclear Family Supplemental Provider — in short, she's a rent-a-grandma for five families whose own have died before their kids got to know them, or who are too unwell to be any fun. Another story, "Blowing Up On The Spot," is told by a sorter at a Scrabble factory who spends his days up to his knees in tiles, searching for Qs.
Far from being weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, these stories deftly explore the human desires for love, family, friendship and the deep loss and longing forged by their absence. In the notes at the end of this edition, Kevin Wilson explains that he started writing because he thought that if he wrote a good enough story, people would be compelled to make out with him; I suspect that after finishing this collection, a good many readers will be disappointed to learn that Mr. Wilson is now happily married.
'Mirrors: Stories Of Almost Everyone'
Mirrors, by Eduardo Galeano (translated by Mark Fried), hardcover, 400 pages, Nation Books, list price: $26.95
Imagine Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, but penned by a poet and expanded to include the history of the entire world. Framed in inventively organized tiny vignettes — most just a paragraph or two long — Eduardo Galeano's Mirrors explodes our ideas of history in both content and form.
Fiercely political and fiercely human, Mirrors is a feast for the browser, armchair historian, poet and activist. Galeano rewrites the histories of the forgotten and the unsung, holding the guilty accountable in lyrical, inspired and unapologetically passionate prose. The table of contents alone is satisfying, with listings like "Adventures of the mind in dark times," "Wigs," "The despicable human hand," "Forbidden to be a woman," "Jazz," "Lenin," "Mark Twain" and "Django Reinhardt." A sumptuously written and bravely constructed mosaic of history, this book dares the reader to reflect, respond and speak out at every turn.
The Photographer, by Emmanuel Guibert (text & illustrations), Didier Lefevre (photographs), paperback, 288 pages, First Second Books, list price: $29.95
In 1986, young photojournalist Didier Lefevre left Paris on his first assignment: documenting a Doctors Without Borders mission into Afghanistan during the height of the Soviet occupation. Trekking across vast mountain ranges under cover of night, learning new languages and witnessing the horrors of war from all sides, Lefevre came of age both personally and professionally. Ten years later, graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert worked with Lefevre to shape his journey into a graphic memoir that would combine photographs with text and graphic-comic illustrations. The resulting book, The Photographer, is an instantly accessible reflection on the history and politics of a country whose fate has so prominently figured in that of our own. In artfully and seamlessly merging photographs with storytelling and illustration, the authors exceed the emotional resonance of any one medium alone; the hybrid narrative is immediate, deeply affecting and deeply human — qualities that remind us of the real costs of war.
'Oh! A Mystery Of Mono No Aware'
Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware, by Todd Shimoda, with artwork by Linda Shimoda, hardcover, 310 pages, Chin Music Press, list price: $22.50
On a lark, 20-something Zack Hara leaves his tepid life in L.A. for Japan. Following tiny shifts of fate, he quickly becomes fascinated by the ancient Japanese notion of mono no aware — an elusive concept that loosely means "the beauty of sad things," a sudden, intense moment of awareness that makes us cry "oh!"
In search of his own moment of mono no aware, and intent on awakening his own emotional life, he becomes captivated by the suicide clubs that meet in the Aokigahara forest. In seamless counterpoint to the philosophical current, Shimoda shapes a delicate mystery that grows darker as the novel progresses. The book itself is a fine work of art, with a gorgeous, embossed cover, rice-paper-thin pages, and textured paper inserts with illustrations that offer clues to Zack's fate — a triumphant kick in the pants for anyone who doubts the future of paper-and-ink books.