Blogging for a Good Book
If you’re looking for plot-driven action, for big twists, or a wild climax, look elsewhere. Pete Hamill’s North River is a throwback, a lovely novel with sympathetic characters, steady pacing, a setting that feels lived in, and a story that will break your heart and then mend it again.
Set in 1930s Hell’s Kitchen, North River is the story of Jim Delaney, a doctor who was a little bit old for World War I, but went anyway, and sustained some injuries and emotional damage that stayed with him. When he came home, he found a distant wife who was angry that he had left in the first place. The two continued to drift apart, and as the novel opens, we find Delaney alone. His wife has gone missing and her status is unknown, although everyone fears the worst.
But Delaney doesn’t stay alone for long. His daughter, off on the chase for a revolutionary husband, drops off her toddler son Carlito on Delaney’s doorstep. Delaney is the kind of man who takes care of his entire neighborhood, but taking care of a baby who barely speaks English is another thing, and with help from neighborhood friends, he finds a woman, Rose Verga, to work as his live-in housekeeper and care for the child until he can convince his mother to return.
Over the course of the novel, the three begin to form familial bonds, but Hamill throws many obstacles in their way: a hostile crime boss made enemy by Delaney’s assistance to his rival, an old war friend; the differences of class and culture between Delaney and Rose; the steady, sometimes overwhelming of Delaney’s neighborhood practice and the often illiterate working class people who demand his time; the ghosts of past relationships; and the nagging possibility that Carlito’s mother will return and take him away just as Delaney and Rose have formed parental attachments.
Hamill captures the waning days of Tammany Hall politics, a time now dismissed as “machine” politics, but also an era with a positive side: people were still connected and looked out for each other in a way that modern citizens don’t often understand. These are characters who stay with you long after the book is put aside, larger than life, but completely believable. The story has crime, suspense, romance, and history, something to captivate almost every reader.
If you like audiobooks, I can also recommend that format. Henry Strozier’s voice captures Delaney’s world weariness perfectly and he does well with Rose’s Italian-immigrant English as well.
Check the WRL catalog for North River
Read North River in large print
Or try North River as an audiobook on CD
I’m not normally a fan of the mashup. The book that started the craze, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was well done, but in most of these projects, the best joke is in the title. Ian Doescher has created a happy exception, taking the scripts from George Lucas’s Star Wars films and translating them into iambic pentameter, making books worthy of both the Bard and the droids. It’s a fine marriage, with the melodramatic space opera of Star Wars suited perfectly for Elizabethan language.
The success of the project has encouraged Doescher to continue with the series. The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return are already available, and more are in process. If you know your Shakespeare even a little, you’ll catch references to his famous lines throughout the works, as in the Hamlet reference in the quote above or when Han Solo quips, “Nay not that: the day when Jabba taketh my dear ship/Shall be the day you find me a grave man.”
Doescher tackles the challenges of the project with panache. R2D2, for instance, begins speaking in iambic beeps and squawks, but then switches to Shakespearean asides to complain about the “prating tongue” of his pompous golden friend. These extras add extra dimension to the interior world of beloved characters, perhaps even improving on the original. When the action cannot be conveyed by character speeches, Doescher doesn’t fret, he brings in a chorus to inform the audience of necessary plot developments. The book is graced by illustrations in the style of Elizabethan woodcuts.
You know the story, you know the style, but this combination is clever and executed brilliantly. I suspect smart English teachers will be using these books to great effect for years to come, but why leave the fun for the classroom? Take it home yourself and enjoy the experience all over again.
Check the WRL catalog for William Shakespeare’s Star Wars
When it first arrived in 2008, Tana French’s In the Woods, the first book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, won many awards: the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry Awards for First Novel. I’m happy to report that it’s good enough to merit all that praise.
The story concerns two young partners on the Dublin Murder Squad, Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox. The story is told from Ryan’s perspective. In his childhood, in the 1980s, Ryan and two friends were the victims of a crime near their home in the Dublin suburbs. The three went into the woods on a summer day, and two were never heard from again. Rob was found clutching a tree and unable to remember what had happened. He moved away, made a new life, and has become a relatively normal adult, a police detective hiding an important secret about his past. As the novel opens, over twenty years later, a call comes into the station. Another victim, a young girl, has been found at an archaeological dig near the same woods where Rob’s friends disappeared. Despite the danger to his hidden past, Rob convinces Cassie (who is the only one in the department who knows) that they should take the case.
The story goes two directions, alternating between the investigation into the contemporary crime and explorations of the past. Both are delicate affairs. Family may be involved in the new girl’s death, and political powers want the case cleared quickly so that property development can take place. Rob is fascinated by the possibility that the current crime is connected to his past, but must investigate gingerly for fear of being recognized by elderly and middle-aged locals who might recognize the current detective as the boy left digging his nails into a tree trunk. It’s a complex plot, but French handles it gracefully, presenting a plethora of well-drawn characters and interweaving story lines without confusion.
The relationship between Rob Ryan and Cassie is fascinating. They are professionals, and so close as partners that they haven’t quite registered that there is a romantic spark as well (or at least he hasn’t). But readers will pick up on it, and spend most of the book wondering whether the spark will ignite or the relationship will explode from all the tension.
Each book in French’s series (the fifth entry was recently released, and all have had strong reviews) is told from the perspective of a different member of the Dublin Murder Squad. It’s an approach I haven’t seen used since Ed McBain wrote his 97th Precinct series many years ago. I know that I, for one, will have to go on at least to book two, The Likeness, to hear Cassie’s side of the story.
Check the WRL catalog for In the Woods
Or try In the Woods as an audiobook on CD
Talk show monologues, celebrity gossip columns, even South Park episodes are full of jokey references to the quirky beliefs of Scientology and adherents like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. If you’re like I was, you laugh along with these, but don’t really know anything about Scientology. I watched The Master, a film with Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to try to get some insight. The film piqued my interest, but left me with more questions than answers.
As I learned while reading Lawrence Wright’s excellent Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, my confusion was no accident. Scientology is a slippery subject for at least five reasons. First, it’s not a religion in the traditional sense that many of us assume. In particular, there isn’t much reference to a god or gods in Scientology. Second, terminology within the religion is full of strange jargon that outsiders find hard to decipher. Third, even within the religion, access to beliefs is parceled out to each adherent as they gain different levels in a hierarchy. Fourth, the beliefs of the religion have shifted over time and continue to change. Fifth, and perhaps most central to the book, it’s not easy to leave Scientology, and life can get quite unhappy for those who divulge Scientology’s secrets publicly. Those who protect the religion aren’t above smear campaigns against Scientology’s critics, and there’s an organized campaign to put out favorable disinformation in response. Only the disgruntled are likely to go public, and they aren’t the most reliable sources. Add all of this up, and it’s no wonder that Scientology makes for a distinctly blurry target.
That’s why it’s so important that someone of Lawrence Wright’s stature and thoroughness as a researcher and writer took on the subject. Wright is an award winning journalist and writer whose previous book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, won the Pulitzer Prize. Wright spent years interacting with former Scientologists and pursuing queries with current adherents to the highest level. He’s not just repeating the gossip of a few disgruntled apostates. Everything in the book is carefully documented with multiple sources and the book was singled out for multiple awards, including a National Book Award nomination.
All of that makes this sound like a dreary tome, but far from that, it’s also a fascinating and highly readable narrative, covering Scientology from its odd beginnings, through years at sea where L. Ron Hubbard traveled on ocean liners, unable to find a country to call home for his religion, even as its beliefs developed in many strange directions. The tale continues into the modern era when celebrity adherents are carefully groomed, lavished with perks, and then kept cautiously in line, and on to David Miscavige, who took leadership in a late 1980s coup against Hubbard’s intended successors and continues to rule his flock with an iron fist.
Along the way Wright catalogs Scientology’s odd collection of beliefs about reincarnation; its battles with psychology, the IRS, and the legal systems of many nations; its extortion of money from believers and extended investment in real estate; and most of all, its cruel treatment of adherents who fall into disfavor with the Church’s leaders and sustained campaign to keep them in the religion’s control. Wright debunks Hubbard’s many lies about his background. He shows how Scientology has extorted money from adherents by forcing them to take expensive classes and even making charges to their credit cards without permission. He documents Miscavige’s physical and emotional abuse of even his highest lieutenants. He reveals the lush treatment given to Tom Cruise, including the way that Scientology helped him procure a new partner after his split with Nicole Kidman. Most horrifically, Wright describes the way in which Scientology has broken the families of members, taken away children, mandated divorces and abortions, and imprisoned, tortured, starved, and brainwashed those singled out for punishment.
For a taste, check out this summary of some of its revelations, but to put yourself fully in the know, check out the book and read it in its entirety.
Check the WRL catalog for Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief
Or listen to Going Clear on audio CD
For his combination of physical prowess, braggadocio, mental agility, and artistic flair, one can’t beat Cyrano de Bergerac. Add in the famous nose, with all of its comic exaggeration, and readers are in for a timeless treat.
De Bergerac was a real dramatist and duelist, immortalized (and fictionalized) 240 years after his death in a French play by Edmond Rostand. Those who know the story are most likely to know it from a film: the 1950 classic for which Jose Ferrer won Best Actor; the contemporary retelling Roxanne, which Steve Martin adapted and led in 1988; or the marvelous French film from 1990 featuring Gerard Depardieu. It’s the tale of a man with prodigious talents for dueling and bragging, but also for the facility of his tongue and pen.
Cyrano is in love with Roxane, but she doesn’t know, and makes him promise to aid and befriend the handsome Christian. Loyal to his promise, and embarrassed by his huge nose, Cyrano even goes so far to help the tongue-tied Christian to woo Roxane, figuring that at least he can express his love to her through another. His words succeed, but too well, as Roxane begins to love Christian’s words more deeply than his looks. War intervenes: will Cyrano and Roxane come together? Well, you’ll have to read the story to find that out.
While all three of the movies I mentioned are superb (and the filmed stage performance with Kevin Kline is no slouch either), I recommend reading Cyrano first to appreciate its linguistic force. There are two great adaptations in English. Many prefer the earlier Brian Hooker adaptation, but my favorite is by Anthony Burgess (of A Clockwork Orange fame), who retains the rhyme scheme and emphasizes humor at the play’s opening, drama at the finish.
Skim to one of the spots where Cyrano’s words tumble out in a torrent. Two of the best are in the second act: his list of ways to ridicule his nose and the “no thank you” speech, where he catalogs his reasons for being a soldier instead of a poet. If these sections don’t capture you, check your pulse. This is the ultimate work of bravado, of romance, of panache, a play that every reader should experience once for its exuberant joy and then again whenever a little encouragement is needed.
Check the WRL catalog for Cyrano de Bergerac
This young adult historical romance is set in 1523-24, embroidering on what little is known about young Anne Boleyn, before she ever caught the eye of Henry, King of England. Recently returned to the English court after years abroad, she is an outsider with the wrong looks and clothes, standing out for her French manners and fashion just in time for war with France, oops. Her tyrannical father is pushing her marriage to a boorish Irishman (actually, historically nicknamed James the Lame), and Anne is desperate for another choice.
Thomas Wyatt, playboy poet and professional flirt, offers to take on the project—for a wager—of elevating Anne’s social profile. With his savvy advice and very public attention, he can remake her into a centerpiece of the court. Only young Anne is never quite sure whether they are playacting. And even with her newfound status, nothing is simpler. Everyone who’s enamored is already married, or out of her social league… or the King of England. Who is, of course, sleeping with Anne’s sister.
Langshore writes a determined but vulnerable Anne who doesn’t have many options and hasn’t yet settled on a path of action. Her ambitions, her desire to be heard, her dysfunctional family, and, yes, her schoolgirl crushes are all very relatable, which is probably why her story has been retold so many times.
Tarnish is the middle book of three that are set in the Tudor court, but they don’t have to be read in order. Gilt tells the story of Catherine Howard, number five among Henry’s queens, and Brazen centers around Mary Howard, who married Henry’s illegitimate son.
Check the WRL catalog for Tarnish.
Miss Frederica “Free” Marshall is a suffragette, which, as she points out, is pronounced with an exclamation point. An investigative reporter for her own Women’s Free Press, she campaigns for the vote while fighting accusations of plagiarism, threats of arrest, and attempts to burn her home and business.
Edward Clark doesn’t really do exclamation points. After a harrowing experience abroad during the Franco-Prussian war, he’s a realist with a particularly dark view of reality. While he doesn’t have any problem with Free’s lady-empowering views, he doesn’t understand why she devotes time and passion to a cause so unwinnable, so much like “emptying the Thames with a thimble.”
Also, Clark is secretly Edward Delacey, Viscount Claridge, whom everyone knows to be missing in the Siege of Strasbourg and believes to be dead. (Yes, it’s a “Surprise! A lord!” romance!) Being a viscount is something else Edward doesn’t have any patience with, so he’s reinvented himself as a metalsmith, a forger, and an all-around scoundrel. Sharing a mutual enemy, Edward and Free engage in bouts of flirtation via blackmail and reverse blackmail.
This is a surprisingly lighthearted and joyful book, skating very lightly over the history of struggle and suffering that inspires it—wartime firebombings and the investigative exploits of women like Nellie Bly and Josephine Butler. Milan, in her author’s note, actually calls it “as much an alternate history as it is a historical romance.” Great women characters have been true of every one of Courtney Milan’s books I’ve read, but with a suffragette main character, this is unsurprisingly the most overtly feminist of her romances. The “huzzah” moment in this book isn’t even to do with the romance, it’s Free’s rousing explanation of just what she’s trying to do with her thimble and the Thames.
Check the WRL catalog for the ebook of The Suffragette Scandal.
I’ve been enjoying this rambling tour of the Paris art world in the 1860s and ’70s, when the established traditions of great painting were under siege, and newcomers wielding their paintbrushes like floor mops were revolutionizing, or possibly just ruining, French Art.
It’s organized loosely around the careers of two painters, figureheads of the opposing schools. Ernest Meissonier paints musketeers and subjects from history, in moments that impart a moral lesson. Edouard Manet depicts absinthe drinkers and prostitutes, a contemporary crowd in modern dress (or inexplicably nude while picnicking). Meissonier, passionate about historical accuracy, collects period dress and weaponry to create military re-enactments on canvas, laboriously layered with great detail and rewarding examination with a magnifying glass. Manet, if his critics are to be believed, slops the paint (or coal dust) on with a floor mop, approximating a scene without finishing it. Are first impressions good enough? They are for the painters who are not yet called the Impressionists, a disgruntled but passionate lot of struggling artists who are repeatedly rejected from the Paris Salon or whose paintings are “skyed,” hung so high on exhibition walls that no one can see them.
Call me old-fashioned, but I have to side with Meissonier, who is described as one of the best-selling painters you’ve never heard of. You have to respect an artist who, after his scale model of a battlefield is ravaged by mice, recreates it in full size in his yard, dragging heavy carts around to furrow the ground and strewing bags of flour about to simulate a snowy landscape. (Fortunately, he resembles Napoleon enough to model for his own paintings.) He has the local cavalry charge about on maneuvers so that he can get a better idea of how to paint horses in motion. And here comes a generation that paints wisps of colors and calls it an “impression”!
Well, history and auction prices have come down on the side of the Impressionists. But King immerses you in their controversies with great relish, including the politics of the Salon de Paris, the juried exhibition that could make or break a painter’s career. Such passions! Paintings are assaulted with walking sticks, styles are derided with great energy and imagination in the (censored) press. “This is the painting of democrats,” writes a Salon director about the new style, “of men who don’t change their underwear.” There are fisticuffs over newspaper reviews! Duels are fought!
A wealth of anecdotes, mingling history, art history, and biography, cover a lot of ground but not very deeply. This is the kind of book that adds to your to-be-read pile with tantalizing references to people and subjects you now need to know more about. Or you could go from here to Christopher Moore’s irreverent but wildly enthusiastic novel of the same time period, Sacre Bleu.
Check the WRL catalog for The Judgment of Paris.
WRL also owns the audiobook.
In this young adult mystery, Abigail Rook, a young woman recently arrived in New England in 1892, apprentices herself to a detective of the supernatural. Author William Ritter owes a double thanks to the cover artist, for the gorgeously eerie book jacket, and to the publicist who decided to market the book as “Doctor Who meets Sherlock Holmes.”
The character of R. F. Jackaby deliberately evokes Conan Doyle’s detective, if Watson had ever been turned into a duck. (Jackaby’s previous assistant is “temporarily waterfowl.”) Aloof, inscrutable, and garbed like an eccentric in a wild hat and scarf, Jackaby sweeps around the city of New Fiddleham dealing with the domovyk, kobold, or pixies that the police force overlook. The police may not be fond of him, but his esoteric skills and bottomless pockets full of tuning forks and gizmos for spying the unworldly make him an invaluable asset when a serial murderer preying on the city seems to be not a man, but a monster.
Narrator Abigail is resourceful, a paleontologist’s daughter who took off to see more of the world than her staid English upbringing could show her. She quickly adjusts to sharing her living quarters with a ghost, not to mention to encounters with bridge trolls and a perfectly chilling banshee. Like any good Watson, she grounds her employer in the mundane world, noticing the overlooked details and trying to be as helpful as one can be when one’s boss is dogged by unsettling paranormal occurrences and doesn’t know how to give a straight answer to a question:
“How many people have you got living here?….”
“Well… that depends on your definition of people… and also of living.”
I’m honestly not sure why the novel is set in America, as its inspirations are so very British, and the humor has a decidedly English twist, a reined-in Douglas Adams voice: “Across town, Mr. Henderson–the man who had heard the banshee’s silent scream—spent the evening dying. To be more accurate, he spent a very brief portion of the evening dying, and the rest of it being dead.”
Quirky and occasionally touching, this is a promising start to a series with spooks and derring-do that should appeal to fans of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood and Company.
Check the WRL catalog for Jackaby.
“Never have I seen a deadlier-looking collection of firemen, street brawlers, Party thugs, and fighting entrepreneurs in my life…. If you were loyal to the Party or maybe even a good watchman, you could wear a copper star. If you looked like you’ve killed a man with your bare hands and aren’t shy about doing it again, you could be a captain.”
It’s 1845. A blight on potatoes is sending wave after wave of destitute Irish through Ellis Island. Anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feeling run high on the streets of New York, and political debate, as often as not, takes place between mobs armed with lead cudgels. Nominated for a 2013 Edgar award, Faye’s entertaining crime novel is set at the genesis of the NYC police force, a motley crew of ruffians and Democrats nicknamed the Copper Stars.
New Yorkers are not enamored of the baby police force, decrying it as a “standing army” and an infringement of their native liberties. And barkeeper Timothy Wilde has no desire to fight crime or support the political party in which his older brother, Valentine, is such a rising star. But when an explosion wipes out his home and his livelihood, his brother pulls party strings to get Timothy a job as a Copper Star in the crime- and rat-infested Sixth Ward. Only a few days into his rounds, Timothy is involved in a foul case of murder and debauchery: he’s sheltering a ten-year-old runaway from a brothel, who won’t tell him how she came to be covered in blood. And the murder of a second child, blamed on an Irish madman, could be a lit match set to the tinder of NYC.
Faye’s first novel, Dust and Shadow, was one of many in which Sherlock Holmes confronts Jack the Ripper, and in some ways this reads like the same story on a different continent. Mutilated bodies, missing spleens, mad letters signed dramatically, “the Hand of the God of Gotham…” Wilde even has a crew of newsboys reporting to him, his own New York City “Irregulars.” Author Faye is enamored of her setting and its language, loading the story with vivid metaphors and slang straight out of a period lexicon compiled by George Washington Matsell, the city’s first police commissioner.
If bringing evildoers to justice is the main narrative thrust of the novel, its secondary theme is “Damn you, Valentine Wilde.” Val, the older and less responsible brother, lights up every scene that he stumbles into, whether drunk, hung over, coming down off a morphine high, or holding rehearsals of how to properly stuff a ballot box. A childhood’s worth of rivalry and resentment, plus the ability of any sibling to know exactly which button to push, makes the brothers’ relationship a suspenseful and entertaining crime scene of its own.
I listened to both Gods of Gotham and the sequel, Seven for a Secret, on audiobook, and they were fantastic picks for a long commute. Reader Steven Boyer conveys Wilde’s narration with wry flair and creates engaging voices for the other characters as well. There was only one drawback to listening, rather than reading: each chapter is prefaced by a quote from some anti-Irish writings of the period, and every single time the text mentioned the evils of Popery, I had a moment of confusion. Potpourri? Evil?
Check the WRL catalog for The Gods of Gotham.
You know the story, right? A lovely girl befriends a frog. She kisses the frog; he turns into a prince; and they all live happily ever after.
Not in this version. Yes, the beautiful and smart girl, Sunday Woodcutter, meets a talking frog by a pond in the woods. They become friends. And yes, she kisses him to see what would happen. Hours later, when the frog finally turns into a man, Rumbold realizes he is the one person Sunday would never want to see again. He is the Crown Prince of Arilland, the man responsible for her beloved brother’s death.
Prince Rumbold can’t stop thinking about Sunday, though. He decides to hold three balls and invite all the women in the country to attend so he has a chance to woo Sunday as a man. But the balls don’t go exactly as planned. Spells and secrets need to be revealed before the story can end in the expected happily ever after.
The author cleverly weaves glimpses of other fairy tales throughout the book–one sister has a story similar to Cinderella, another tragically dies from magical dancing shoes, her brother trades a cow for some beans, and there is a giant–it was worth turning the pages just to see who would turn up next and how the “real” story would unfold.
Kontis has written a second in the Woodcutter sisters series, Hero, about the adventures of Saturday. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next in this delightful, magical world.
Check the WRL catalog for Enchanted
I saw a new book in the library the other day – Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate. While flipping through the colorful picture book, I was reminded of how much I had enjoyed Applegate’s Newberry winner, The One and Only Ivan.
Ivan is one of the animal attractions at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. In fact, he is one of the featured attractions on the billboard that he can see outside the window of his small enclosure. He spends his time watching TV; talking with his friends Bob, a stray dog, and Stella, an older elephant; and painting pictures. Ivan chooses not to remember what life was like prior to coming to the shopping mall.
When the shopping mall owner buys a younger elephant to bring excitement – and more paying customers – to the Big Top Show, Ivan makes a promise to Stella to help Ruby find a safe place to grow up. That promise leads Ivan to remember what it was like before he was caught and put in the cage. That promise leads Ivan to figure out a creative way to send a message to the Julia and George, the humans he trusts. That promise leads not only to Ruby finding a good home in a zoo, but Ivan finding a home with other gorillas and lots of open sky.
The story is told in simple sentences through the unique perspective of Ivan. Of course, the story is the author’s imaging of what Ivan was thinking and going through, but I forgot that part as I rooted for Ivan’s friends to understand what he was trying to say.
Publisher’s Weekly recommends the title for ages 8-12. But I think it was well worth taking an hour or so to read the story. It is also available as an audiobook, well-read by Adam Grupper, if you would prefer that format.
Check the WRL catalog for The One and Only Ivan
Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook for The One and Only Ivan
What exactly makes a hero? Take Johnny Hiro: he works paycheck to paycheck as a busboy/dishwasher in a sushi restaurant, has a strained relationship with his parents, and is being sued by his ex-landlord for damage done to his last apartment by a Godzilla-like monster reptile who was taking revenge for sins perpetrated by the mother of Johnny’s current girlfriend, Mayumi. All pretty typical stressors in the life of a New Yorker.
Mayumi is the bright spot in his life, and Johnny strives not only to make ends meet, but to get ahead for her, much more so than even for himself. After a day spent leaping across rooftops with a stolen lobster, engaging in a high speed chase with a van full of stolen fish, or fighting off 47 samurai, he gets to go home to her peppy optimism. She keeps him grounded, and full of hope, despite his many misadventures.
Several celebrities make cameos throughout the pages, which is sometimes played for laughs (Alton Brown, especially) and sometimes rather random. All together they all read as a fond nod to popular culture, especially the continually quoted hip hop lyrics. This might cause the stories to age badly, but for now they are still relatable.
Fred Chao, who is both the author and artist of this series, provides commentary throughout the story that grounds the often absurd plot into humanistic realities. Some of these comments are little gems, which help elevate situations above their most basic reading. Two of my favorites are “Most of the things that affect us will never be explained. They are simply the trickle-down effects of the unknowing decisions made around us.” And “Those hours…hold the most potential for change. That is if we just look up, instead of simply hoping to make it to the next day.”
Sometimes heroes are just normal people who have something to fight for. “Fortunately or unfortunately, there are few happy or sad endings. Most stories simply go on.”
Recommended for readers who like humor and humanism.
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Mice live in the shadows, overseen by the moon, which they believe is the eye of their god, Wotan. As their legends go, in years past they were protected by a band of fierce warriors, guardians of the night: the Templars. After years of defending as a unified brotherhood, one year, for a reason yet unknown, the Templars were divided and began warring against each other. After the epic battle, no Templars were allegedly ever seen again. Now the mice have mere watchmen guarding them against all the creatures, large and small, who threaten their existence.
Karic is a young mouse who soaks in all the stories of the battles of yore with relish and loves to imagine himself as a brave fighter. His obsession with combat seems a harmless boyish phase until his village gets attacked by an army of rats. Any similarity between this story and Mouse Guard by David Petersen is quickly squashed with the first (of many) beheaded mouse in the vicious, horrific bloodbath that ensues. Karic loses contact with his mother and sister, surviving the conflict and receiving a message from the fish gods claiming that he is some kind of chosen one. He meets up with an old warrior mouse named Pilot who admits to being a former Templar living in exile. Pilot takes Karic under his wing as they begin searching for answers and a path to follow.
These mice are far from fluffy and cute. They have huge ears which display their mood, droopy when tired or sad, flung back when on the attack, perked up when focused. These same ears are often marked with notches, scarred from the ongoing battle for their fragile lives. Their bodies are thin and angular and every mouse appears exhausted, deep shadows under their eyes. They are ruled by gods and prophecy, though they fear that their god has abandoned them. And it is hard to fault them, as almost everything seems to exist as a threat to the tiny creatures, and their world quickly begins to spiral into terrible, bloody chaos.
As Karic’s journey progresses, he is forced to learn, and then unlearn, then learn again. In this land of wars and betrayal, exactly who represents the good and the right is hard to discern, as everyone has blood on their paws. Tiny as he is, even compared to other mice, it will be up to Karic to live up to his billing as the one chosen by the god Woten.
Dark and unrelenting, this title is not recommended to those who prefer lighthearted, humorous tales.
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I can’t think of a more unlikely animal to swath in the robes of a noble hero than a mouse. After all, mice have a position about as close to the bottom of the food chain as is possible, and seem to spend the day scurrying around tucking food away and trying not to get eaten themselves. Shouldn’t the fighting be left to those creatures that were born with rippling muscles or fearsome claws or at least a mighty roar? Maybe it is just this somewhat odd juxtaposition between underdog and champion that has piqued the interest of several authors including David Petersen.
In his fictional medieval world, mice have created cities tucked away in tree roots and rocky caverns where they are protected from discovery by predators. Travel between cities is treacherous, and mice that need to make the trip are protected by the Mouse Guard. Originally called into action as soldiers, recent times of calm and prosperity have altered their role into a more passive one of watchful escorts to merchants.
Kenzie, Saxon, and Lieam are three members of the Mouse Guard, who are trying to track down a grain merchant that disappeared while traveling between cities. In searching for his person (or his body), the trio stumbles onto a plot that threatens the very foundation of their world. Can they prevail against the worst threat their society has ever faced before? As one of their sayings goes: “It’s not what you fight, but what you fight for.”
Winner of the 2008 Eisner Awards for Best Publication for Kids and Best Graphic Album, the ink work is phenomenal, with deep shadows and sharp edges. This then sets up space for waves of watercolor-like hues to paint the appropriate mood, whether it is bright sunny beach scene or the terrifying glow of burning embers.
Recommended for readers of graphic novels who love a good adventure story and fiercely adorable protagonists.
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The mortgage that broke Thomas Jefferson’s heart. The worldwide cholera pandemic. The writing of Frankenstein. The first Irish famine and typhus epidemic. The opium trade beginning in the Golden Triangle. The striking paintings of JMW Turner. The surge of British polar exploration. All of these, according to Gillen D’Arcy Wood, have their roots in a single event – the eruption of the Tamboro volcano.
On April 10, 1815, the volcano, located on the island of Sambawa in the Indonesian archipelago, literally blew its top. A few days before, the volcano had hurled out a column of fire and ash; on the 10th, three columns of fire, a tsunami of lava, and ashfall up to 3 meters thick blasted the serene population of Sumbawa, killing nearly everyone on the island and forever destroying its natural resources. Ash from the explosion was flung into the upper atmosphere in tiny particles, and the equatorial winds did the rest.
Those aerosols circled the globe, blocking sunlight and changing the climate. Droughts in some areas, record flooding in others, temperatures so low that 1816 became known as the Year Without a Summer and the Year of the Beggar. Storms lashing Europe, sea ice disappearing off Greenland – all were the result of Tambora’s eruption. The secondary impact on humans began almost immediately and would govern the world’s social and economic foundations for at least the next three years. Without the monsoons, Indian peasants migrated to urban areas, where their waste polluted drinking water and sparked a nearly 20-year migration of cholera around the world. Famine struck one of China’s most fertile provinces, and without rice to eat or sell, opium became the cash crop. Clouds shot through with apocalyptic color entranced the Romantics, who captured their deadly glory in words and images. And farmers in the United States experienced for the first time crop failure leading to bankruptcy and westward migration to evade their debts.
Wood mixes the historical narrative with records from the nascent science of meteorology and modern-day measurements of volcanic dust trapped in arctic ice to document his story. He also draws parallels between the temporary climatic effects that Tambora’s eruption caused and the long-term irreversible anthropogenic climate change we are now seeing. But capturing the worldwide effect of one little-known eruption in tragic human terms makes Tambora a moving book.
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I love mysteries. From the hardest of the hard-boiled to…well, ok, I don’t really care for cozies, but I’ve read them…but I’m especially fond of mysteries that give me a strong sense of place and people along with a good puzzle. For some reason, Italian settings seem to capture all three in style and substance. (Barry has written about Andrea Camilleri’s excellent Inspector Montalbano series set in Sicily, plus there’s the Guido Brunetti collection, Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, and plenty of other series where the protagonist visits Italy.) Christobel Kent’s series featuring Sandro Cellini (The Drowning River is the first) stands with the best.
Sandro is something unusual for Italian mysteries – a private detective. A disgraced ex-cop, he’s been ordered by his wife to hang out his shingle and get out of her hair. Resigned to sitting around an office, he’s surprised when he gets his first client: an older woman whose husband died in the Arno River. Verdict: suicide. Cellini takes the case mostly gratis to comfort her, but discovers right away that the man’s last hours leave questions. What exactly was Claudio Gentileschi, architect, faithful husband, Holocaust survivor, doing when he wasn’t at home or work?
Then a young English art student disappears. Sandro had encountered her before and her mother hires him to be her “representative” to the Italian police while she makes up her mind whether or not she cares. No big deal, Veronica’s done it before, she’s got some mysterious guy she’s probably shacking up with, and she’ll come back to art school when her cash runs low. Sure her instructors and her mousy roommate are worried, but Sandro will take care of it. And he does, and learns more about Claudio and the business of Florentine art in the process.
Kent keeps the puzzle intriguing and builds to a satisfying resolution. But she also builds characters the reader knows will play important roles in Sandro’s future. His wife Luisa, who has breast cancer and is struggling with her decision to have a mastectomy; Giulietta Sarto, the former prostitute who ended Sandro’s career and is the closest thing he and Luisa have to a child; his former colleagues; but most of all, Florence itself.
This is the Florence where regular folks live alongside the tourists and the art students who come to study in the Mecca of classical art training. Ordinary bars with extraordinary food and companionable bartenders, secret passages in and out of the Boboli Gardens, odd locals who are part of the daily background of any city. In this story, the rains are continuously falling and the Arno is threatening to overflow its banks in a disaster that would equal the L’Alluvion of 1966. (For a great book about the aftermath of that flood, check out Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures.) Sandro Cellini knows Florence better than most anyone, and he leads us on an intimate tour while solving a puzzling mystery. Who could ask for more?
I’ve written before about Loewen’s take on history as presented to American students, but in Lies Across America he’s taken on the other history texts that we see all around us. They’re ubiquitous (except, apparently, in Maine), sometimes invisible, sometimes easily overlooked, sometimes a destination for interested visitors. These are the monuments, roadside signs and historic sites that personalize and define American history for many.
Loewen points out that these sites fall into two categories, which he calls sasha and zamani. (If you want a terrific fiction take on the same idea, try Kevin Brockmeier’s Brief History of the Dead.) Sasha essentially means people or events retained in the memory of the living; zamani denotes events or people that occurred before anyone currently living could have experienced. The monument to Arthur Ashe is an example of sasha: there are plenty of people who remember him firsthand. A statue closer to home is zamani – no one living ever encountered Norbert Berkeley. There’s another aspect to these sites, which falls into the zamani realm – who controlled the landscape when the memorial was established?
There are some extreme examples of this: a monument to the Confederacy where there was zero link to the War? The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum that doesn’t have any actual, you know, miners? Plantation houses all across the South that talk about the design of the silverware, but never mention the people who did the work that produced the income to buy that silverware?
More common are the roadside signs that leave you scratching your head. (As an inveterate reader of those black-on-pewter signs, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a U-turn, parked in a questionable spot, then scratched my head at the astonishingly vague text.) “One mile north of here the Whitaker house was built.” When? Why? By whom? If Mr. Whitaker did it, did his wife help? Were there slaves? Was it built in a special way with special materials? Where can I find more? Plus, these signs are nearly always written in a generic passive voice that deliberately deflects reflection on any deeper topic.
Loewen couldn’t visit every historical marker or monument in even one state, much less in the country, but was able to read an enormous proportion of them. He offers a set of penetrating questions to ask when visiting historical sites, most guaranteed to put docents on the spot; if they can’t answer those questions, perhaps it will trigger a reexamination by the site’s managers. He also offers a tongue-in-cheek alternate for the proliferation of roadside markers.
The book is structured so that each entry is self-contained, with footnotes and a complete list of the sources that Loewen used to critique the 100 entries he limited himself to. He also cross-references entries with the same topics or themes, which means a reader can bounce around without losing interest, then go back and read new material with a fresh perspective. Best of all, he is able to balance outrage over the hijacking of history with humor, making this a great resource for teaching students how to critically evaluate what they read and hear from history.
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It’s Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, the day the guns finally went silent in a Europe shattered by World War I. The Armistice was scheduled to begin at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. One bitter joke that made the rounds in the trenches – “Why didn’t they wait ’til the eleventh year?”
Of all the novels which emerged from the War to End All Wars, All Quiet on the Western Front is surely the greatest. While its imagery and the episodes it recounts did not exactly break new ground, Remarque captures both the external devastation of the war and the internal havoc it wreaked on a generation of soldiers. The fact that this story is about Paul Baumer, a German, matters little – it could be about Paul Bois or Paul Wood, or any young man from any country affected by the War. They saw the same horrors, suffered the same degradation, endured the same unendurable lives. But there was a difference even within the armies, and All Quiet on the Western Front unflinchingly told readers how an entire generation was lost.
Paul and his classmates join the Army en masse under the exhortation of their schoolmaster. Filled with patriotism and the orderly knowledge only young men fresh from the classroom could retain, they enter their training regime and begin to learn the ways of a random world. When they arrive at the front, they learn entirely new lessons about a chaotic world striving to kill them. They serve with men of all classes and from all regions of Germany, all of whom are gradually descending to the most basic levels of humanity. Paul and his friends have the farthest to fall, but the trenches eventually make all men equal.
When I was very young, All Quiet on the Western Front gave me a graphic illustration of war stripped of its illusions of honor. Only as an older reader did I become aware of Paul’s complete loss of self. Having gone straight from childhood to a debased manhood, Paul realizes that he has nothing to return to – unlike the older men, he cannot take up a pre-war life. Unlike the younger, he cannot return to a meaningful school life. That changed my understanding of the ending, which I had remembered along the lines of Richard Thomas’s portrayal of Paul in the 1979 movie. Remarque’s original is far more tragic.
The original title, Im Westen nichts Neues, translated literally from German means “In the West, Nothing New.” Whether Remarque meant it as literally as the translation suggests, or as a warning in light of the increasing aggression and xenophobia characterized by the rise of the Nazis is hard to say. Unfortunately, it seems that Ecclesiastes was and continues to be right.
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I work on a public service desk, so I see lots of people from all walks of life and economic classes. When they ask for computer help, or to use the phone, it is impossible not to see or hear what they’re doing. (The cardinal sin of librarianship is denying them service based on those observations.) But when I hear someone reeking of cigarettes negotiating a payday loan, or see a woman with a toddler and a baby bragging about her sexual adventures on Facebook, it’s hard not to mentally question their choices. Linda Tirado has given me 191 pages of smackaround for my presumption in asking those questions.
Tirado came to international attention when her essay on the bad decisions many poor people make went viral. Based on that attention she was able to get a book deal to expand on the post, and to share the experiences of other people she knows. Those people might as well be the ones I see coming in the door of the library, because they face the same problems: minimum wage jobs where they rarely get 40 hours, second jobs that frequently conflict with the first, unreliable cars, uncertain housing, lack of resources or time to buy and cook fresh food, and difficult choices about prioritizing the little money they earn.
So why do poor people smoke? Wouldn’t you, if it cut down on hunger, gave you a jolt of energy, and allowed you some break time at work? Why do poor people live in such lousy housing? Wouldn’t you, if you had to come up with first and last months’ rent plus a security deposit on a place that goes for more than a few hundred bucks a month? Why do they pay sky-high interest rates on short term loans? Wouldn’t you, if your car broke down and it was still a week until payday? Why are they so poor at planning for the future? Wouldn’t you be if a supervisor, a manager, a district supervisor, and corporate policy all dictated when you could go to the bathroom?
Our prejudice towards the poor is enshrined in our public policy, which begins with an automatic suspicion that poor people can be divided into the worthy poor and those who are to blame and ought to pay the price. And I’d bet you couldn’t get 10 regular people, much less the 21 senators, 51 delegates and 1 governor in Virginia to agree on who is worthy. Tirado’s writing is conversational and often funny, but her humor doesn’t negate the anger in her voice when she talks about those policy-making individual and political prejudices. And her name couldn’t be more perfect for this book – it’s a cross between a tirade and a tornado, demanding that we listen and pay attention.
Check the WRL catalog for Hand to Mouth