Each winter I try to read something from the 19th century that I have not read before. These sprawling, character-laden stories seem to be just the thing for reading the winter blues away. I had intended to get started on something over the Christmas holidays, but circumstances prevented me, so in January, on the recommendation of a colleague ~ thanks, Penelope ~ I dove into Our Mutual Friend.
Dickens’ last finished novel is, in some ways, a recapitulation of many of his earlier themes; poverty, social climbing, unscrupulous lawyers, and loving families all make appearances. It is also typical Dickens in its many plot lines that run in parallel for so long that you cannot see where they are ever going to intersect or even resolve. And, to be honest, they do not always resolve cleanly; some plots just seem to drift away and are never heard from again. Nonetheless, the story is a fascinating one, and it is worth the time to read through it.
Like Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend concerns an inheritance, in this case, one gone oddly wrong. Young John Harmon, on his way back from abroad to take up the profitable “dust” business left to him by his estranged father, is thought to have been murdered by a local boatman, and a body found floating in the river confirms that suspicion. The will stipulates that John only inherits if he marries Bella Wilfer. Needless to say, the body in the river is not John, and the story, or one of the stories, revolves around Harmon’s efforts to prove the boatman innocent of his murder, to woo the girl that his father’s will would have forced him to marry, and to come to his rightful inheritance. I told you things got complicated.
There are a lot of other tales here too: the pursuit of Lizzy Hexam, whose father supposedly killed John Harmon, by a lawyer and a schoolmaster; the trials and tribulations of the Veneerings, who are seeking to rise up in society; and the ups and downs of the delightful Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. Written in serial form, abrupt shifts of scenery, plot, and cliffhangers abound. But Dickens manages to wrap everything up at the end, pulling together the various strands of the story in sometimes surprising ways. I was delighted to meet several new characters here who will stay with me–Jenny Wren, Noddy Boffin, Mr. Riah, and Reginald (R.W.) Wilfer among them. They can join company with any of Dickens’ better-known creations. Our Mutual Friend is an excellent novel to start with if you are new to Dickens, and if you enjoyed others, you will find much to like here too.
Check the WRL catalog for Our Mutual Friend
Nikki Beckett is a modern-day Persephone. One hundred years ago, Cole took her to the Everneath, where Everlivings like him feed off the lives of forfeits—mortals with nothing left to live for. But Nikki still had one thing left. She was supposed to retain no memory of her previous life. Forfeits shouldn’t even be able to function after they have been drained. But when Nikki woke, she was still herself. Cole realized that Nikki was very special and asked her to stay with him forever as an Everliving. Knowing that she would then be required to feed off of forfeits herself, Nikki turned him down, and her fate was sealed. Nikki would return to the Surface, but after six months she will be returned to endure a painful eternity fueling the Everneath.
When Nikki returns to the Surface only six months have passed since her family and friends thought she ran away. Now she has six months to make amends before the Everneath claims her again. All Nikki had intended was to set a few things right, say a proper goodbye, and keep to the fringes for the time she had left. But it turns out to be harder to stay uninvolved than she expected. Her father, her brother, and her best friend Jules all want answers. There is the added pressure of Cole, and his attempts to change her mind about becoming an Everliving. And there’s Jack. How can she say goodbye to the person 100 years in the Everneath couldn’t erase?
Everneath is the first in a planned trilogy that will appeal to paranormal romance and mythology fans alike. Check out the sequel, Everbound.
Check the WRL catalog for Everneath.
I am feeling very meta-…, writing about a book that is about writing about books, some of which are about writing. I have a great affection for essays and my library at home has lots of examples from Montaigne to Abbey to McPhee to the Whites (E.B and Katherine) and many more. When I came across this collection of Nick Hornby’s essays on books he has read, written originally for The Believer magazine, on the new book cart, I checked it out, immediately realized I needed to own it, and went to the bookstore and bought a copy. Hornby’s column, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” has been running more or less monthly since 2003 and covers just that–books that Hornby has read in the past month. Each essay begins with a list of books purchased that month and then a second list of books read. Hornby then proceeds to discuss those two lists and anything else that comes into his agile, inventive, and always entertaining mind.
There are two ways to read books like this. First, you can look at the lists the author offers, and count how many titles you have read, or at least heard of, reveling in your superior literary tastes. This is the competitive, ego-driven option. Or, you can step back, read the essays, and start making your own lists of titles mentioned that you ought to go right out and get and read. This is, of course, the more mature way to read the book. OK, I did both.
Hornby is a font of great ideas for books to read as his interests, his own protests to the contrary, go beyond football (by which he means soccer) and rock-and-roll. From all types of fiction to a fascinating array of nonfiction, Hornby’s descriptions of his monthly reading are filled with titles I want to read right now. As The Believer‘s “About” page indicates: “We will focus on writers and books we like. We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.” So the reviews here are generally positive, and that is great. I would much rather hear about why I should be interested in a particular book or writer than why I shouldn’t.
This is also a book about what it is to be a reader, and Hornby captures all the ups and downs of the reading life–those times when you just cannot get through a book and the times when you start a book and the next thing you know it is 3 a.m. and you are still reading. Hornby understands and conveys with humor the times when life gets in the way of reading. Spouses, children, deadlines, one’s own work, and, yes, the Arsenal vs. Manchester United match, all have a way of derailing our reading time. That being the case, it is great to have a guide as thoughtful, eloquent, and passionate as Nick Hornby to offer some possible titles to get you back on the road to reading.
Check the WLR catalog for Ten Years in the Tub
The gentleness of this story will please readers as they travel back to a simpler time. Little Lizzie lives with mama, papa, and baby in the Australian bush country during the pioneer days. Lizzie’s playful imagination keeps her and mama entertained while papa is away. Children will be amazed by the character’s ability to create such fun and uplifting diversions for herself. We all desire creativity to be ours and to witness it in Lizzie is to have insight into a true dreamer.
Check the WRL catalog for Lizzie Nonsense.
The Bravest Knight was one of the first books Mercer Mayer created. This story was originally titled “Terrible Troll” and has now been entirely redone in vivid color. It will remind parents of the Little Critter stories they have read over the years. As the main character wishes to have lived a thousand years ago, the reader goes to the land of castles, Kings, Queens, good knights and bad knights. The small boy fancies that he works for the bravest knight in the kingdom and they proceed on many brave adventures. The illustrations have numerous clever details. The ending has a twist that will have children picking up this book again and again.
Check the WRL catalog for The Bravest Knight.
Be warned: This is one of those books that you won’t want to put down once you start reading.
The List is about… a list. You may know the kind: who is smartest, who is best in sports, who you want to kiss, who you don’t want to kiss…
At fictional Mount Washington High School it has become a tradition to post the prettiest and the ugliest girl in each grade on the last Monday of September.
The book follows the eight girls through the week following the posting. The story alternates between the characters – the new girl, the jock, the mean girl, the popular girl, the wanna-be popular girl, the outsider… It’s amazing how much you can find out about someone by observing one week of her life. And this is the week prior to the Homecoming dance, so a lot is happening.
The author manages to quickly jump below the surface labels to show the person inside. The person who is so much more than a name on a list. And as you may guess, the girls who make it on the list, whether as prettiest or ugliest, have a tough time with being singled out for her looks.
The List is fast-paced and entertaining as well as insightful. The story doesn’t end with all the pieces neatly tied up, which may frustrate some readers. But, like me, I think that many more readers will find this glimpse heartbreaking and thought-provoking. I just couldn’t put the book down until I read every word. I think this would make a great book for discussion – whether with adults or teens or a combination of both. I can promise you this, you won’t look at another list the same way!
Check the WRL catalog for The List
Time for a confession. I’ve been binge-watching the SyFy series Haven on Netflix. Haven is a fictional small town in Maine where people are cursed with unusual gifts–like being able to conjure storms when they are stressed or make monsters attack when they are frightened. It’s not spells or demon powers–it’s what residents call “the troubles.” The series has an interesting (and attractive) cast, and I like the supernatural twist on the solve-the-mystery-in-an-hour format.
In the opening credits of every episode there’s a note that the series is based on The Colorado Kid by Stephen King. So I read the book.
Newspaper intern Stephanie spends an afternoon with veteran newspaper men Vince and Dave discussing a cold case mystery. It’s a case the older men say isn’t really appropriate for a big newspaper like the Boston Globe because unlike many of the often repeated local stories–like the ghost lights or the mysterious shipwrecked boat–this one doesn’t have a clean “musta-been” explanation. For example, the ghost lights appearing above the baseball field “musta-been” a reflection off the clouds, or maybe it “musta-been” aliens. As Vince explains, the story of the Colorado Kid has too many unknown factors.
He and Dave proceed to tell Steff what little they know about how a man from Colorado went to work one morning and ended up dead on a little island off the coast of Maine only hours later. He was unidentified for months. But even when the police followed an initially missed clue and identified him, they were no closer to understanding why he was found so far from home or why he had a Russian coin in his pocket.
Nothing fits together, and that can be frustrating for some readers, but I liked the interaction between Stephanie and the old timers. It was nice to see that she was beginning to fit in with the small town community. And I liked that Vince and Dave laid out all they knew about the Colorado Kid and accepted there are just too many things still unknown to be able to give a guess, a “musta-been” explanation, as to what happened. The newspaper can’t print the story because there’s nothing but questions left at the end.
So what’s all this have to do with Haven the TV series? Some character and place names are the same, and some facts about the mystery of the “Colorado Kid” are mentioned in earlier episodes, but you really get to the meat of it in the author notes at the end of the book. King explains that not all mysteries are solvable, and “it’s the beauty of the mystery that allows us to stay sane.” Nicely put, Mr. King. And I think the reminder that everything doesn’t always have an answer is the inspiration for the television show.
Check the WRL catalog for The Colorado Kid
Just for fun, check the WRL catalog for season 1 of Haven
Ten years ago, Quinn was interrupted right before she walked down the aisle by her fiance’s brother, Frank. Frank felt compelled to tell her that Burke, her fiance, had had an affair (or two) while they were engaged. After calling off the wedding, Quinn and Frank leave town for a couple days of drowning sorrows and steamy sex. When Quinn comes back to her senses, she returns home alone and settles into a quiet rut. Which is where the story picks up.
Quinn has a successful business making original bridal gowns (as penance for walking out on her own wedding?) She prides herself on being able to create the perfect gown for the bride and her party.
When Dolly, the grandmother of the two brothers decides to get remarried, she comes to Quinn for her gown. And Quinn realizes she’s not as over the high school romance as much as she thought she was.
With the help of her best friend Glenn, she tries to change her life. He gives her a mission every day for a month (experience speed dating, eat breakfast out, try a new hairstyle, etc.) There are some laugh out loud moments as Quinn tries new things to shake up her perspective. (I made a mental note not to try all of Glenn’s suggestions!) And with the brothers back in town for the wedding, there is certainly opportunity to confront the past and put it behind her.
In many ways it reminded me of the movie The Runaway Bride. Like the Julia Roberts character, Quinn needs to figure out who she is before she can take the steps to be with someone else.
Harbison’s characters are imperfect, and that’s what makes them appealing. I felt like I knew people like them in “real life”–and ended the book hoping they would find their happily ever after.
Check the WRL catalog for Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave him the Wrong Finger
The narrator of this WWII historical thriller is a coward, a quisling, a traitor to her country. She has caved under pressure (okay, you might call it torture) from her Gestapo captors and blabbed everything she knows about wireless codes and English military secrets. The real Resistance prisoners she’s held with spit on the ground when she walks by.
Held for weeks in a makeshift prison in occupied France, our narrator is writing a confession of sorts for SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden, who really wants details about English double agents and air forces, but is getting more story than he bargained for: her first flight on a Puss Moth, her recruitment as a special ops agent, and, especially, her friendship with Maddie Brodatt, a female pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary.
And it’s weird, but in the slowly-emerging picture of our narrator’s old life… she doesn’t sound like a coward. In fact, I keep picturing Steve McQueen. Steve might be dismayed that I have mentally cast him as a tiny Scottish blonde, but there is a clear Steve McQueen vibe coming through in her attitude. Specifically, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape: cracking wise, mouthing off, locked up in the cooler with his baseball and biding his time until the next escape attempt.
And this handwritten confession has been underlined in key places–passages that describe the repurposed hotel/prison, its layout, the timing of the guards, everything you might need to know, in short, if you were planning a rescue mission.
I’ve gushed about Elizabeth Wein’s prose before, and I’ll say it again: not a word is wasted. Details about the English home front, wartime aviation, and the French resistance fly by in support of a cracking good adventure. I did not need to see the closing bibliography to know that the author immersed herself in memoirs from the time, because she uses the kinds of detail that only real life supplies to fiction. Nor did it come as a surprise that Wein has firsthand experience as a pilot. Her descriptions of England as seen from the sky are some of the book’s most moving passages.
Suspense, characters you care about, a thrilling and heartbreaking adventure. Historical fiction: this is how you do it.
Check the WRL catalog for Code Name Verity.
If you enjoy television shows like Criminal Minds or CSI or Cold Case, or any of the many TV dramas that involve solving criminal cases in an hour, you should pick up the YA novel The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.
Cassie is a 17-year-old with a gift for reading people. At the beginning of the book she’s working in a diner using her gift of picking up subtle details to figure out what kind of eggs a customer might order, or if they are likely to skip on the check. She catches the attention of an FBI agent named Briggs who has developed an experimental program that uses gifted teens to help solve cold cases.
He asks Cassie to join his group of “naturals” so she can develop her skills. Cassie doesn’t have anything to lose. Her dad is serving overseas in the military and her mother, who taught her much of what she knows about reading people, was murdered years ago. With little to keep her in Denver with her grandmother and the hope that maybe she can learn something about her mother’s unsolved murder, she agrees to join the eclectic group and work for the FBI.
The “naturals” live together in a house in Quantico, Virginia, near FBI headquarters. She meets Michael, the handsome rebel who reads emotions, but doesn’t like to be read himself; Dean, the other profiler, who is the son of a convicted murderer; Lia, who specializes in deception and sarcasm; and Sloane, the computer nerd whose gift is numbers and probability. The characters are easy to distinguish and likeable–if also somewhat stereotypical.
The plot moved along quickly and kept me entertained. Interspersed with the training exercises and the teens getting to know one another (in part through a risky game of “Truth or Dare”) are chilling chapters from a serial killer–a killer who seems to be escalating in the number and brutality of murders… a killer who targets Cassie as the next victim.
The Naturals is listed as the first in a series. I couldn’t find out when #2 is due, but will stay on the lookout.
Check the WRL catalog for The Naturals
The Love of Two Stars is a retelling of a traditional Korean legend. It tells the story of two stars, Altair and Vega – or Kyonu and Jingnyo as they are known in Korea – that meet in the Milky Way on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar year.
Kyonu, a farmer, and Jingnyo, a weaver, live in a kingdom in the starry sky. Kyonu is a good farmer and has the strongest steers in the land. Jingnyo is a good weaver and makes the strongest and most beautiful cloth in the land. One day, they meet in a garden and fall instantly in love. But they spend too much time together, and the people’s farms go unplowed and their clothes begin to wear thin. The king becomes angry with the lovers and banishes them to the ends of the galaxy – Kyonu to the East and Jingnyo to the West. They can only meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.
But when the time comes to be reunited, there is no bridge or boat for them to cross the Milky Way and so their tears flood the earth – until the magpies and crows realize they can help! (But I won’t give the ending away!) The tears Kyonu and Jingnyo shed when they have to part this time are gentle tears that nourish the earth.
The author was born in Seoul, Korea, and was told the tale by her own grandmother when she was a little girl. The book is full of rich, lush acrylic illustrations and is probably best suited to children aged four to eight. It can be read individually, in small groups, or even perhaps in a story-time. The Love of Two Stars provides a nice counterpart to Western fairy- and folk-tales, particularly in our increasingly diverse classrooms. It is valuable for children to realize that those who live in or come from different countries have their own treasured stories.
Check the WRL catalog for The Love of Two Stars.
Nancy from Circulation recommended this book to me. In particular, she said the audiobook was really enjoyable — and she was right — I loved it! It is narrated by two different women playing the role of the main characters. The voices were perfect for the story, and I was quickly drawn in. But I don’t think I would have picked it up without her glowing review. Here’s what Nancy has to say about this book:
In the small southern town of Plainview, Indiana, there are three female childhood friends, Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean, who have lived through the 1960s, one adventure after another. Nicknamed “The Supremes” at an early age due to their looks, attitude, and regular meetings at the same table at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat diner.
The story begins as the girls reach middle age. Their group includes their husbands, and they meet regularly after church for dinner at Earl’s, now managed by his son. You soon find out Earl’s is much more than the first black-owned business in a racially divided town. It is a place of refuge, peace talks, and forgiveness.
The first of the wonderfully charismatic, strong-willed women you meet is Odette who is the “say it like it is and don’t take no guff off of anyone” member of the trio. I fell in love with her sense of humor and her realistic viewpoint when she describes an early morning bout with hot flashes and her refrigerator remedy. She states, “I opened the refrigerator door to get the water pitcher and decided to stick my head inside. I was in almost to my shoulders, enjoying the frosty temperature, when I got the giggles thinking how someone coming upon me, head stuffed into the refrigerator instead of the oven would say, ‘Now that’s a fat woman who is completely clueless about how a proper kitchen suicide works!’” Her adventures include visits from her pot-smoking mother and Eleanor Roosevelt (who, by the way, are both dead), and a life-altering event that requires the strength of her family and friends to get her through.
Clarice is the wife of a charming, handsome, but unfaithful, husband. He probably loves her, but can’t seem to manage to be monogamous. She realizes she is following in her mother’s footsteps–and struggles with the thought of how her life might be without him. She has the perfect marriage in the public eye, but a not so private truth has to be faced eventually.
Beautiful Barbara Jean, the last of the trio, seems to be the one who has dealt with many of her life decisions poorly and struggles to hide her drinking as a result. The loss of her first love, marriage to a much older man, and losing a child are things even the best of friends cannot always fix. Luckily for her, Clarice and Odette don’t give up trying.
The story is told by intertwining tales from the past with the current lives of the three and the multitude of friends and family characters they encounter daily. The author invites you to step into the lives of these amazing women as they face racism, greed, emotional and physical tragedy, all the while demonstrating the bond of true friendship. There will be tears of joy and sorrow shed for the characters one minute, and the next you’ll get the giggles–as Odette would say.
Check the WRL catalog for The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat
Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat
Jemmy Button tells the story of a young boy from a faraway, tropical island, who is taken to England to be “civilized” and the book illustrates his encounters with a strange new world and his decision to return home.
Jemmy Button is based on the true story of Orundellico, a native of Tierra del Fuego, who was taken to England in the early 1800s by Captain Robert FitzRoy, in order to be educated in Christianity and the ways of Western world. Jemmy is named for the mother-of-pearl button that the captain gives in exchange for him. But several years later, he returned to Tierra del Fuego with the captain on the HMS Beagle, accompanied by a young Charles Darwin. Upon reaching the island, he quickly shed the clothing and trappings of Victorian England and relearned his native language.
However, the book is not so much a biography, as a representation of this terribly alienating experience from Jemmy’s point of view. The lyrical prose (The British explorers tell Jemmy, “Come away with us and taste our language, see the lights of our world”) is complemented by beautifully imagined illustrations. The first thing that struck me about this book was the cover, with its bold, simplistic design and Jemmy’s little face peeking curiously out from the tangle of greenery. It made me curious to discover Jemmy Button’s story. Throughout the story, he is painted with red ochre skin and curly black hair, and he walks naked through crowds of overdressed silhouettes in shades of blue and black. He is bought clothes, taken to concerts, and even meets royalty, but he never feels at home.
“Jemmy felt almost at home. Almost, but not quite.”
After experiencing all these new places, he realizes where he truly belongs and decides to return home. The illustrations are rudimentary and unsophisticated – and very powerful. Jemmy stands out in every illustration – he is often painted in a more childlike way, with blurred lines and messy hair, whereas the English men and women he is surrounded by are painted much more deliberately.
The story explores themes of travel, homesickness, longing, and diversity. In today’s multicultural environment, this book is particularly appropriate. It teaches us the dangers of treating those who are different as inferior and the insensitivity of attempting to impose one’s culture on others.
Jennifer Uman is a self-taught painter and illustrator and Valerio Vidali is an Italian illustrator of magazines and children’s books. Historical notes are available at the end of the story.
Check the WRL catalog for Jemmy Button.
The sequel to Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side finds Jessica married to Lucius Vladescu and living in a castle. In many a story this would be the beginning of happily ever after, but not for Jess. She has to prove herself and claim her throne by convincing the Vampire nation that she is capable and can rule. Everything is hard, even ordering food, speaking the language, and figuring out who is for and who is against her. When Lucius is accused of murder, her one rock is gone. Who can she trust? Her uncle and his daughter who seem to care, her best friend Mindy who has come to stay and help, or Lucius’s Cousin Rainero Lovatu? Can Jessica save Lucius and herself?
As the story unfolds we learn more about Rainero and Mindy, who have established their own relationship full of twists and turns. Uncle Dorin seems to want to help as does his daughter Ylenia. We are drawn into the morass of problems and responsibilities Jessica faces. Can she prove herself worthy of becoming Queen?
Beth Fantaskey has created a fascinating Vampire world inhabited by memorable characters. Even Jessica, who sometimes seems wimpy, is real and believable. And, while Jessica does ultimately rise to the occasion, the book ends before we know if she will actually become Queen. The book is beautifully written and staged, leaving the reader hoping for a third book telling us how it all ends for Jessica and Lucius, Mindy and Rainero, and Vampire nation.
Check the WRL catalog for Jessica Rules the Dark Side
Check the WRL catalog for Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side
When Maxine Cambridge is dumped by her controlling husband for a younger woman, she moves in with her mom. The divorce is messy. She describes it as being at DEFCON 5.
In her desperation to get a job, any job, she unloads the whole story to the luckless manager of the Cluck Cluck Palace–so right from the beginning of the book, you know what Max is up against. There’s a prenuptial agreement. Her husband cheated on her. She left their home with their teenage son, but few clothes, very little money, and not a glimmer of self respect–and she needs a job desperately. Now imagine the scene as she attempts to keep a hapless teen from entering the restaurant until she convinces the manager to hire her. Actually, just read the book, it’s as good as anything you could imagine.
Moments after the most humiliating experience of her life, an old high school classmate notices her. And this is not just any guy–this is a guy who leaves Max speechless as she gazes up at his handsome face. She doesn’t recognize him as the geeky kid who had been her lab partner senior year. But now Campbell Barker exudes sex appeal and success. It really hits home for Max how little she has accomplished since high school. She can barely make excuses for why she can’t have coffee with him to catch up on what’s been happening in their lives since high school before she breaks down.
As fate would have it, Campbell is helping his dad do odd jobs–at the same senior citizens retirement village where Max’s mom lives. Max and Campbell run into each other again and again. And finally things start to look up in her life, not just because of Campbell’s attention, but because she gets a job and starts building her self-esteem.
The book has a good bit of romance, some steamy sex, a number of laugh out loud moments, and a dollop of self-analysis as Max remembers how she doesn’t have to give up all her hopes and dreams just to be with a man. Let me tell you, Campbell is a treasure to put up with all the self-doubt Max has to work through!
I liked the characters and appreciated that they were more mature than the 20- or 30-somethings that seem to dominate the romance genre. The dialog is snappy and fun. The supporting characters are interesting and provide some depth to the story (though this is still a breezy read). There’s a great twist to the divorce at the end. It made me feel good to spend a few hours in Max’s world.
Check the WRL catalog for You Dropped a Blonde on Me
A few months ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I read The Magicians. After finishing it, I picked up the sequel, The Magician King. This book picks up immediately after the previous story ends, although you don’t necessarily need read the first book to follow the second one. In The Magician King magic is real, but mostly kept hidden, at least on Earth. That sounds like the world of Harry Potter, but it is not. For starters, the characters in The Magician King are much edgier, and the dark places Harry Potter characters delve into are shallow in comparison to where this book goes. This is modern fantasy fiction, set in the present day, featuring 21st century people.
Here, author Lev Grossman revisits many of the main characters from his earlier novel, including protagonist Quentin, his Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy classmates Eliot and Janet, and his public high school friend Julia. The author also centers this book on the world of Fillory, a delightful land written about in a series of children’s books that any reader familiar with C S. Lewis will recognize as Narnia-esque. It turns out Fillory exists; you just need to know how to get there. Quentin and his friends have found out how. In fact, as The Magician King begins Quentin, Eliot, Janet, and Julia are the royalty of Fillory. Keep in mind that Fillory is to Narnia as Brakebills is to Hogwarts, which is to say, both of the former places are much less safe, secure, and pleasant than the latter locations. Fillory is not as idyllic as it seems on the surface. There is turmoil, terror, and evil with which to contend. In Fillory, quests are a part of life. Quentin recognizes and embraces this fact and is determined to discover and pursue his quest to the end.
I hesitate to give more away about the plot, since this is a book that is enhanced with each turn of the page. The basic story is simple: A man has a worthy quest and follows it to its conclusion. Grossman takes that simple thesis and forces the reader through some scary, unappealing, and challenging machinations. His characters are both flawed and powerful and the combination has serious consequences.
The Magician King also provides the reader with numerous underlying philosophical, or perhaps metaphysical, questions about power, life, elitism, what is important, love, death, and responsibility. These topics are not directly explored, but are, nevertheless, present throughout the story. A reader can try to grapple with them or simply set them aside.
Grossman has written The Magician King in an engaging and fluid manner. At times I put the book down because the story was a little too intense for my mood. But, I always picked it up again. Pieces of this book are haunting, other portions are illuminating. Either way, reading The Magician King is a kind of dark magic all it own.
Check the WRL catalog for The Magician King
The famous author of Good Night, Baby Bear; Happy Birthday, Moon; and Moon Bear, Frank Asch, has done it again in this picture book. The Sun is My Favorite Star has Asch’s signature illustrations and teaches young children about the sun in an appreciative manner. The young girl depicted in this book lists many reasons why the sun is her favorite star, including: “In the evening, it paints pretty pictures in the sky for me. Even in the night, it sends some light to keep me company.”
This book should be part of any Frank Asch collection because it helps introduce abstract concepts to small children while wowing readers with the gorgeous drawings.
Check the WRL catalog for The Sun is My Favorite Star.
Laurel never dreamed that walking home from dinner at her neighbor’s and choosing homework over ice cream would save her life. Laurel’s parents, brother, and neighbors head off for dessert, leaving Laurel and the neighbor’s son, David, to their own plans. They never make it home. Laurel must now handle losing her entire family to a car accident David’s father seems to have caused, and cope with the survivor’s guilt she feels.
Beginning of After tells the story of Laurel’s first year without her family. She completes the end of her junior year, takes her SATs, goes to prom with Joe, the Brian Krakow to David’s Jordan Catalano (My So-Called Life reference – I just couldn’t shake this comparison throughout the entire book), gets a summer job, and starts senior year all while trying not to break down. And she does break down, occasionally at the most inopportune times.
Laurel’s relationships with friends, her grandmother (who comes to live with her), counselor, therapist, Joe, and with David are all woven into a wonderful story of her life after loss. At times it is tragic and moving, and others uplifting and exciting. Ms. Castle takes you along on Laurel’s journey and every emotion Laurel feels and reaction she has is earned and realistic.
Check the WRL catalog for The Beginning of After
Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, by Michael Daly
I looked at the title of this book and I thought, “Elephants, this could be a heartwarming story, a la Disney.” I was wrong. It was dark and disturbing, as well as revealing and intriguing. It also is not so much the story of Topsy the elephant, but the stories leading up to the story of Topsy the elephant.
Topsy has two main themes running through its pages. First it traces the tawdry history of elephants as center pieces in American circuses. These largest of land mammals have amazed and terrified audiences in America since 1795. Second, Daly relates the dawning of the electric light bulb, including Edison’s perfection of the bulb and Westinghouse’s successful commercialization of electricity. The author brings these seemingly disparate topics together under one big top for a show you probably have not seen before.
Daly uses his pages to weave together an interesting account of the rise and rivalry among the largest nineteenth century circuses, integration of pachyderms into that form of entertainment, and the history of the electrification of America. Along the way Daly examines the development of the electric chair, competition between circus greats P. T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh, and the bitterness felt by Thomas Edison toward George Westinghouse. Barnum and Forepaugh competed using all resources available to them, including guile and humbug, to present the most profitable circuses in the world. They told outrageous lies, fleeced their guests, and activity worked to outdo one another. Edison viewed himself and his inventions as unimpeachable and incorruptible. He activity sought to discredit Westinghouse as an inventor and businessman. Even as Edison resolutely refused to face reality, his name remained synonymous with the brilliance of his light bulb.
Daly’s timeframe spans the entire 19th century. Among many topics he touches on are politics, economic, crime, transportation, animal welfare, geography, racism, alcoholism, public entertainment, and capital punishment. Clearly a great deal of research went into writing this book. He writes in an easy style that keeps your attention, although often examines disturbing events. Most of those events relate to what today is nothing short of unrepentant animal abuse, especially with respect to circus elephants. It was tempting for me to skip these parts, however, they are an integral part of Topsy. This popular history includes plenty of fact and figures, but it is more story than history. That is to say, the goal is to illustrate how various people and events interacted during the 1800s to “make history.”
Whatever you do, don’t read this book expecting the glamour of circuses or the genius of inventors. Daly’s text strips away both. I sought both and found myself disappointed. Not because Topsy failed to deliver a compelling and interesting tale, but because it’s not a sweet and innocent account.
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Over the past few years there seem to have been a number of movies related to professional magicians. Starring an ensemble cast that includes Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine, Now You See Me takes its place among them, providing some strong performances and an unexpected plot for the audience.
The movie starts by introducing us to four magicians (Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher, and Franco), each making a living at their chosen profession, however, not all of them necessarily in the most ethical manner. In turn, each illusionist mysteriously receives a Tarot card that includes an invitation to gather in a single location, at a particular time. The magicians, for whatever reason, feel compelled to heed the call and find themselves in an enigmatic apartment. Smoke fills the room and the next thing we know a year has passed. They are transformed into the Four Horsemen, the top magical act in Las Vegas, playing to a sold out theater. The Four Horsemen are in the midst of their greatest performance. They promise that before the show ends, they will rob a bank. And they do. This all happens in the first twenty-five minutes of the film. From there, it gets exciting.
While the magicians soon are wanted criminals, they also continue to perform, eluding agents Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) and Alma Dray (Laurent), and staying ahead of professional illusion exposer, Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman). Filled with entertaining repartee, creative magic, and plenty of sleight of hand, like any magic show, Now You See Me, keeps the audience guessing. It is a fast-paced, crime, mystery thriller. What it lacks in character development it makes up for in story arc.
I enjoyed the plot, characters, writing, and concept of this film. However, as much as I enjoyed Now You See Me, I admit to personally being disappointed by parts of the final resolution. That shouldn’t stop anyone from watching this movie. I know others liked the ending just fine. Now You See Me is a fun example of a film filled with magic, but not encumbered by wizards. It has sophisticated themes appearing throughout the story, although nothing too risqué. So, if you enjoy a good show magic show you may want to sit down and watch this one.
Check the WRL catalog for Now You See Me