“Never have I seen a deadlier-looking collection of firemen, street brawlers, Party thugs, and fighting entrepreneurs in my life…. If you were loyal to the Party or maybe even a good watchman, you could wear a copper star. If you looked like you’ve killed a man with your bare hands and aren’t shy about doing it again, you could be a captain.”
It’s 1845. A blight on potatoes is sending wave after wave of destitute Irish through Ellis Island. Anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feeling run high on the streets of New York, and political debate, as often as not, takes place between mobs armed with lead cudgels. Nominated for a 2013 Edgar award, Faye’s entertaining crime novel is set at the genesis of the NYC police force, a motley crew of ruffians and Democrats nicknamed the Copper Stars.
New Yorkers are not enamored of the baby police force, decrying it as a “standing army” and an infringement of their native liberties. And barkeeper Timothy Wilde has no desire to fight crime or support the political party in which his older brother, Valentine, is such a rising star. But when an explosion wipes out his home and his livelihood, his brother pulls party strings to get Timothy a job as a Copper Star in the crime- and rat-infested Sixth Ward. Only a few days into his rounds, Timothy is involved in a foul case of murder and debauchery: he’s sheltering a ten-year-old runaway from a brothel, who won’t tell him how she came to be covered in blood. And the murder of a second child, blamed on an Irish madman, could be a lit match set to the tinder of NYC.
Faye’s first novel, Dust and Shadow, was one of many in which Sherlock Holmes confronts Jack the Ripper, and in some ways this reads like the same story on a different continent. Mutilated bodies, missing spleens, mad letters signed dramatically, “the Hand of the God of Gotham…” Wilde even has a crew of newsboys reporting to him, his own New York City “Irregulars.” Author Faye is enamored of her setting and its language, loading the story with vivid metaphors and slang straight out of a period lexicon compiled by George Washington Matsell, the city’s first police commissioner.
If bringing evildoers to justice is the main narrative thrust of the novel, its secondary theme is “Damn you, Valentine Wilde.” Val, the older and less responsible brother, lights up every scene that he stumbles into, whether drunk, hung over, coming down off a morphine high, or holding rehearsals of how to properly stuff a ballot box. A childhood’s worth of rivalry and resentment, plus the ability of any sibling to know exactly which button to push, makes the brothers’ relationship a suspenseful and entertaining crime scene of its own.
I listened to both Gods of Gotham and the sequel, Seven for a Secret, on audiobook, and they were fantastic picks for a long commute. Reader Steven Boyer conveys Wilde’s narration with wry flair and creates engaging voices for the other characters as well. There was only one drawback to listening, rather than reading: each chapter is prefaced by a quote from some anti-Irish writings of the period, and every single time the text mentioned the evils of Popery, I had a moment of confusion. Potpourri? Evil?
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Jennifer D. shares this review:
While you seldom come across a book that has something for everyone, Distant Waves: a Novel of the Titanic truly does. It has history, philosophy, and science, suspense, romance, and action, all mixed in with elements of the supernatural. It is the story of five sisters, born to a mother who makes her living as a medium, despite the fact that she may or may not actually be psychic. The story begins in New York City, where the girls are trying to make do following the death of their father. On the advice of one of their mother’s clients, the family decides to relocate to Spirit Vale, New York which is a spiritualist haven modeled after the town of Lily Dale. Before they can leave town, however, they have a fateful interaction with scientist Nikola Tesla. The girls are swept up in the wake of Tesla’s new earthquake vibration machine, which he is testing for the first time. This will not be the last time they meet Tesla, and his theories shape many aspects of their lives.
Our main character, Jane, is particularly influenced by her interaction with Tesla. She follows his work throughout the next decade, and becomes something of a fan. His work in the realm of science influences her beliefs in the supernatural, with particular regard to her doubt of her mother’s psychic talents. While Jane does not wish to be suspicious of her mother’s behavior, she is nevertheless skeptical that one can communicate with the dead. In a community like Spirit Vale, this is not a particularly popular opinion, so most of her struggle is shared only with us, the readers. Her uncertainty is compounded by the fact that Jane’s twin sisters, Emma and Amelie seem to possess genuine psychic abilities. They have been channeling, going into trances, and sleepwalking themselves into dangerous situations, such as onto the roof, or into the ocean. The twins become strangely averse to the ocean, and the idea of sea travel in particular.
When a secret is uncovered about her sister Mimi’s parentage, Jane and Mimi impulsively travel back to New York City, whereupon another fateful meeting takes place. Jane reconnects with Tesla, and meets his attractive young assistant Thad, while Mimi meets Benjamin Guggenheim and befriends his mistress, Ninette. Ninette sweeps Mimi off to Europe as her traveling companion, and introduces her to Victor, Guggenheim’s handsome valet. Events are set into motion which, at this point, you may have guessed, particularly if you are aware of the fact that Guggenheim, Ninette, and Victor were all passengers on the RMS Titanic. Through the course of the story all five sisters also find themselves on board the maiden voyage of the doomed ship.
Distant Waves: a Novel of the Titanic is entertaining, particularly if you have an interest in the turn of the century. Many historical figures of the era make cameo appearances, from the Astors, to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from W. T. Stead to Harry Houdini. Suzanne Weyn makes us care about these five sisters, and tension builds as the Titanic’s journey comes to its inevitable end. I was pleased to find that only a small portion of the story takes place aboard the Titanic, and emphasis is definitely placed on Jane and her sisters, rather than the story we all know.
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Marylou is a lovesick slug. Love poems for Herbie, the object of her affection, fill her mind day and night. Although she’s too shy to talk to him in person, she begins writing her poems in slime where Herbie will be sure to see them. Herbie, intrigued, responds in kind, but his poems keep vanishing before Marylou can find them. When they finally meet, their first words to each other are also in rhyme. The illustrations, done in marker and colored pencil and enhanced in Photoshop, add to the slugs’ vibrant personalities. Though they all look essentially the same (a source of confusion for Herbie, who doesn’t know what Marylou looks like), they can be identified by their jaunty headgear. Marylou wears bows around her eyestocks, Herbie wears a baseball cap, and various other slugs wear fedoras, kerchiefs, etc. This book is perfect for a Kindergarten storytime, and will be enjoyed especially by kids aged four to eight. Listeners will delight in the gross-out quality of the slimy slugs and laugh at the clever poetry. The author, Susan Pearson, grew up in part in Newport News. Illustrator Kevin O’Malley also illustrated the Miss Malarkey series. Readers who like Slugs in Love will also enjoy another funny book about leaving notes, Click Clack Moo: Cows that Type.
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Charlotte shares this review:
I’ve literally grown up—grown older, anyway—with E.L. Konigsburg. We share a love of artists and beautiful things. Mine might have started, in fact, with From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the Newbery award winner that made me, and a generation of readers, want to run away and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Every once in a while, I rediscover how much I love Konigsburg’s deceptively simple prose, the sharply-observed details, the way her nonconformist characters manage to rebel and resist without ever being rude.
The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place is about art and rules and civil disobedience, whether you’re up against a homeowners’ association or a clique of bossy 12-year-old girls at summer camp. Margaret Rose Kane, rescued by her uncles from a miserable camp experience, arrives at their home just in time to witness the end of an era. For 45 years, while their neighborhood has grown and changed, Margaret’s Old World Hungarian uncles have been adding on to their backyard Towers—pipe scaffolding, painted in sherbet colors and hung with pendants of colored glass. Depending on how you look at them, the Towers are a work of art, a labor of love, a neighborhood landmark… or an eyesore, a hazard, a threat to property values. (Margaret looks at them from the inside: If you stand in the center and spin, it’s like being inside a kaleidoscope.)
By the time Margaret arrives, her uncles have already fought City Hall and lost. Zoning ordinances dictate that the structures have to come down. But Margaret, having just retreated from one battlefield, isn’t willing to give ground a second time. She starts her own campaign to save the Towers. (Being a Konigsburg child, she arms herself by conducting research, marching to City Hall herself, and requesting a copy of the relevant city council records.)
Konigsburg characters, as a rule, are grammar obsessed and word-curious. Among other things, Outcasts contains one of my all-time favorite puns, when Margaret and her uncle decide that she has not been precisely “disobedient” at camp, but rather “anobedient:”
“…which would mean without obedience—which is not the same thing as disobedience. I would say that anobedience is related to words like anesthetic, which means without feeling.”
“Or anonymous, which means without a name.”
“Or anorexia, without an appetite or anemia, without blood.”
“Or Anne Boleyn, without a head.”
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Or try the audiobook.
Cornelius, the Grudge Keeper, has a busy job. He receives complaints from all the town people – all their fights and squabbles, all their grudges and grumbles. He carefully files each one away in its proper place, so no one else in town has to keep a grudge.
But one day, a small breeze comes into town. This breeze grows and grows until finally it turns into a gale-force wind, which invades Cornelius’ house and sends the grudges about in a flurry. When the townspeople come to file their new grudges, they find their old ones all out of order! Suddenly, they wonder how important these grudges were in the first place.
But what will happen to Cornelius when no one has anything left to complain about?
This book is perfect for older children. There are plenty of big words that they may need to look up, so keep a dictionary close-by.
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You know the story, right? A lovely girl befriends a frog. She kisses the frog; he turns into a prince; and they all live happily ever after.
Not in this version. Yes, the beautiful and smart girl, Sunday Woodcutter, meets a talking frog by a pond in the woods. They become friends. And yes, she kisses him to see what would happen. Hours later, when the frog finally turns into a man, Rumbold realizes he is the one person Sunday would never want to see again. He is the Crown Prince of Arilland, the man responsible for her beloved brother’s death.
Prince Rumbold can’t stop thinking about Sunday, though. He decides to hold three balls and invite all the women in the country to attend so he has a chance to woo Sunday as a man. But the balls don’t go exactly as planned. Spells and secrets need to be revealed before the story can end in the expected happily ever after.
The author cleverly weaves glimpses of other fairy tales throughout the book–one sister has a story similar to Cinderella, another tragically dies from magical dancing shoes, her brother trades a cow for some beans, and there is a giant–it was worth turning the pages just to see who would turn up next and how the “real” story would unfold.
Kontis has written a second in the Woodcutter sisters series, Hero, about the adventures of Saturday. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next in this delightful, magical world.
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I saw a new book in the library the other day – Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate. While flipping through the colorful picture book, I was reminded of how much I had enjoyed Applegate’s Newberry winner, The One and Only Ivan.
Ivan is one of the animal attractions at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. In fact, he is one of the featured attractions on the billboard that he can see outside the window of his small enclosure. He spends his time watching TV; talking with his friends Bob, a stray dog, and Stella, an older elephant; and painting pictures. Ivan chooses not to remember what life was like prior to coming to the shopping mall.
When the shopping mall owner buys a younger elephant to bring excitement – and more paying customers – to the Big Top Show, Ivan makes a promise to Stella to help Ruby find a safe place to grow up. That promise leads Ivan to remember what it was like before he was caught and put in the cage. That promise leads Ivan to figure out a creative way to send a message to the Julia and George, the humans he trusts. That promise leads not only to Ruby finding a good home in a zoo, but Ivan finding a home with other gorillas and lots of open sky.
The story is told in simple sentences through the unique perspective of Ivan. Of course, the story is the author’s imaging of what Ivan was thinking and going through, but I forgot that part as I rooted for Ivan’s friends to understand what he was trying to say.
Publisher’s Weekly recommends the title for ages 8-12. But I think it was well worth taking an hour or so to read the story. It is also available as an audiobook, well-read by Adam Grupper, if you would prefer that format.
Check the WRL catalog for The One and Only Ivan
Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook for The One and Only Ivan
Marc Brown’s Try it, You’ll Like It! is a book in the Arthur’s Family Values series.
Everyone is preparing for a summer luau, but D.W. does not want to try anything new. She won’t try new food, she won’t learn a new dance, she won’t even wear a new color! D.W. does not want to look silly.
The day of the luau comes, and everyone is having fun. D.W. isn’t even wearing a Hawaiian shirt, though. Soon she feels left out. Will she give in and try something new?
This is a great book that continues the adventures of Arthur and D.W. from the television series. It can teach children that they may miss out on fun if they are picky or afraid to try new things. At the end of the book D.W. has learned a lesson and she is now more adventurous than anyone else!
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What exactly makes a hero? Take Johnny Hiro: he works paycheck to paycheck as a busboy/dishwasher in a sushi restaurant, has a strained relationship with his parents, and is being sued by his ex-landlord for damage done to his last apartment by a Godzilla-like monster reptile who was taking revenge for sins perpetrated by the mother of Johnny’s current girlfriend, Mayumi. All pretty typical stressors in the life of a New Yorker.
Mayumi is the bright spot in his life, and Johnny strives not only to make ends meet, but to get ahead for her, much more so than even for himself. After a day spent leaping across rooftops with a stolen lobster, engaging in a high speed chase with a van full of stolen fish, or fighting off 47 samurai, he gets to go home to her peppy optimism. She keeps him grounded, and full of hope, despite his many misadventures.
Several celebrities make cameos throughout the pages, which is sometimes played for laughs (Alton Brown, especially) and sometimes rather random. All together they all read as a fond nod to popular culture, especially the continually quoted hip hop lyrics. This might cause the stories to age badly, but for now they are still relatable.
Fred Chao, who is both the author and artist of this series, provides commentary throughout the story that grounds the often absurd plot into humanistic realities. Some of these comments are little gems, which help elevate situations above their most basic reading. Two of my favorites are “Most of the things that affect us will never be explained. They are simply the trickle-down effects of the unknowing decisions made around us.” And “Those hours…hold the most potential for change. That is if we just look up, instead of simply hoping to make it to the next day.”
Sometimes heroes are just normal people who have something to fight for. “Fortunately or unfortunately, there are few happy or sad endings. Most stories simply go on.”
Recommended for readers who like humor and humanism.
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Jennifer D. shares this review:
This is the story of Cass and Max-Earnest, but those are not their real names. The story of what happened to them is a secret, but the author of The Name of this Book is Secret was never very good at keeping secrets. He advises you, therefore, to forget what you have read as soon as you finish reading the book. Following Mr. Bosch’s lead of trying very hard not to give too much away, I will attempt to summarize the tale in such a way as to keep you safely in the dark regarding certain dangerous matters.
Cass and Max-Earnest live in (insert the name of your hometown here) and attend (insert the name of your school here). They crossed paths with a pair of rather unsavory characters, Dr. L and Ms. Mauvais, when a local magician passed away. While at an antique store, Cass discovers a box labeled “The Symphony of Smells” among the magician’s donated belongings. A message in scent leads Cass, with the assistance of Max-Earnest, to investigate the magician’s home. There they encounter the two villains and uncover the magician’s hidden notebook. What happens afterward is not my secret to tell, but Mr. Bosch’s. He will try to discourage you from reading the book, and may not share quite the entire story, but The Name of this Book is Secret is a fun and quirky read. Fans of Lemony Snicket in particular will find it enjoyable, with similarities in the use of the author as a narrator. In my opinion, however, it is far better than the Series of Unfortunate Events series, and this book is actually the start of its own series.
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Mice live in the shadows, overseen by the moon, which they believe is the eye of their god, Wotan. As their legends go, in years past they were protected by a band of fierce warriors, guardians of the night: the Templars. After years of defending as a unified brotherhood, one year, for a reason yet unknown, the Templars were divided and began warring against each other. After the epic battle, no Templars were allegedly ever seen again. Now the mice have mere watchmen guarding them against all the creatures, large and small, who threaten their existence.
Karic is a young mouse who soaks in all the stories of the battles of yore with relish and loves to imagine himself as a brave fighter. His obsession with combat seems a harmless boyish phase until his village gets attacked by an army of rats. Any similarity between this story and Mouse Guard by David Petersen is quickly squashed with the first (of many) beheaded mouse in the vicious, horrific bloodbath that ensues. Karic loses contact with his mother and sister, surviving the conflict and receiving a message from the fish gods claiming that he is some kind of chosen one. He meets up with an old warrior mouse named Pilot who admits to being a former Templar living in exile. Pilot takes Karic under his wing as they begin searching for answers and a path to follow.
These mice are far from fluffy and cute. They have huge ears which display their mood, droopy when tired or sad, flung back when on the attack, perked up when focused. These same ears are often marked with notches, scarred from the ongoing battle for their fragile lives. Their bodies are thin and angular and every mouse appears exhausted, deep shadows under their eyes. They are ruled by gods and prophecy, though they fear that their god has abandoned them. And it is hard to fault them, as almost everything seems to exist as a threat to the tiny creatures, and their world quickly begins to spiral into terrible, bloody chaos.
As Karic’s journey progresses, he is forced to learn, and then unlearn, then learn again. In this land of wars and betrayal, exactly who represents the good and the right is hard to discern, as everyone has blood on their paws. Tiny as he is, even compared to other mice, it will be up to Karic to live up to his billing as the one chosen by the god Woten.
Dark and unrelenting, this title is not recommended to those who prefer lighthearted, humorous tales.
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I can’t think of a more unlikely animal to swath in the robes of a noble hero than a mouse. After all, mice have a position about as close to the bottom of the food chain as is possible, and seem to spend the day scurrying around tucking food away and trying not to get eaten themselves. Shouldn’t the fighting be left to those creatures that were born with rippling muscles or fearsome claws or at least a mighty roar? Maybe it is just this somewhat odd juxtaposition between underdog and champion that has piqued the interest of several authors including David Petersen.
In his fictional medieval world, mice have created cities tucked away in tree roots and rocky caverns where they are protected from discovery by predators. Travel between cities is treacherous, and mice that need to make the trip are protected by the Mouse Guard. Originally called into action as soldiers, recent times of calm and prosperity have altered their role into a more passive one of watchful escorts to merchants.
Kenzie, Saxon, and Lieam are three members of the Mouse Guard, who are trying to track down a grain merchant that disappeared while traveling between cities. In searching for his person (or his body), the trio stumbles onto a plot that threatens the very foundation of their world. Can they prevail against the worst threat their society has ever faced before? As one of their sayings goes: “It’s not what you fight, but what you fight for.”
Winner of the 2008 Eisner Awards for Best Publication for Kids and Best Graphic Album, the ink work is phenomenal, with deep shadows and sharp edges. This then sets up space for waves of watercolor-like hues to paint the appropriate mood, whether it is bright sunny beach scene or the terrifying glow of burning embers.
Recommended for readers of graphic novels who love a good adventure story and fiercely adorable protagonists.
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Usually, cats and mice do not get along at all. But in Boswell the Kitchen Cat, Boswell the cat has a special agreement with Lizzie the kitchen mouse and her children.
Boswell loves to cook fancy foods to eat and to share with friends. He makes a huge mess in the kitchen every time he cooks, but he hates to clean up afterward. Lizzie and her children always look for scraps, but there are none to be found. One day Boswell does not have time to clean before his guests arrive, so Lizzie and the other mice go to work.
Boswell is startled to see mice in his kitchen and is going to gobble them up, but wait! He notices a sparkling clean kitchen. Maybe Boswell and Lizzie can work out a deal?
This is a great book to teach children about cooking and about the responsibility of cleaning up.
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Jessica shares this review:
Here’s the plot hook: at the age of thirteen, Paul Moreaux discovers that he can turn invisible.
Here’s what would have happened in the hands of lesser writers: the invisible Paul would have stolen lots of stuff and watched girls undress and pulled harmless pranks.
Here’s what happened in the hands of Robert Cormier: the invisible Paul discovers the tragedy of human existence and commences to lead a life marked by violence, madness, and despair, with relief coming only when health complications from the invisibility cause him to die, lonely and young and unmourned.
Paul, a sensitive and thoughtful boy from a working-class family, doesn’t even realize when he first gets The Fade. On a dare, he spies on a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. (This is the 1930s, and anti-Catholic/anti-immigrant sentiments are running high against Paul and the other citizens of Frenchtown.) When the meeting is ambushed, a crazed Klansman discovers Paul and tries to kill him– but inexplicably, he somehow loses sight of his intended victim.
What Paul doesn’t realize is that he, like one male in every generation in his family, has inherited the ability to turn invisible. Sometimes it’s useful, as when escaping from Klansmen and bullies; more often it’s horrible, as when spying upon people reveals secrets Paul never wanted to know.
At least Paul has guidance from an uncle, also a Fader. A generation later, Paul’s own nephew Ozzie has no such counseling, because Paul doesn’t know he exists; the child had been secretly given up for adoption. Unfortunately Ozzie was raised by a physically abusive father, and when Ozzie discovers his Fading powers, after years of beatings and neglect, the results are terrible, with “terrible” meaning “like Stephen King’s Carrie on prom night.”
As always, Cormier’s prose is superb. From page one the atmosphere is tense, and before long things ratchet up to spooky, with occasional interludes of horrifying for good measure. Some sexual (though not graphic) content and scenes of violence make this inappropriate for younger readers, and Cormier’s fundamentally pessimistic worldview makes it inappropriate for most everyone else. But if you like dark books with tragic endings (any Thomas Hardy fans out there?) you can get your misery fix here.
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Jennifer D. shares this review:
“Listen closely. Do not draw attention to yourself. Once you have found a secure location, stay where you are and help will come soon. This is not a test. Listen closely. This is not a test.”
The zombie apocalypse is here. Sloane and five other teens have barricaded themselves in the high school and are awaiting rescue. Only Sloane isn’t sure she wants to be saved. Her life before the zombies wasn’t great, and you can’t exactly say things could get better. They could hardly get worse. It is the end of the world, after all. As she watches her fellow survivors struggle to stay alive, Sloane wonders if it’s all worth it. She’s having an existential crisis, and it couldn’t be more poorly timed.
This book is a fascinating character study. You’d expect a novel about zombies to be about, well, zombies. The zombies in This is Not a Test are certainly a threat, and they do keep things scary and suspenseful, but they aren’t the point. Sloane is the story here, and her struggle would be poignant without the imminent risk of being eaten alive. Will she find the strength to keep fighting? Will she go out in a blaze of glory? Or will she simply be dinner for a flesh-eating zombie?
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There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Clover is a fun book for St. Patrick’s Day, or anytime. This rhyming book builds off of each thing the old lady swallows, and she keeps swallowing bigger and bigger things!
She begins by swallowing a clover, then a daisy to brighten the clover, and then a butterfly to rest on the daisy, and so on…. This old lady must have a very big stomach!
The old lady begins to dance with a leprechaun at the end of the book, and she giggles so much that everything she swallows comes back up, along with a St. Patrick’s Day surprise.
This is a great book to read aloud to children, and you can have fun guessing why the old lady swallows everything that she does, as well as what she swallows next. This is part of a series, and you should check all the other things this crazy old lady swallows!
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The mortgage that broke Thomas Jefferson’s heart. The worldwide cholera pandemic. The writing of Frankenstein. The first Irish famine and typhus epidemic. The opium trade beginning in the Golden Triangle. The striking paintings of JMW Turner. The surge of British polar exploration. All of these, according to Gillen D’Arcy Wood, have their roots in a single event – the eruption of the Tamboro volcano.
On April 10, 1815, the volcano, located on the island of Sambawa in the Indonesian archipelago, literally blew its top. A few days before, the volcano had hurled out a column of fire and ash; on the 10th, three columns of fire, a tsunami of lava, and ashfall up to 3 meters thick blasted the serene population of Sumbawa, killing nearly everyone on the island and forever destroying its natural resources. Ash from the explosion was flung into the upper atmosphere in tiny particles, and the equatorial winds did the rest.
Those aerosols circled the globe, blocking sunlight and changing the climate. Droughts in some areas, record flooding in others, temperatures so low that 1816 became known as the Year Without a Summer and the Year of the Beggar. Storms lashing Europe, sea ice disappearing off Greenland – all were the result of Tambora’s eruption. The secondary impact on humans began almost immediately and would govern the world’s social and economic foundations for at least the next three years. Without the monsoons, Indian peasants migrated to urban areas, where their waste polluted drinking water and sparked a nearly 20-year migration of cholera around the world. Famine struck one of China’s most fertile provinces, and without rice to eat or sell, opium became the cash crop. Clouds shot through with apocalyptic color entranced the Romantics, who captured their deadly glory in words and images. And farmers in the United States experienced for the first time crop failure leading to bankruptcy and westward migration to evade their debts.
Wood mixes the historical narrative with records from the nascent science of meteorology and modern-day measurements of volcanic dust trapped in arctic ice to document his story. He also draws parallels between the temporary climatic effects that Tambora’s eruption caused and the long-term irreversible anthropogenic climate change we are now seeing. But capturing the worldwide effect of one little-known eruption in tragic human terms makes Tambora a moving book.
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I love mysteries. From the hardest of the hard-boiled to…well, ok, I don’t really care for cozies, but I’ve read them…but I’m especially fond of mysteries that give me a strong sense of place and people along with a good puzzle. For some reason, Italian settings seem to capture all three in style and substance. (Barry has written about Andrea Camilleri’s excellent Inspector Montalbano series set in Sicily, plus there’s the Guido Brunetti collection, Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, and plenty of other series where the protagonist visits Italy.) Christobel Kent’s series featuring Sandro Cellini (The Drowning River is the first) stands with the best.
Sandro is something unusual for Italian mysteries – a private detective. A disgraced ex-cop, he’s been ordered by his wife to hang out his shingle and get out of her hair. Resigned to sitting around an office, he’s surprised when he gets his first client: an older woman whose husband died in the Arno River. Verdict: suicide. Cellini takes the case mostly gratis to comfort her, but discovers right away that the man’s last hours leave questions. What exactly was Claudio Gentileschi, architect, faithful husband, Holocaust survivor, doing when he wasn’t at home or work?
Then a young English art student disappears. Sandro had encountered her before and her mother hires him to be her “representative” to the Italian police while she makes up her mind whether or not she cares. No big deal, Veronica’s done it before, she’s got some mysterious guy she’s probably shacking up with, and she’ll come back to art school when her cash runs low. Sure her instructors and her mousy roommate are worried, but Sandro will take care of it. And he does, and learns more about Claudio and the business of Florentine art in the process.
Kent keeps the puzzle intriguing and builds to a satisfying resolution. But she also builds characters the reader knows will play important roles in Sandro’s future. His wife Luisa, who has breast cancer and is struggling with her decision to have a mastectomy; Giulietta Sarto, the former prostitute who ended Sandro’s career and is the closest thing he and Luisa have to a child; his former colleagues; but most of all, Florence itself.
This is the Florence where regular folks live alongside the tourists and the art students who come to study in the Mecca of classical art training. Ordinary bars with extraordinary food and companionable bartenders, secret passages in and out of the Boboli Gardens, odd locals who are part of the daily background of any city. In this story, the rains are continuously falling and the Arno is threatening to overflow its banks in a disaster that would equal the L’Alluvion of 1966. (For a great book about the aftermath of that flood, check out Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures.) Sandro Cellini knows Florence better than most anyone, and he leads us on an intimate tour while solving a puzzling mystery. Who could ask for more?
I’ve written before about Loewen’s take on history as presented to American students, but in Lies Across America he’s taken on the other history texts that we see all around us. They’re ubiquitous (except, apparently, in Maine), sometimes invisible, sometimes easily overlooked, sometimes a destination for interested visitors. These are the monuments, roadside signs and historic sites that personalize and define American history for many.
Loewen points out that these sites fall into two categories, which he calls sasha and zamani. (If you want a terrific fiction take on the same idea, try Kevin Brockmeier’s Brief History of the Dead.) Sasha essentially means people or events retained in the memory of the living; zamani denotes events or people that occurred before anyone currently living could have experienced. The monument to Arthur Ashe is an example of sasha: there are plenty of people who remember him firsthand. A statue closer to home is zamani – no one living ever encountered Norbert Berkeley. There’s another aspect to these sites, which falls into the zamani realm – who controlled the landscape when the memorial was established?
There are some extreme examples of this: a monument to the Confederacy where there was zero link to the War? The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum that doesn’t have any actual, you know, miners? Plantation houses all across the South that talk about the design of the silverware, but never mention the people who did the work that produced the income to buy that silverware?
More common are the roadside signs that leave you scratching your head. (As an inveterate reader of those black-on-pewter signs, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a U-turn, parked in a questionable spot, then scratched my head at the astonishingly vague text.) “One mile north of here the Whitaker house was built.” When? Why? By whom? If Mr. Whitaker did it, did his wife help? Were there slaves? Was it built in a special way with special materials? Where can I find more? Plus, these signs are nearly always written in a generic passive voice that deliberately deflects reflection on any deeper topic.
Loewen couldn’t visit every historical marker or monument in even one state, much less in the country, but was able to read an enormous proportion of them. He offers a set of penetrating questions to ask when visiting historical sites, most guaranteed to put docents on the spot; if they can’t answer those questions, perhaps it will trigger a reexamination by the site’s managers. He also offers a tongue-in-cheek alternate for the proliferation of roadside markers.
The book is structured so that each entry is self-contained, with footnotes and a complete list of the sources that Loewen used to critique the 100 entries he limited himself to. He also cross-references entries with the same topics or themes, which means a reader can bounce around without losing interest, then go back and read new material with a fresh perspective. Best of all, he is able to balance outrage over the hijacking of history with humor, making this a great resource for teaching students how to critically evaluate what they read and hear from history.
Check the WRL catalog for Lies Across America