Blogging for a Good Book
A destroyed tribe, a talking pug, enslaved elves, a cruel Santa, a murderously evil and monstrously large baby harp seal, and a revenge-filled barbarian. Turning the first pages of Battlepug might make you wonder if the author had taken a list of all the random ideas he had during his entire childhood and created a mad-lib of a graphic novel. In a world of super-intense angst-ridden, save-the-world superheroes, it’s refreshing to have an artist break free and just draw whatever they think is cool and/or amusing.
There is no pretension to this story; it is narrated by a naked (but coyly covered), tattooed woman who is retelling this legend to two dogs: a pug and a French bulldog because one asked for a bedtime story with flaming devil monsters while the other one asked for one with puppies. She promises the dogs it will be both terrifying and sweet to appease both their desired flavors.
A gentle but unnamed boy witnesses the murder of his entire village, including his doting mother, by a smiling and sweet-faced baby seal of Godzilla-like proportions. He is saved by a fateful flick of the monster’s tail and rescued by several elves and taken to their evil master, the King of the Northland Elves (a glaring, thinly veiled Santa Claus) only to be enslaved and sentenced to a cruel life of hardship and toil. The difficult life doesn’t break the child. Rather his hate and need for revenge become magnified and he learns the art of combat, originally for their amusement, eventually for their doom.
The warrior (who seems to be based on Conan the barbarian) seeks the scarred man who let the seal loose on his village, and his travels lead him to a swamp where he first encounters the elephant-sized pug. Despite a bumpy first meeting (and not an insubstantial amount of slobber), the warrior and the rideable dog team up with a crazy old man named Scrabbly to track down his nemesis, Catwulf.
Mike Norton launched Battlepug in February 2011 and in 2012 won an Eisner award for the best Digital Comic. While it could be easy to dismiss this story based on any one of its ludicrous parts, the storytelling is deft and the artwork is solid and amusing without being silly. The pug’s eyes pointing in two different directions and lack of a convincingly ferocious bark play perfectly against the warrior’s grim and unsmiling presence.
A promising start to a unique series, I would recommend this to graphic novel, fantasy, and adventure readers and anyone who has a strong sense of the absurd.
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Paige is despondent. Her family recently moved from central Virginia to Manhattan and she has to deal with acclimating herself to a new city and culture while her relationships with her parents, especially her mother, have been crumbling. She misses her old life, and her old friends, especially her best friend Diana. Paige floats around New York with a sensation of being lost, unsure of herself or what she wants.
Both her mother and father are writers (hence her unfortunate name, Paige Turner), but she is more like her grandmother, a painter. Introverted and quiet on the outside, Paige is full of life and emotions on the inside. She can’t express these feelings in words so she buys a sketchbook, determined to follow her grandmother’s rules that she came up with to teach herself to be an artist. Starting the first drawing is daunting, and brings to the surface more of her anxieties. Is she a good enough artist, what if she has nothing to draw about? Monologues of self-doubt constantly run through her head, even as the pages begin to fill up with sketches.
Entering her new school, Paige quickly falls in with Jules, her brother Longo, and his friend Gabe. The foursome is soon inseparable. Paige still struggles with self-doubt, and everything cool and fun she sees in her friends strengthens her inferiority complex, and fear that her lack of specialness will be discovered. Her inner voice promises that she can change. But how can she build a new self and remove those parts she dislikes most?
Ever practical, Paige makes a list of those aspects of her personality she dislikes the most and intentionally faces them with the help of her friends. She discovers that they too have things that they lack the courage to face, and she begins to coach them, even as she is developing and evolving herself. The image of a seed being planted and carefully tended to as it grows into a fragile shoot appears several times in the drawings and is particularly apt.
The writing is lyrical and evocative while being relatable to anyone who was unsure of themselves when they were a teenager. Paige has a knack of summing up complicated emotions using simple phrases. She states that “like fun house mirrors, different people reflect back different parts of me” and while mourning her loneliness early on, she states that she hates how all her “friends now live in picture frames.”
Recommend for young adults and graphic novel readers and anyone else who can relate to the heart wrenching process of finding yourself.
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While watching the Avengers movie in the theater (I admit, twice), I was intrigued by the characters of Hawkeye and Black Widow. Not having much knowledge of the Avengers outside of Iron Man and Thor, I found it interesting that there were members of the team who did not possess any superpowers or special flying suits. Experience and training will only get you so far when facing a massive army of technologically superior aliens from another dimension. Hulk may smash, but normal humans should be running in the other direction while screaming.
As expected, when a movie piques the public’s interest in specific characters from a comic universe, new material often follows. I picked up a copy of the first volume of the new Hawkeye graphic novel series, titled Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon. The series covers Hawkeye’s life away from the Avengers, where he lives quietly as Clint Barton in a rather crummy apartment building. He is assisted in many of his exploits by Kate Bishop, who is a member of the Young Avengers, and had previously stepped in for Clint when he took some time off from the Avengers. She is an equal, if not better, bowman than Clint.
Unlike other human superheroes like Batman or Iron Man, Hawkeye isn’t angsty, and there is a lot of humor injected into his interactions, especially with Kate. He fights mainly with his bow and an array of sometimes ridiculous specialty arrows, a method which is used smartly against him by the authors in a humorous segment where he keeps firing random arrows with somewhat unbelievable abilities. He tries to live as normally as possible, enjoying rooftop BBQs with his neighbors, buying a used sports car, and practicing his archery, but generally finds ways to get himself in trouble much as he might try to avoid it. It seems once you are identified as a superhero, groups of ninjas can’t help but attack you.
This volume is a quick but fun read. Recommended for fans of the Marvel Universe and anyone who is tired of having perpetually disagreeable and tormented superheroes.
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I am the first to flee at the sight of blood. As such, I don’t watch boxing and I quickly switch the channel when watching football if the station decides there is a need to show slow motion replays of a player’s injury from EVERY ANGLE. But for whatever reason, I can stomach violence in graphic novels, as the images can be processed as art by my brain, conveniently disconnected from reality.
Browsing our shelves, I picked up a copy of Heart but almost put it back again when I realized that the story revolved around an MMA (mixed-martial arts) fighter. I ended up holding on to the volume, deciding that since I had been in a reading rut recently, something so far out of my normal comfort zone might be just what I needed.
The story throws you right into the middle of the octagon at the beginning of a fight between Oren “Rooster” Redmond and Mike “The Hooligan” Murphy. Glaring and tattooed with muscles tensed, they square off with the cheers, jeers, and bloodlust of the crowd in a roar around them. The story is narrated by Oren, and he baldly presents his adrenaline and bravado as well as his mistakes as he takes us through his journey from slightly overweight office worker to trained fighter. He’s inspired by his older brother, who started out as a college wrestler and progressed to MMA after graduation. From the drudgery of his data entry job, Oren enters a life that finally allows him to live life on his own terms.
It’s Oren’s honesty about how his fighting career progresses that really pulls the reader into the story. He’s not trying to fool anyone, not even himself. His frankness and honesty are refreshing yet surprising, since MMA promotion isn’t known for being austere or unembellished. Oren wryly confesses to prior unkind thoughts about “guys who wore too-tight t-shirts with shiny, metallic crap written on ‘em” before he entered and embraced the culture.
Heart is an engaging and powerful read. I would recommend it to sports fans, readers of graphic novels in general, or any reader who loves stories where the human element transcends the environment.
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I have a fascination for Swamp Thing that started a few years ago when I picked up a copy of one of the volumes penned by Alan Moore (he of Watchmen fame). Swamp Thing isn’t your normal Superhero. He doesn’t fight supervillians, although he has had occasion to save the earth and humankind before. He’s a conflicted creature, no longer quite human but not fully removed from the person he once was. He is pulled between two worlds, caught between his human memories and the pull of The Green, a force that connects all plant life on Earth. Swamp Thing generally keeps to his damp living space, communing with nature and trying to find a semblance of peace.
The character of Swamp Thing has been reinvented and restarted many times over the years, with admittedly varied success. When I saw that Scott Snyder was taking the helm for the new Swamp Thing series I was excited. Snyder is one of my favorite current graphic novel writers (see my review of American Vampire) and I was confident that the story would be done justice to in his hands. Rather than ignoring the past incarnations of Swamp Thing, Snyder was able to build upon the legend, keeping the past intact while carving out his own unique storyline. He is even able to pull in the character of Abigail Arcane who is typically the partner/wife of Swamp Thing and helps to ground him and keep him connected to his human past.
Swamp Thing has always been most easily classified as horror, although that seems unfair as it classifies him more by how others react to him than how he actually conducts himself. Snyder has always shown himself to be remarkably adept at this genre. He is able to build an atmosphere of eerie menace in even the most mundane scenarios but also doesn’t shy away from gore or shock. This is the first of two published volumes in the DC Comics New 52 Swamp Thing series. The third volume will be released in November.
I would recommend this book to anyone who reads horror, especially graphic novels.
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For me, a pie is an object about which there is much to be crazy. Or perhaps that is not quite right, as pies are not “objects,” rather they are as manna contained within their own plane of being. To me, this isn’t so much a cookbook as a blueprint towards a better life.
Metaphysics aside, this is a great book that makes me hungry just looking at the pictures. It is beautifully illustrated with glowing photographs of creations that I know I could never bake as perfectly. The author, Krystina Castella, is an industrial designer as well as a successful cookbook writer, so it is not surprising that her pies are visually stunning. Crazy About Pies even has a section on “The Pie Decorator’s Tool Kit” although decorating pies is not something that had previously occurred to me beyond cutting out some leaves and an apple from left-over pastry or poking the vent holes in the shape of an “A.” Whether or not I would ever get around to putting a marzipan butterfly or a fondant blackbird on a pie, it is still lovely to look and dream…
Over the years I have perfected my one apple pie recipe to exactly how I like it, so I thought I would try something savory in the form of Bacon and Egg Pocket Pies. They took an unexpectedly long time to make, but the results were fabulously rich and incredibly yummy. Mixing little bits of bacon into pastry is not something that ever occurred to me before, but it worked out to be such a splendid idea, that I will have to try it again (but maybe not with apple pie). I managed to sneak one out of the fridge before my ravening hoards of teenagers pillaged them and (once warmed in the microwave), my colleagues agreed that they were just what we needed for breakfast.
For the sweet pies I am not sure whether to go with Mocha Pie or Cheesecake Pie with Marzipan Butterflies. Since I am at work, in the meantime, I will have to content myself with flicking through the book and drooling.
Definitely try Crazy About Pies if you want to expand your pie repertoire—you’ll get lots of great ideas. Or you can just look at it for the glamorous photographs of Pie Perfection.
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“The dread had not left my soul. But there was a kitten on my pillow, and it was purring in my face and vibrating gently with every purr.”
Neil Gaiman has a great talent for seeing the sinister and malevolent under the everyday and mundane. But he also has a talent for pointing out the beauty and wonder that simultaneously exist in the same everyday and mundane things. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told mainly through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy, which gives the book a simple, direct style as the boy is without preconceptions. He reports matter-of-factly that his new nanny is an evil monster who rode out of another dimension in a worm hole in his own foot, but this is not the sort of thing that adults believe.
The book starts as a middle-aged man returns to his childhood village to attend a funeral, so we know that the narrator survives (something I would not have been sure of otherwise). Forty years ago, the tragic suicide of an almost-stranger and a series of seemingly small, but bad, decisions, lead to dramatic and possibly world-ending events, all under the eyes of oblivious adults.
Neil Gaiman has created a complete, but never fully explained, fantasy world living just under the surface of the world we see. His Hunger Birds are close to the creepiest fantasy creatures I have ever encountered. I can see glimmers of the best of other British fantasy. The woods that the boy first enters with Lettie Hempstock reminds me of the damaged, dimensionless woods in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Pinhoe Egg. Lettie Hempstock herself, being a non-human in human form, with her Universe-saving sentiments, reminds me of Doctor Who. These may be plausible connections: Neil Gaiman knew Diana Wynne Jones and considered her his mentor, and he has written for Doctor Who.
This book is being marketed as an adult novel and lots of adults and teens love it. I think older children who are strong readers and fantasy fans will also enjoy it. They will appreciate the main character’s impotence in the face of the seamlessly complacent adult world. It has a few oblique references to sex, but they will probably go over the heads of many children. Simply, but poetically written, this a beautiful short book that I wanted to come back to and immerse myself in. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and have heard several read by the author. Neil Gaiman is by far the best reader of his own work that I have come across. From his pleasant English accent to the menace in the voice of the monster, I can’t wait to hear more.
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Bo Whaley lives on an Air Force base in North Carolina. His father is the base commander, which just makes life complicated, especially when most of the kids in his class also live on base. To make life even more convoluted, his cousin Gari arrives from Seattle to live with him because her mother is being deployed to Iraq. They are assigned to the same class to help Gari fit in, but things go badly between them from the start.
The only good thing that is happening to Bo is his new teacher. Ms. Loupe, who is in her first year of teaching, has a tattoo and is young enough to have been taught by the principal. For Bo the best thing about her is her passion for theater. She engages the class in improv involving a beaten up couch, and Bo discovers in himself a talent for acting that previous teachers had seen as a propensity to talk and goof-off in class. His enthusiasm grows until he discovers that the big theater camp that the teacher is planning will be held next summer. He will be gone then, when his family is sent to their next military assignment, which makes Bo furious with the military lifestyle.
Ms. Loupe also gets the class working on a project to send supplies to her brother, who is stationed in Afghanistan. When her brother is declared missing in action, Ms. Loupe is understandably distraught, and Bo’s whole class want to help. In the most moving part of the book Bo, his cousin Gari, Ms. Loupe’s entire class and finally the whole community find a way to work together and, if not fix the unfixable, at least make things better. In the process they learn about each other, themselves, friendship and community.
In turn hilarious and heartbreaking, Operation Yes is aimed at middle grades, but has a lot to offer adults. As a librarian I love the literary profanity that the school librarian indulges in : “‘Frog and Toad!’ Miss Candy said. ‘Not again!’” or “Green Eggs and Ham!” I am doing a project on books featuring children with parents in U.S. military, and some of these books are impossible to get through without crying. Operation Yes is definitely in this category. Read it for a moving portrait of a community coming together or an accurate depiction of the military family lifestyle.
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“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”
“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.”
If you feel your life is short on meaning, a book club might help. Book clubs are great. I trust the members of my book club to recommend books that sound wonderful— for example I realize I really like character-driven, women’s, historical fiction and I am always keen to hear about the new titles they suggest. But my book club may be even better for getting me off my chuff to read things that I wouldn’t have gotten around to otherwise. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that may have intrigued me enough to pick up in the library, but it would have sat unread on my bedside table for weeks if not for my upcoming book club meeting.
It is a dense and sometimes disturbing read, but my head was bursting with ideas after getting through it. And then after discussing it with my book club, my head and heart were even closer to bursting. The cover of the copy I have says that there are over 12 million copies in print, so it is a book that has spoken directly to millions of people.
The author, Victor Frankl, was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who attributed his survival in part to his abiding belief that, even in a concentration camp, his life had meaning. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days in 1945 and it is remarkably without bitterness for a book written so soon after the horrific events that he describes. Viktor Frankl developed a form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, which literally means the therapy of meaning. This is a book whose message can be interpreted in religious terms, but it is also extremely meaningful to people without a stated belief or formal religion. In modern times, perhaps more than ever in human existence, we are expected to be happy all the time, and increasingly if we are not happy, then we are seen as ill. To this idea Viktor Frankl said:
I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”
Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that I recommend for everyone. At some time or another most of us suffer from some form of existential angst and this is a wonderful book to put things in perspective. It is dense and full of weighty philosophical insights, but it is very readable, and if you are lucky, you may even have a book club to discuss it with.
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Suzanne Collins achieved fame through her dark and dystopian Hunger Games series. Her latest offering is neither a dystopian tale nor a children’s fantasy series; instead she has written a picture book. Year of the Jungle is four-year-old child’s view of Suzanne Collins’s own experiences when her father was deployed to Vietnam in 1968.
Because Year of the Jungle is the newest book from a bestselling author, it has garnered a lot of attention. One review said that it would “bewilder” its intended audience of small children. Considering that over two million American children have had a parent deployed since 9/11, it must be a familiar story to many. Of course not all of them had exactly the same experience as Suzanne Collins, but many have had similar enough experiences that they will not be bewildered by this book.
Suzy hears that her father “has to go to something called a war,” leaving her not knowing “what anybody’s talking about.” She also learns that he will be in a jungle. Suzy knows about jungles from cartoons so she pictures her father in a happy place among her favorite cartoon characters. In a strong portrayal of a small child’s misunderstanding of the passage of time, Suzy is confused about the length of the year he will be away. The book portrays Suzy’s growing unease as adults give her unlooked-for sympathy, showing how adults can make things worse, even though they are trying to be kind. Suzy loves getting her father’s postcards, but they start coming less frequently and start to change. But for a child about to turn five the most devastating thing is the realization that he sent a birthday greeting to the wrong sibling. In the illustrations the cartoon jungle full of round and smiling animals changes into a far more sinister place with images of violence and fear.
It is hard not to speculate how Suzanne Collins’s early experiences influenced her imagination when writing her undoubtedly dark and violent Hunger Games series. As an excellent writer she has captured and condensed a world of childhood experiences into a very few words. James Proimos’ illustrations are of a rough cartoonish style that at first glance I didn’t find very attractive, but they do a great job of capturing Suzy’s innocence and her unusually early realization of the dangers of the world.
This is a picture book designed to be read aloud, and a parent or caregiver can judge if it is the right book for their child. I think it could be useful for young military children as it is ultimately comforting when her father returns safely, although it is so dark in places that an adult should read it first and decide if it is appropriate. I also recommend it for adults who are interested in Suzanne Collins, military children’s experience, or a darker picture book.
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To tell the truth, no librarian should have favorite books. There are too many out there to read, too many different circumstances under which to read them, too many ages at which to discover that a book you hated now speaks to you or one you loved falls flat. Under theoretical laboratory conditions, though, I might have to admit that I do have favorites, and that several of them are by Stephen King. The Stand. Salem’s Lot. Christine. The Green Mile. The Dead Zone. Night Shift. And, of course, The Shining. I still remember sitting by a pool in 95-degree weather and shivering as a snowstorm sealed me into the Overlook Hotel with the Torrance family and the reanimated dead.
Now King has returned to continue Danny Torrance’s story in Doctor Sleep. (And if you haven’t read The Shining, forget this review and go get that book. Seriously.) Of course, time has passed and Danny, now Dan, is all grown up. But the combined burdens of his childhood, his family’s history of drinking, and his dubious gift have left him a place no reader would have wanted to see the tow-headed little boy.
Dan is a drunk. A drifter, a brawler, sleeping with strangers who promise another high, or in a culvert if he has to choose between the price of a bottle and a bed. A full-blown alcoholic who hits his personal bottom early in the story, he spends the course of the novel running from his shame.
The thing is, Dan still has his shine, that ability to glimpse things that were or that are or that will be. It helps him reach in and hold the essential part of other people, and gives him extraordinary empathy. When he can hold down a job. But that same empathy gives him haunting visions that he cannot evade. This time, the shine guides him to a small town in New Hampshire, where he thinks he might be able to start again. Through the good graces of another person with just a little bit of the shine, and with the help of a hard-ass AA sponsor, Dan Torrance quits drinking. He also goes to work at the local hospice, where he and the resident cat comfort the dying and guide them to the threshold of whatever lies beyond.
But there are other special people out there in the world, and Dan becomes a sort of unwilling fulcrum between them. On one side is Abra, a young teenaged girl who out-shines Dan like a lighthouse outshines a flashlight; on the other, the True Knot, a band of psychic vampires who live on the pain and fear of children. Led by the horrific Rose the Hat (and like all subcultures, the Knot has insider names and public names), the Knot travels in a caravan of campers seeking out fresh victims. During their time off the road, they lie up in a charming Colorado campsite with a plaque that designates it as the site of the now-destroyed Overlook Hotel. When the True Knot detects Abra’s ability, they know that they could feed on her for decades, if they can seize and control her. Dan Torrance must pit his lesser abilities and Abra’s immature skills against Rose’s blind greed and power to save the girl and destroy the Knot. If he can survive the place of his own fears.
Like the best of King’s fiction, Doctor Sleep excels at framing the relationships between imperfect people drawn together to face an impossibly evil power. Sometimes those relationships are deep bonds: parent and child, teacher and student. Sometimes they are forged in hellish fires, as Dan discovers through his AA sponsors and supporters. And sometimes they erupt from the unlikeliest of sources to create the possibility of redemption. Maybe that’s the real reason I shouldn’t have favorite books: too many unlikely sources, too much need for redemption, too little time to find either.
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Although I most frequently read mysteries, fantasy, 19th century novels, and Southern fiction, something keeps bringing me back to Peter Høeg’s writing, though these stories in many ways fall outside my usual scope. While Smilla’s Sense of Snow was sort of a mystery, it was not particularly traditional, and Høeg’s The Quiet Girl is a peculiarly appealing blend of genres and styles. I think that it is the beauty of Høeg’s writing that keeps me on the lookout for his books on the new fiction shelves.
If you enjoy thoughtful, well-crafted sentences, along with occasional flashes of humor, you will find much to like in Høeg’s most recent novel, The Elephant Keeper’s Children. The novel follows the adventures and misadventures of Peter, the narrator, Tilte, and Hans, whose parents have disappeared off the fictional island of Finø, off the coast of Denmark. The children’s father is a church pastor, and as Peter tells it, his parents are not above manufacturing miraculous events to draw people to their church. With their parents gone, Peter and his sister Tilte set out to find out what they are up to this time, with help from their older brother Hans and a variety of unexpected acquaintances. As in any thriller, help appears when it is least expected, and shifting allegiances make the search even more challenging. Along the way, the pair encounters angry bishops, unstable teachers, a romantic pair of police officers, and terrorists aiming to explode a bomb at an ecumenical gathering. Høeg has an excellent feel for pacing a story, and his characters are all memorable.
But the book is not just a tour-de-force of fine writing. Høeg explores fundamentalism and belief, the power of love, and ultimately the nature of what it means to be human. With Peter as our guide, we come to see the world in a new way, to look for those “openings” that lead us to a better understanding of ourselves and each other, and that allow us to escape from the rooms that we put ourselves in. The title of the book is taken from an “old Indian saying”
In case you wish to befriend an elephant keeper,
make certain to have room for the elephant.
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This hard-hitting historical novel is a “companion book” to the Edgar award-winning Code Name Verity, with which it shares a World War II setting and a handful of characters.
Rose Justice is an 18-year-old American pilot with England’s civilian Air Transport Auxiliary. Only recently arrived in England, she’s chirpy and excited about her work and a little naïve. She dismisses rumors of terrible things happening in German prison camps as propaganda. And one day, returning from a flight over France, she flies off course—while tipping a bomb out of the air, may I add—and suddenly two Luftwaffe jets are escorting her into Germany. Mis-classified with a group of French political prisoners, Rose is sent to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück.
She has entered a different world. In six months, from September 1944 to March 1945, Rose has any remaining naïveté starved and frozen and beaten out of her, until the appalling becomes ordinary. She is taken under the protection of the Rabbits (we would say “guinea pigs”): Polish prisoners, mostly students, on whom the camp doctors have run unconscionable medical experiments. The Rabbits know that they will all be executed eventually, but various means of evasion may keep them hidden away for another week, or day… in perpetual hope that the war will end and someone will survive to let the world know what happened in this place.
Rose’s narrative is written after she escapes Ravensbrück. A survivor in a sort of post-war limbo, Rose is also concerned with how to return to “real life.” Having sworn to herself and others to “tell the world” about the atrocities at the camp, she isn’t even able to describe the experience to her family. The Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg suggests one path to closure by way of judgment and retribution, but Rose is looking for other ways to redeem her experience.
A poet as well as a pilot, she creates a pilot’s metaphor—lift and weight, thrust and drag—to describe the forces that fueled her survival during and after the prison camp. Obviously, Rose Under Fire is a story carrying a lot of weight. It’s the strong relationships between very different women—women from the French resistance, Night and Fog agents, Girl Scout saboteurs and Soviet bomber pilots—that give the novel lift as well.
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Ruined is a hauntingly mysterious ghost story that takes place in the heart of New Orleans. When Rebecca finds out that she has to leave her beloved hometown of NYC for a few months while her father is away in China for business, and stay with a little-known family friend in New Orleans, she is mortified. What about her friends? What about school? But there’s no choice, and Rebecca soon finds herself in the heart of the Big Easy, wandering through the Garden District and casting curious glances at the cemetery down the street from her “Aunt’s” house.
When she follows a group of the popular, old-money kids from her new private school into the cemetery one night, she surprisingly encounters a lonely girl, about her age, wearing a slightly torn dress. Interested but concerned that she will be discovered by the other teens, Rebecca asks the girl for a way out of the cemetery and runs off. As the days go by, Rebecca finds herself thinking more and more about the girl in the graveyard. When she returns a few nights later, Rebecca once again talks to the girl, but can’t help thinking there is something a little off about her. It is only when the girl, Lisette, takes her hand and she becomes invisible to the living that Rebecca makes a startling realization. Lisette is a ghost. But there’s a lot more than that to the story.
Once Rebecca looks into Lisette’s past, and her death, a shocking trail of clues, curses and hundred-year-old buried secrets comes to light. And the rich and powerful of the city are willing to do anything to keep the past hidden and their good names intact. A chilling tale with not only mystery and intrigue but also cultural detail and historical insight, this story will appeal to a range of readers.
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Altered is a thrill ride from the beginning to the last page. We immediately meet Anna, who lives with her father in a rather isolated farmhouse. Anna and her father share some weekly traditions, like fresh lemonade and homemade cookies. She is also home schooled and learns not only the academic side of things but some tough hand-to-hand combat courses as well. However, the best part of Anna’s routine is her work, which she also shares with her father. Together they administer treatments and monitor the four teen boys who inhabit their basement. The boys have each been “altered” in some way, but the details are unknown.
Anna and her father work for “The Branch,” a completely secretive organization that they themselves know very little about. As readers, we demand answers. But the author seems skilled at giving little away, especially upfront. This incredible amount of “holding back” will keep readers flying through the pages on a search to know “why, who and how.” Each boy has a distinct personality; there’s Nick, resentful and angry, Cas, fun and playful, Trev, soft-hearted and exceedingly intelligent and Sam, the quintessential silent and strong leader who has Anna’s heart from the start.
When The Branch comes to retrieve the boys, Sam creates an escape and Anna’s father demands that she go with them, making Anna question everything she knows. As the boys hunt for clues to their pasts (which proves difficult as they cannot remember anything before the lab), Anna is searching for answers of her own. What the boys discover will shatter not only their own worlds, but Anna’s as well. The first in a series, Altered promises an exciting ride to readers who are desperate to find out the truth behind The Branch and the lives of everyone involved.
Check the WRL catalog for Altered.
It’s a wonder anyone lives in England, given the high murder rate and what must be a tough housing market for both amateur and professional detectives. And with all those historical figures taking on investigations in the US and UK, it’s a wonder they had time to write, make movies, or run their political careers. So when I was looking for a good mystery, I decided I’d steer clear of the usual place and time settings and give another location a shot. Outsider in Amsterdam happened to come to the fore. And what a unique tone and feel the city brings to this mystery.
Amsterdam in 1975 is a unique mix. The Dutch are still fully aware of the cost of the breakup of their empire, but not tolerant of the still-loyal castoffs of their former colonies. They are almost uniformly conformist to the laws that keep the city orderly, but don’t hesitate to cheat on their taxes or hire illegal immigrants. Hard drugs are anathema, but heroin addicts get treatment, including small doses of the real thing. Cops like Henk Grijpstra and Rinus DeGier spend most of their time handling petty crimes while waiting for more serious crimes to come up.
When Piet Verboom, master of a hybrid Eastern religious movement, is reported dangling from a noose in his office, Grijpstra and DeGier are assigned to investigate. The case appears open-and-shut, but of course small inconsistencies catch their interest–where is the money from the members-only restaurant and bar? Why did Verboom’s wife leave him? Why are all his employees happy to see him gone? And why is a former high-ranking constable in the Dutch colonial police, a Papuan, living practically rent-free in the building?
The investigation is driven more by their intuition and unwillingness to let even small details go than by strict procedure. When that intuition pays off, they must chase a dangerously clever criminal through Amsterdam’s narrow streets and over canals, and out onto Holland’s Inland Lake, but they net more than they initially bargained for.
As solid as the mystery portion of the story is, van de Wetering introduces solid characters for this first entry in a series. Grijpstra is a rumpled middle-aged family man willing to do almost anything to get away from his wife and (hinted at) children. DeGier is well-dressed, handsome, and a bachelor content with his surly cat, a houseplant on the balcony, and occasional female companionship. In many ways they are fairly innocent–they don’t have the innate wariness that marks most urban cops, and they don’t have so many difficult crimes to investigate that they are jaded.
There’s also some humor in the story, especially surrounding the running of the police budget. What do they do when the last VW is checked out of the police lot? Is it easier to walk to the crime scene or to catch a streetcar and submit for reimbursement? Can DeGier get expenses for a date with a potential witness if he sleeps with her?
Although WRL only has seven of the fourteen books, I’m looking forward to venturing through Amsterdam with van de Wetering as my guide.
Check the WRL catalog for Outsider in Amsterdam
Much as the barbarians at the edges of Rome’s noble empire did, you’ll just have to get used to it. (Except that there was a seemingly never-ending supply of barbarians and this is running up on the end of Jones’ books.) So.
History. We all know who writes it, and in the case of the Roman Empire there is little doubt. Their portrayal of the people and territories they conquered is an unrelenting narrative of a superior culture overwhelming illiterate untutored savages and bringing the light of Civilization into their benighted lives. One of the ways they succeeded in creating this narrative was by destroying all evidence to the contrary. But, like murder, history will out, and medieval historian and humorist Terry Jones has taken the heavy lifting done by specialists, collated it and brought it to life in an entertaining way.
To hear them tell it, the Romans were surrounded by enemies actively seeking the destruction of their city and way of life. But looking at the maps and the archaeological evidence, it seems as though the Romans, in a never-ending quest for return on investment, were the ones actively seeking conflict. And boy, did they get it. And boy did they get their return on investment. The gold of the Celts and Dacians, wheat from Egypt, religion, knowledge, and military technology from Greece, slaves from all over the empire, foreigners brought into citizenship by enlisting in the Roman army–the benefits all flowed into the coffers of Rome. But the price to the Romans was also steep.
They required a certain amount of stability to ensure that the stream of money didn’t slow, and that the expenses of running the empire didn’t get out of hand. Conquest and prizes caused runaway inflation. And new ideas might give people dangerous thoughts that had to be controlled. The easiest way to do that was to stifle the kinds of questions that generate creativity and change. Sons were forbidden to leave their fathers’ professions. Incredible inventions were suppressed and inventors killed. The libraries of Carthage were destroyed or dispersed, the Punic language eliminated and all of Carthage’s knowledge lost to history. (Except one important element, which Rome faithfully copied.)
Culture by culture, Jones takes us around the edges of the Roman empire, showing that art, learning, technology, law, and military skill exceeded that of Rome. What those cultures didn’t have was a deep-seated need to conquer any perceived threat to their home, which was what relentlessly drove Rome on. In doing so, Rome got to tell their side of the story for nearly three millenia; now, with the benefit of skepticism, scholarship, and science, those “barbarian” contemporaries can begin to assume their place on the stage.
Terry Jones’ Barbarians was published to accompany the BBC series of the same name. Although the video isn’t widely available, the book more than makes up for the lack.
Check the WRL catalog for Terry Jones’ Barbarians, by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira
I love unreliable narrators. From the unnamed man in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards to the clueless John Dowell in The Good Soldier to the layered unreliability of American Pastoral, to the multiple narrators in An Instance of the Fingerpost, the craft is sometimes hard to detect. Sometimes it erupts all at once, sometimes it’s given to us in the beginning, sometimes the accretion of details doesn’t add up. And sometimes, as in The Sense of an Ending, we are left overwhelmed by the possibilities.
Barnes, who deliciously skewered nostalgia in England, England, returns to the same theme, but with a dark and unnerving approach that makes the reader wonder about his or her own past. Tony Webster is in his sixties, retired from an undistinguished career, divorced without bitterness, grandfather to a baby he sees every once in a while when his daughter gets around to visiting. The highlight of his life was probably the extended trip he took across the United States after his undistinguished college career, but that was ruined by the news that a prep school friend committed suicide while Tony was away.
Adrian Finn joined Tony and his two pals in a kind of elite society of scholars, although it’s quickly clear that he is far brighter than the other three, who often mistake facile conclusions and clever tag phrases for brilliance. When the four break away onto their own paths, their friendship becomes something to reminisce about rather than restart. But Tony will cross paths with Adrian again.
While in college, Tony has a few girlfriends, but falls in love with Veronica Ford, a somewhat standoffish, somewhat snobby young woman whose tastes are far more sophisticated that Tony’s. From the heady (and bodily) excitement of their early days, they grow more comfortable with each other, until Veronica takes Tony home to meet her parents. Not long afterward, though, they have the “where is our relationship heading?” conversation, and Tony drops her. Except for one bout of breakup sex.
Fast forward a while, and Tony has a letter from Adrian asking his permission to go out with Veronica. Tony dashes off a witty postcard, and that’s the end of the matter–until Adrian emulates the ancient Romans and slashes his wrists in a warm bathtub. Tony grieves for a while, then goes on with the next forty years of his peaceable life.
Then one day an official letter arrives. It seems that he’s been willed a tidy sum of money and some documents by, of all people, Veronica’s mother. Although the money is easy to collect, Veronica has the documents–Adrian’s diary–and no legal effort can pry them away from her. So Tony searches her out himself and asks for the diary via email. She sends him one page that includes ruminations, a mathematical formula with bizarre variables, and ends with, “So, for instance, if Tony “. Puzzled by this introductory phrase, Tony presses Veronica for details, until she at last consents to meet him.
The problem with their initial meeting and those that follow, is that Veronica won’t interpret any of it for him. She tells him repeatedly, “You just don’t get it. You never did and you never will.” On their final meeting, she takes him to a neighborhood in London and shows him something that he still doesn’t get. But Veronica also shows him something that blasts his self-image. That witty reply to Adrian’s letter was actually the invective-laced diatribe of a petty boy seeking to hurt the two of them as deeply as he could. So much for Tony’s memory.
What else does he get wrong? What else had he done or not done, seen or overlooked, heard and misconstrued? Barnes doesn’t tell us. Frustratingly, appallingly, he doesn’t tell us. Perhaps that is why the Intertubes are filled with discussions of The Sense of an Ending, each with a plausible development of the plot, resolution to the equation, and the end of the mysterious sentence. But most of those interpretations are contradictory, because Barnes just doesn’t give us enough. We just don’t get it. We never did and we never will.
It would seem that such an indefinite ending would consign the book to obscurity or subject it to harsh critical reviews. But Barnes’ language is so evocative, so simple, so perfect in tone that within 150 pages he makes an inoffensive nonentity realize the devastating effect he had on many lives. It becomes a powerful story of memory, and of the way we change our memories to meet our own self-image. That may perhaps be an ordinary idea, but in Julian Barnes’ hands it becomes a brilliant novel.
Check the WRL catalog for The Sense of an Ending
First, a series of confessions. This book isn’t in the library’s collection, so I don’t have a link to it. I’ve written about Jones’ take on Chaucer before, so I may be replowing the same field. And, even though my wife doesn’t understand it, Terry Jones makes my heart race.
Like his work with Monty Python’s Flying Circuses, Jones takes a flying leap feet-first into a settled world and turns it on its head. Chaucer’s Knight was almost universally praised by Chaucerians. After all, look at how Chaucer begins his description:A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man, That fro the tyme he first bigan To riden out, he loved chivalrie, Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
Along with calling him “a verray, parfit gentil knyght,” there was, in the minds of literature scholars, little else that Chaucer could have done to hold the Knight up as the noble ideal in a journey filled with rogues, moneygrubbers, and climbers. Not only an ideal of the nobility, but a brave crusader who fought for the Christian faith, and who embarked on his pilgrimage to Canterbury immediately on his return from overseas. Pious, courageous, humble, courteous – except for his long-winded tale, he truly is a role model for the ages. What could Jones possibly object to?
His career, for one. Line by line, Jones goes through the list of places Chaucer and the other travelers hear that the Knight has been–from Egypt to Spain and up to Russia–and shows that it is actually a catalog of atrocities and brutal warfare not at all characteristic of the noble Crusader. If fact, in some of the places the Knight has been, the fighting was between Christian and Christian; in others he served Muslim rulers during their internal battles. His signature victory at Alexandria was marked by the massacre of innocent civilians, looting of the city, and the immediate retreat of the English knights, leaving their commander to lose the prize to the returning Muslims. His record of jousting violated every norm of that “sport,” in which the death of a combatant was considered a crime. And in a time when England was under near constant threat from France and internally, and in which desperate battles were fought, the Knight was conspicuously absent, even in direct violation of King Edward III’s order that warriors could not travel abroad.
From his career, Jones follows Chaucer’s description of the Knight’s income, his conduct, his retinue, his horse, and his dress. At every turn, he cites the writers and mores of the time to demonstrate that Chaucer was satirizing the conduct of a man who could only have been a mercenary fighting wherever money was to be made, booty to be seized, or a reputation for upholding his contracts could be made. The problem for modern readers is that the definitions of the words Chaucer uses have changed over the centuries so that we have taken them at face value rather than studying the context Chaucer’s listeners would have implicitly understood. He also digs into that interminable story of Palomon and Arcite the Knight tells, pulling out the details that show the Knight was more comfortable with the language of battle and despotism than the courtly language of love a true nobleman would have used to tell the story. How many generations of undergraduates would have paid good money to learn that it was a parody designed to be laughed at?
I don’t know how formal Chaucer scholars received the work, except in a few cases where his interpretation was dismissed. As a medieval historian at Oxford, Jones acquired firsthand knowledge of both the work and of the contemporary writers with whom Chaucer would have been familiar, and it seems to me that his view from outside the specialty may give him insight into the work. As a comic writer himself (and I quote a friend of mine who says, “Smart people aren’t always funny, but funny people are always smart”), he has a built-in eye for the fun Chaucer poked at each of the other pilgrims. And although the work is a serious piece of scholarship, it never bogs down.
Last confession: I learned about this book from a professor I had in college, and I dearly wish I could remember his name. The pebbles he dropped in his classroom continue to ripple to this day–that’s the mark of a good teacher.
Sorry, can’t check the WRL catalog for Terry Jones’ Chaucer’s Knight. If you are interested in it, try interlibrary loan. Any decent university library should have it.
Oh, get your mind out of a Hemingway novel. There are more important things to be discussed–like earthmovers that outdo the largest mechanical monsters every hour of every day with no maintenance required.
Some people get creeped out by these denizens of the humus and loam that builds up underground, but to writer Amy Stewart it is plain that few human endeavors would be possible without the earthworm. They are undoubtedly responsible for much of the fertile land that produced crops abundant enough for people to settle into communities and build cities. They are responsible for the gradual settling that preserves so many archaeological sites. And they may be one of myriad ways we can solve our current problems with treating contaminated soils and other human wastes, including human waste.
What’s strange is that earthworms attract little or no serious scientific attention. At the time of Stewart’s writing, one of the few people involved in creating a taxonomy of earthworms supported himself with a variety of jobs, including a stint as a truck driver. Another wants to create a website where people can buy the naming rights to any of the unnamed worm species, much as people used to be able to name stars. The trouble is that, despite the few people making a career of oligochaetology (possibly because your in-laws can’t spell it), a dozen uncatalogued earthworm species can turn up in a single trip, with specimens left sitting in a lab waiting to be analyzed and named by the scientist. How can their impact be assessed if researchers can’t even put a name to the subject?
Yet no less a scientific luminary than Charles Darwin turned his fascination with earthworms into the last book of his career. After observing their habits for decades, even setting aside cataloguing his collection from the Beagle to study them, Darwin finally put those observations in print. He wrote of worms’ movement in the soil, of the castings they leave behind to enrich the dirt, even of the work they do to pull objects from the surface into their burrows. (They like triangular shapes best.) He credited them with intelligence and with a dignity that surprised a world that regarded them as pests. (And, Stewart notes, they can be. When a well-meaning fisherman dumps his remaining bait worms into a different habitat, they can have an adverse effect on the environment.)
Stewart mingles the history and current studies with her own experiences as a vermicomposter. I can’t imagine anyone publishing a plain book on earthworm history, or earthworm studies, although books about raising earthworms are popular. The way Stewart turns it into a readable, thoughtful, and at times funny book shows how an odd little topic can change the way people view it. Kind of like an earthworm changes the world.
Check the WRL catalog for The Earth Moved