On the first page, we meet Mr. Putney, a balding, middle-aged guy with a mustache. He owns a veritable menagerie, whose names the reader is invited to guess. For instance, an armadillo stands on the bedside table next to a snoozing Mr. Putney. “Who wakes Mr. Putney up in the morning?” the book asks. The answer: An alarmadillo.
Mr. Putney holds a (somewhat worried) small boy next to a gorilla. “Who does Mr. Putney use to see how tall his nephew is?” A goruler.
You get the idea. Agee’s illustrations are huge and well-defined, so they are easy to see from the back of the room. And after the first few riddles, kids will be eager to guess the rest. I’ve used this with kindergarten through fourth grade, and it was a hit. And it’s a good one to slip between stories.
Check the WRL catalog for Mr. Putney’s Quacking Dog.
I can think of maybe three books that have left me speechless, books where I turned that last page and then sat there with my fool mouth hanging wide open. The Body of Christopher Creed is one of them.
Christopher Creed is the class loser. His personality is just wrong. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t fit in. He says the wrong things and wears the wrong clothes and generally makes a pest of himself. Maybe the saddest part is that he doesn’t realize what a dweeb he is. He just keeps trying. It’s pathetic.
Then he disappears.
Is it murder? Did he run away? Maybe it was a suicide?
I’ll warn you right now, there are no clear answers. Christopher’s classmate Torey sure wants to know, because his name has been linked to the disappearance. As Torey starts to investigate the mystery, he begins asking some tough questions: Was he guilty? How about his peers? Did their ostracism go too far? Is Christopher dead because of them?
Plum-Ucci crafts a gripping plot unlike anything you’ve read before. The characters are dangerously well-done: every time you read about Christopher, you remember the pain of the times you’ve been picked on; worse, you begin to remember those times when you were the bully. Lucid, believable writing and truly unique storytelling make this a truly stunning young adult novel. It’s impossible to describe the power of this Printz winner, but don’t take it from me: the brisk plot makes this book seem much shorter than its 248 pages. You have no excuses. Go check it out.
Check the WRL catalog for The Body of Christopher Creed
Nathaniel Philbrick is one of our most readable chroniclers of American history. While less well known than his breakout book, In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex and focused on a more obscure event than later works like Mayflower, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and 2013′s Bunker Hill: a City, a Siege, a Revolution, his book Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 is one of his best. The fact that the history of this expedition has mostly been forgotten by modern Americans only makes the book more astonishing.
The Exploring Expedition, often known as the U.S. Ex Ex, would journey down the U.S. and South American coasts, continue into Antarctic waters, then cross into the Pacific and chart South Pacific islands and portions of America’s Northwest coast, including the mouth of the Columbia River before returning via the reverse route over four years later. It would make contact with many native populations, create sea charts that would be used well into the 20th century, and bring home an astonishing number of scientific specimens that would ultimately form the start of the Smithsonian’s collection. It would do all of this in an era when propulsion was still by sail, cold weather gear was substandard, and navigation was hazardous. Pretty good for an expedition unknown to most modern Americans!
But what makes the story even more astonishing is that it succeeded despite the inept, self-aggrandizing leadership of young Charles Wilkes. Wilkes was barely 40 years of age, only a lieutenant, but won command of the expedition through diligent campaigning and the general opposition to the expedition of most of the Navy’s officers. When political wrangling back at home refused him the honor of a Captain’s rank even after he was away with the expedition’s five ships, Wilkes became ever more of a martinet, pretending to have achieved rank that he didn’t have so he could play the other young officers of the expedition against each other. He would often arrange the traveling order of the ships so that he could claim personal discovery of major sites or ignore the successes of other officers. He resorted to corporal punishments at the least offense and subverted the work of the expedition’s scientists.
I’ll let you discover the expedition’s many events for yourself, but I will hint at a bit of the ending. Wilkes returned home to find a different president than the one who backed his expedition, many dismissed officers waiting to level charges against him, a Navy determined to have him court-martialed, and powerful enemies in the country’s political leadership. The last part of the book considers the events of the case made against him. Wilkes may have been a disaster, but modern readers will be enthralled by the adventures of this little known expedition. This is an enthralling history that reads like a suspense novel.
Check the WRL catalog for Sea of Glory
After inheriting her Uncle’s land in Montana 16 year-old Hattie sets off to improve the land, stake a claim and finally have a place she can call home. Traveling from Iowa to Eastern Montana, Hattie narrates her struggle of cultivating 40 acres and setting 480 fence posts during a 10 month period. Hattie’s story is also revealed through a series of letters both to and from a friend who is off to war as well as newspaper clippings from back home in Iowa.
Hattie braves the harsh weather, endless hours of farm work, homesickness, and her hopeless cooking. Hattie’s biggest test lies in her standing up to locals who increase the pressure to be a “loyal American” during World War I and the bigotry towards a local German-American family that Hattie befriends.
This novel is based on Kirby Larson’s great-grandmother who staked a claim on the Montana prairie. Please read the author’s note at the end of the novel.
A wonderful parent-child book group selection that provides a magnificent setting and memorable characters, and a story that may want you to search for your ancestors and family history.
Check the WRL catalog for Hattie Big Sky
Eric Poole started out just killing small animals, kittens, and birds, but soon finds himself in a juvenile detention center for killing his parents. Eric claims he was being abused and the murders were in self-defense.
Lori Cranston, a 15-year-old runaway is drawn to Eric. She met him in passing a few years before Eric was arrested and wants to meet him again upon release from the detention home.
Eric and Lori are brought together and the tension begins. With a veteran police officer watching Eric, waiting for his one slip back to a life of crime, Eric finds companionship in Lori and then in a Cormier-esque ending lives are shattered.
Check the WRL catalog for Tenderness
J. R. Moehringer first came to the attention of readers with his 2005 memoir The Tender Bar. In 2012, he returned with a novel, Sutton, which chronicles the life of the American bank robber Willie “the Actor” Sutton. The two works might be closer in nature than that summary first suggests: told from Willie’s perspective, and dependent on his memory (his fictionalized memory: the real life Sutton didn’t talk much to reporters about his exploits, and when he did, as in his 1976 ghostwritten memoir, the information was often questionable), this historical novel reads like one of those contemporary memoirs that leaves readers wondering if they’re getting the whole truth. In this case, however, that’s not a negative, it’s kind of the point.
The novel opens with Sutton’s surprise parole from New York’s Attica prison on Christmas Eve, 1969 at the age of 69. Willie is on death’s doorstep with emphysema and weak arteries in his legs, a bit bewildered by the world’s changes, but he makes a deal with the New York Herald to tell his story. So on Christmas Day, a cub reporter and a beatnik photographer drive him around the city, visiting the sites of all of his life’s major events in chronological order. Arnold Schuster, the young man who spotted the heavily disguised Willie and turned him in to police, was killed by the mob. The question that hung over Sutton’s head was whether he had somehow ordered the hit. In the book, this piece of information is all that the reporter really wants from Willie, but Willie refuses to talk about Schuster until he has visited all of his old stomping grounds. The narrative alternates between Willie’s remembrances and his reactions to what has become of his former haunts and accomplices.
Sutton was born into an Irish Brooklyn neighborhood at the start of the 20th century. As he tells his story, the cycle of economic depressions, a lack of opportunities, and a desperate attempt to win the wealthy girl who was the love of his life away from her parents’ control were the key elements in his descent into a life of crime. He ultimately became famous for nearly one hundred nonviolent bank and jewelry store robberies, made successful mostly through disguises. While highly successful, Willie was always tripped up by undependable accomplices (at least that’s his story, perhaps the largest conflict of the book is deciding whether Willie is a dependable narrator). He went to prison often, but also became famous for his daring prison breaks. Sutton was on the FBI’s first Most Wanted list when it was released in 1950.
This novel should have broad appeal to crime fiction fans, historical fiction lovers, and literary fiction buffs. Willie makes a likable and fascinating narrator, even as one questions his veracity. Moehringer admits up front that he had to create most of his narrative with imagination, but the historical settings feel accurate and just when you think the plot is getting predictable, a surprising twist is always at hand.
I can highly recommend the audiobook, which actor Dylan Baker reads in fine style, switching deftly between many character voices. Baker is one of those great character actors whom everyone recognizes but few recognize by name. He attended college at William and Mary and acted in many local theater productions before making it big on the stage, on television and in films.
Check the WRL catalog for Sutton
Or try Sutton as an audiobook on compact disc
This is a little, old-fashioned, enameled music-box of a book, and if it were a music-box, its tune would be a Strauss waltz.
The setting is Vienna in the last golden years before the first World War. Annika is a kind-hearted foundling girl brought up by the cook in a household of professors; her life changes the day her “real” mother shows up and whisks her away to life in the aristocracy. Reuniting with her mother should be the fairytale that Annika has daydreamed about for years, but life on the curiously rundown estate isn’t quite what she envisioned. For one thing, she has to eat turnip jam. Also, her new family’s motto is “Stand Aside Ye Vermin Who Oppose Us.”
Ibbotson, I was surprised to learn, is a living writer who nonetheless captures the feel of a bygone era’s childhood classics: Frances Hodgson Burnett and Marguerite Henry, to name a few. In The Star of Kazan, there are: a foundling raised by elderly caretakers, jewels, a contested inheritance, a secret garden, a gypsy boy, a dreadful boarding school, and horses. Not just any horses, either, but the Lipizzaner stallions of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. I cannot think of anything else this book needed to be the platonic ideal of the classic girl’s story. Maybe a governess? I was charmed.
Ibbotson is deft at summing up a person’s character in a few, telling lines, and while her picture of old-world Vienna is sentimental, she is not above ridding the story of a villainess by dropping a concert harp on her. (The moral of this episode? It is wrong to drop harps on people, as harps are expensive.) I particularly recommend the audiobook, read with delightful nuance by Patricia Conolly, who won an Audie award for it.
Check the WRL catalog for Star of Kazan
Last summer I brought this book to an outreach storytime where I would be reading to kindergarten through third grade students. When I arrived, I found out that the fourth and fifth graders would be joining us. “Uh oh,” I thought. But I needn’t have worried. Press Here saved the day.
Press Here is the pop-up book that isn’t a pop-up book. On the first page, readers are instructed to “Press here” on a painted yellow dot and then turn the page. On the next page, a second yellow dot has “magically” appeared. On ensuing pages, the reader is instructed to press dots, shake the book up and down or turn it sideways. In response, the dots change color, slide to the edge of the page, or change size. Pressing a whole row of dots “turns out the lights,” making the background turn black. Blow on the book and the black ink gradually (with more blowing), flows back off the page.
This book is particularly fun to share with a group of about 20, because you can carry it around and let the kids can take turns following the directions. If you have more children than pages, it’s okay, because a couple of the instructions—clapping and blowing—can be done by the whole group. You’ll get spit on when everybody blows, so maybe don’t try it during flu season.
Check the WRL catalog for Press Here.
I’m an unabashed fan of fantasy fiction, but the genre has changed massively in the last five years. A few years ago, most fantasy novels were fat books with lots of story lines and a setting that was usually medieval. These books take a certain patience until all of the plot lines and characters are clearly established, but can pack a real wallop of excitement and emotion when the story comes together.
Now, urban fantasy has at least half of the market. The books are shorter, have a clear central character, and are lighter reads. It’s a format that doesn’t usually work for me. The books don’t have enough depth for my tastes, and when they do, that depth often comes after several books. In particular, the contemporary setting makes it hard for me to suspend disbelief, and I can’t buy into the fantastic elements enough to become engrossed.
Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer, the first in a new series, was a happy exception for me, perhaps because it’s centered on the book world and the magic that can come from reading good fiction. In this case, that magic isn’t just symbolic, it’s a literal manifestation. The book follows Isaac Vainio, a librarian on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. As an encounter with vampires in the book’s first chapter makes clear, Isaac is more than just a book lover: He can reach inside books and pull magic from the pages.
As the story develops, the reader learns more about Isaac’s back story and the limits and costs of his magic. Isaac was once a practicing field agent for the Porters, a group founded and led by the still-living Johannes Gutenberg. They work, unknown to regular folk, to keep other magical figures like vampires under control and to prevent rogue libriomancers from doing wrong. Isaac got in trouble and has been reduced to the role of cataloger. He looks at new books and makes sure that the magic potential in them won’t accidentally destroy the world. As the book opens, the Porters are losing control as mysterious forces attack them on several fronts.
Isaac returns to active duty, but he’s in a precarious position, without the full support of the Porters, who may be succumbing to internal forces, and targeted by a host of powerful enemies. His allies are his pet fire spider Smudge and Lena, a dryad who’s a fierce warrior and whose magic makes her a powerful love draw to those with whom she bonds. These two provide plenty of comic relief and add some physical power to Isaac’s magical gifts.
What really makes this book click for me, however, are all of the loving references to fantasy and science fiction titles that Hines works into the plot. He clearly loves this literature, and cleverly finds a way to make its imaginative power into something more real in his book. Libriomancer is the start of a series which I’ll follow closely. I predict it’s the series that will make the well-reviewed Hines into a more household name.
Check the WRL catalog for Libriomancer
I was forced to read Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging for a library school class. The narrator is a teenage girl, so there’s a lot of talk about clothing and boys and high school chums. Yeech!
Imagine my surprise when I started liking it anyway.
…and then imagine my embarassment when I began screeching like a hyena in a crowded coffee shop. This book goes beyond the realm of laugh-out-loud and into hyperventilate-till-they-call-for-an-ambulance.
Despite not caring for chick lit or teen girl stories, I couldn’t help liking the narrator. British (and therefore funny) teenager Georgia Nicolson records her life in diary form with a droll, dry sense of humor. For example:
“I wonder if I have got enough friends? I worry that if British Telecom asks me for ten friends and family for my list of cheap calls, I would have to count the astrological phone line for Librans, which I ring more often than not.”
“Overslept and had to race to get a life to Jas’s with my dad. No time for yoga or makeup. Oh well, I’ll start tomorrow. God alone knows how the Dalai Lama copes on a daily basis. He must get up at dawn. Actually, I read somewhere that he does get up at dawn.”
The diary entries move the book along at a good clip. It won a Printz Award, and if you like it, you can read the subsequent books in the Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series.
Check the WRL catalog for Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging
Patti Smith is the proto-punk goddess whose music is fierce, but hardly every listener’s cup of tea. Robert Mapplethorpe was a photographer whose most famous works were pictures of nude men, often depicted in sexually explicit poses and masochistic acts. I like some edgy things, but neither of these artists really do much for me, and a more conservative person might run the other way. I’m not even a huge fan of their scene, where style and innovation seem to matter more than substance, but I’ve always been curious about those magical moments in history where a group of creative people find each other and use the energy of their meeting to create something new.
Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, captures just such a time perfectly. Smith came to New York in 1967 after giving up a baby to adoption upstate. She was young and looking for a fresh start. One of the first people she met was Robert Mapplethorpe, a minor acquaintance who became her fast friend after saving her from a bad date. The two moved in together and tried to make a go of a relationship, even though it soon became apparent that Mapplethorpe was obviously homosexual. Patti somewhat naively believed that their love would overcome Robert’s sexual preference, and so began several years of ups and downs. Robert could be incredibly supportive of Patti and her art, but substance abuse and a need for fame could make him neglectful at other times.
The background here is fascinating, as Smith and Mapplethorpe rub elbows with the artists and scenesters of the Chelsea Hotel, Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the pioneering music venue CBGB’s. The story follows the early rise of both friends, then jumps forward a decade and ends poignantly with Robert’s death from AIDS in 1989.
Smith writes with real heart. The prose gets a bit florid at times, but that’s easy to forgive, as is her sometimes naive view of Mapplethorpe, as the author so clearly feels all of the emotions behind her story honestly. This especially shines through on the audiobook. Smith is a clumsy reader, a bit monotone and with funny pronunciations for some words (“drawlings” instead of “drawings”), but she’s so absolutely free of pretense that I found the awkwardness charming and authentic, not off-putting.
Check the WRL catalog for Just Kids
Or try it on audiobook on CD
There are mysteries where you actually find out who did it. And then there are mysteries that send you off on a wild goose chase for the code that Houdini set up with his wife so that she could correctly identify his spirit in a séance. This is the second kind of book.
But aren’t these great opening lines?
“Anna Cayne had moved here in August, just before our sophomore year in high school, but by February she had, one by one, killed everyone in town. She didn’t do it all by herself—I helped with a few, including my best friend—but still, it was no small accomplishment, even if it was a small town.”
Anna Cayne is a hip goth girl with an encyclopedic appreciation of literature and music. Her hobby is writing obituaries for people who are not dead yet. She and the narrator, never named, bond over Kerouac and carry on an intense flirtation via cryptic postcards, found objects, and mix CDs. And then she disappears. The police find one of her dresses neatly laid out next to a hole in the ice of a nearby river. Is she a murder victim? A suicide? A runaway with a sense of theatrics?
This is one smart, creepy mystery. It works if you just read it straight through, but if you chase down the references to artists and folks with tragic or mysterious ends, the story takes on as many angles as a hall of mirrors. I still don’t know what happened to Anna Cayne, but I have my theories, and so do other Galloway fans who have dogeared suspicious paragraphs, Googled clues, and even explored the lyrics of the songs mentioned for more evidence. Like the TV show Lost, there’s something in this open-ended story to support just about any theory you can throw at it.
As Simple as Snow also won an Alex award, which is given to books that have strong appeal to adults and teenagers alike.
Check the WRL catalog for As Simple as Snow
Should you need it, by the way, the Houdini code is in here.
“Is it Yellow?” he asks. “Yellow is the sand on the sunny beach.”
“Is it Red? Red is the rug where I snooze by the fire.” The simple text on these double-page spreads is always accompanied by the cheery cat and another sort of animal. A mouse naps next to the cat on the red rug. Crabs scoot along yellow sand. Bats swoop through a black night sky.
The book bounces along easily, with just enough going on to generate a conversation with toddlers. Cabrera’s illustrations are big and bright, so this is a great book for storytime. And the simple conclusion is satisfying and perfect for little ones.
Check the WRL catalog for Cat’s Colors.
I have a lifetime reading project. My goal is to read one book from each fiction shelf at the Williamsburg Library. I allow myself the option of skipping a shelf if I’ve already read two books on it, but that isn’t most shelves. I’ve been at my project for over two years, and I’m still only 18 shelves in, still reading authors whose last names begin with the letter A! Since I only allot my project a small percentage of my reading time, I may never finish, but it’s a good project, and I’ll keep at it. The intent is to read authors whom I would otherwise never attempt, and this post is about one of these authors.
Jeffrey Archer is an English author who once was a Conservative Member of Parliament. He resigned that position in financial scandal. He was later investigated for insider business dealings and even served time in prison after being convicted of perjury from 2001 to 2003.
Archer’s writing style is a little old fashioned, and not something I would normally read, but he’s held popularity over the years, with a career that began with 1976′s Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, and continues right up to 2013′s Best Kept Secret. That makes him the perfect candidate for my reading project. Archer’s plots can be melodramatic, but as I read his second book, 1979′s Kane & Abel, I found that despite my skepticism, I was sucked into the story and found it hard to put aside.
Kane & Abel is the story of two men, born on the same day in 1906, destined to cross paths and butt heads throughout their eventful lives. Wladek Koskiewicz is a Pole who rises from impoverished birth, survives both the Germans and the Russians in WWII, and eventually emigrates to America. William Lowell Kane is the scion of a Boston banking family, a prodigy who rises to the top despite family problems and bitter enemies. Both men are admirable but intensely stubborn, and over the course of the novel, they cross paths many times but never become close acquaintances. In later life, they become fierce rivals because of misunderstanding and a failure to communicate.
More happens to each of Archer’s protagonists than normally happens in the lives of a hundred men, and both are too perfect to be believed most of the time and too stubborn to be believed the rest of the time, but what happens to them is consistently interesting, and as a reader, you can’t help but play along, thinking about how you would react to each new crisis, cheering the protagonists when they overcome another obstacle, cringing when they let pride bring them to a new low. It’s enthralling stuff with a strong connection to the world, even if it is at times hokey. It’s easy to see why Archer continues to hold a spot on the fiction shelves after all these years. When you’re tired of all the artsy literary fiction with flashy style and clever ideas that just doesn’t quite connect at the gut level, pick up this old warhorse and cleanse your reading palate with a bit of classic storytelling.
If you like this story, it continues with another generation in The Prodigal Daughter. Archer turned to books that are closer to political thrillers, but his most recent series, The Clifton Chronicles, which begins with Only Time Will Tell, returns more closely to the style of Kane & Abel.
Check the WRL catalog for Kane & Abel
So, I’ve been on an Eva Ibbotson kick lately, which is timely, as many of her out-of-print romances are being reissued with snazzy new covers.
A Countess Below Stairs, despite its predictable plot, might have been custom-designed for me, with its upstairs-downstairs descriptions of life in an English manor house and its heroine, a lady’s maid who is secretly a refugee Russian aristocrat. As in all good fairy tales, the heroine is impeccably good and the villainess perfectly dreadful from the moment she arrives wearing diamond-encrusted vulture feathers. But it’s a comfort read with style: Ibbotson writes delightful prose with a knack for offbeat details and character observations.
A Song for Summer was a darker novel, for all that it starts off like the Sound of Music. Good-hearted Ellen travels to Austria in the 1930s to take charge of a bunch of wild children, in this case the boarders at Hallendorf, a progressive school for the arts. In no time, she imposes order, good cooking and high standards of domestic science on the school’s neglected children and its unruly staff of anarchists and Marxists.
Meanwhile Ellen falls for the groundskeeper, a mysterious Czech-of-all-trades who is smuggling Jewish musicians out of Germany in his off hours. No one’s supposed to know that he’s the Marek Altenburg, promising young composer and conductor, a musical genius who can whip the Vienna Philharmonic into shape overnight.
Austria in the late 1930s is no time or place for Ellen and Marek to fall in love, but of course, they do. Hitler invades, and the plot becomes a melodrama of just-missed chances and too-noble sacrifices that seem destined to to leave everyone miserable. There’s enough of a mix of romanticism, irony, nostalgia, and realism that I really wasn’t sure how this one would turn out. (Hint: happily.)
Check the WRL catalog for A Song for Summer
In Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, Miranda is a sophomore in high school who keeps a diary about her friends, her divorced parents, her pregnant stepmother, her classes and assignments. She is aware that there is talk in the news about the possibility of an asteroid hitting the moon, knocking it out of its orbit. All of her teachers talk about it and it’s on CNN day and night, but she doesn’t quite grasp the significance. “I guess Ms. Hammish thinks this moon thing is historical, because in history that’s what we talked about,” she writes.
When the asteroid hits, it sends the moon closer to the earth. Cell phones and cable tv no longer work, and Miranda realizes that civilization may indeed be changing. The family learns from a network station that tsunamis have caused widespread destruction along the eastern seaboard, and hundreds of thousands of people have been killed.
Miranda’s diary entries from then on describe the changing, colder climate she and her family endure, the increasing gas prices, the scarcity of food, the lack of electricity and lack of heat as the world gets colder and colder. Sick neighbors die when they can’t get to doctors. There is looting and crime. Neighbors trudge through the snow to help each other. The library stays open as long as it can, but eventually it has to close.
Life As We Knew It had me thinking about the paltry supplies my husband and I keep in case of a hurricane or ice storm. They would last a week or two. We would need to learn new skills, as Miranda does, and adopt new ways of looking at the world, in order to survive. This is a great novel for anyone twelve and older.
Check the WRL catalog for Life As We Knew It
The setting is Boston, during the opening salvos of what will eventually become the American Revolution.
Octavian is a child with an emperor’s name and a mother of royal descent, raised in a household of Enlightenment scholars and natural philosophers. Accustomed to the eccentricities of their scientific pursuits, Octavian takes the oddities of his everyday life for granted. His meals, for instance, are weighed and recorded daily, as are the contents of his chamberpot. Between the courtly compliments paid to his mother and the impeccable classical education that he is acquiring, Octavian remains unaware for many years that he and his mother are both slaves.
As we read Octavian’s “manuscript testimony,” interspersed with letters, newspaper articles, and other documents, we are privy to a most unusual coming-of-age, and the disillusionment is heartbreaking to follow. Realizing that his beloved mother is only human, and flawed. Realizing, worse, that there are people who don’t see her as human at all.
The Pox Party isn’t a casual or easy read. From the iron mask-and-gag pictured on the cover, used on runaway slaves, to death by smallpox or tarring-and-feathering, the descriptions of violence are harrowing. Some of the most memorable passages are literally beyond words—just slashes of ink where Octavian has written something too painful to confront and marked it out again. And admittedly, I had to take several running jumps at the hurdle of the novel’s eighteenth-century prose style. Read this book when you have time to concentrate. Although the prose is dense and the sentences lengthy, Anderson makes every word count, and once I got used to its rhythm, the story simply took over.
Check the WRL catalog for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1
Memoirs of a Goldfish is a book about a little fish who lived alone in his fish bowl happily swimming around all by himself. Then things started to be added to his fishy home, a bubbly man, plants, a cranky crab, a slime eating snail and even a pirate ship! What is a poor fish to do?
Devin Scillian and Tim Bowers have teamed up to make the book Memoirs of a Goldfish a keeper. This book is a fantastic read aloud for all ages. Anyone who has ever stood in the fish tank section at a store and thought “I need more stuff!” this book is for you.
Check the WRL catalog for Memoirs of a Goldfish.
This book is about the friends you find when you were not looking and how your life is richer for them, have fun.
Not to stretch a naval metaphor, but I’ve been in a reading doldrums. Nothing satisfies. At these times I fall back on one of two tried-and-true authors: Terry Pratchett or Patrick O’Brian. Pratchett pops up pretty regularly on Blogging for a Good Book, but I am amazed to see that we have never written about O’Brian, whose 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series fills an entire library shelf.
Set in the world of the royal navy during the Napoleonic wars, O’Brian’s novels are first and foremost the portrait of a lifelong friendship between Jack Aubrey, affable and resolute ship’s captain, and Stephen Maturin, surgeon, naturalist, and intelligence agent. The series pretty easily finds its audience of men (and women) who are interested in age-of-sail adventures on the high seas; I’m not sure it always finds its audience of women (and men) who enjoy Jane Austen’s prose style, well-crafted sentences and characters, or the complications of Regency-era manners.
The New York Times may have called them “the best historical novels ever written,” but I avoided this series for years based solely on the infernal diagram of sails that opens every volume. No one wants to have to memorize sailing terminology just to get into a good story. Even as I began to be won over by O’Brian’s carefully-chosen words and dry humor, I simply refused to care which sail was a spritsail.
Fortunately, there is so much more than sails to care about as you turn the pages: there are also debauched sloths. Battles, mutinies, French prisons, typhoons, desert islands, music, birds, rich vocabulary, and a whole Dickensian roster of colorful secondary characters. There is indeed a lot of naval jargon, but the reader is not beat about the head with it, or if he is, he has a sympathetic ally in his ignorance in the person of Stephen Maturin. Stephen is also a landlubber, an outsider looking in to the regimented world of the royal navy, and he does not care any more about how many masts a ship has than I did.
Jack is famously lucky at sea, a skilled, courageous ship’s captain who will take, burn, and destroy the enemy at every opportunity, while on land, he is easy prey for speculators or a pretty face. Stephen is an Irish-Catalan physician with a passion for natural philosophy, and is forever cluttering Jack’s ship with beetles, wombats, and diving bells. If you cross him, he will fleece you at cards. If you double-cross him, he will find you, he will shoot you, and then he will dissect you. Their world of naval battles and subversive intelligence work occasionally collides with the domestic sphere and the polite drawing rooms of Jane Austen, usually with disastrous results, and then they are back to sea to escape debt, lawsuits, wives, sweethearts, and mothers-in-law.
And if you do begin to care about spritsails, there are many fine books to help you explore Aubrey and Maturin’s world, whether you’re interested in the vocabulary, the geography, the ships, or even, heaven help you, the food (probably the only cookbook in the library with a recipe for rats in onion sauce).
Check the WRL catalog for Master and Commander.
Or try the audiobooks. Patrick Tull and Simon Vance are both fantastic readers.
Mad Science: Einstein’s Fridge, Dewar’s Flask, Mach’s Speed, and 362 Other Inventions and Discoveries That Made Our World, edited by Randy Alfred
This daily guide to memorable inventions and discoveries comes from Wired magazine’s popular blog “This Day in Tech.” The book covers a wide range of subjects, including medicine, computers, food and war. Each article is short (one page) and concise. The daily entries also mention two other discoveries made on the same day, as well as two discoveries made in the same year.
I found most of the articles to be entertaining and informative, the perfect material to use at your next cocktail party. For instance, I thought it was interesting that on November 11th, 1930, Albert Einstein applied for a US patent for one of the few commonplace inventions of his life, a refrigerator that used a complex process involving ammonia, butane and water. It was exceptional because it didn’t use freon or electricity, but it was not nearly as efficient at cooling as standard refrigerators of the time, so it never became a commercial success. Modern researchers have tweaked his formula and have been able to increase the cooling capacity of his refrigerator, so the verdict is still out on Einstein’s fridge.
Some of these inventions didn’t catch on right away with the public. Sylvan Goldman of the Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain in Oklahoma City came up with one of the first grocery carts on June 4, 1937. He wanted to make it easier for his customers to carry their groceries, and at the same encourage them to buy more, but the public initially resisted using them. Women thought they were unfashionable and men feared that using them would make them look weak. So he hired male and female models to push them around in his supermarkets, and before long the grocery carts became a huge success.
Some of these inventions had unintended uses that became much more popular with the public. My favorite one in this category involved a Dr. John Kellogg, a strict Seventh-Day Adventist who taught the importance of a healthy diet to his mostly wealthy patients at his sanitarium in Michigan. He came up with bland cornflakes as a way for his patients to achieve a balanced diet. But his brother Will saw a different opportunity by adding lots of sugar to those cornflakes and, with lots of marketing savvy, the Kellogg cereal company quickly became a big business. John of course was very unhappy with the way his brother Will was using his cornflakes, and he sued him in court and lost.
Most of these articles can be found on “This Day in Tech” blog on wired.com. The online versions are slightly longer than those in the book, with larger pictures and text size, so they are easier to read. The online stories aren’t indexed, though you could try a Google search for “This Day in Tech” and the title of the entry you want to read. I enjoyed reading these both online and in print, so I would encourage others do the same.
Search the WRL catalog for Mad Science