If you’re looking for plot-driven action, for big twists, or a wild climax, look elsewhere. Pete Hamill’s North River is a throwback, a lovely novel with sympathetic characters, steady pacing, a setting that feels lived in, and a story that will break your heart and then mend it again.
Set in 1930s Hell’s Kitchen, North River is the story of Jim Delaney, a doctor who was a little bit old for World War I, but went anyway, and sustained some injuries and emotional damage that stayed with him. When he came home, he found a distant wife who was angry that he had left in the first place. The two continued to drift apart, and as the novel opens, we find Delaney alone. His wife has gone missing and her status is unknown, although everyone fears the worst.
But Delaney doesn’t stay alone for long. His daughter, off on the chase for a revolutionary husband, drops off her toddler son Carlito on Delaney’s doorstep. Delaney is the kind of man who takes care of his entire neighborhood, but taking care of a baby who barely speaks English is another thing, and with help from neighborhood friends, he finds a woman, Rose Verga, to work as his live-in housekeeper and care for the child until he can convince his mother to return.
Over the course of the novel, the three begin to form familial bonds, but Hamill throws many obstacles in their way: a hostile crime boss made enemy by Delaney’s assistance to his rival, an old war friend; the differences of class and culture between Delaney and Rose; the steady, sometimes overwhelming of Delaney’s neighborhood practice and the often illiterate working class people who demand his time; the ghosts of past relationships; and the nagging possibility that Carlito’s mother will return and take him away just as Delaney and Rose have formed parental attachments.
Hamill captures the waning days of Tammany Hall politics, a time now dismissed as “machine” politics, but also an era with a positive side: people were still connected and looked out for each other in a way that modern citizens don’t often understand. These are characters who stay with you long after the book is put aside, larger than life, but completely believable. The story has crime, suspense, romance, and history, something to captivate almost every reader.
If you like audiobooks, I can also recommend that format. Henry Strozier’s voice captures Delaney’s world weariness perfectly and he does well with Rose’s Italian-immigrant English as well.
Check the WRL catalog for North River
Read North River in large print
Or try North River as an audiobook on CD
Jennifer D. shares this review:
Charlie is stranded on a desert island. She has no clothes, no supplies, no defense, and no escape. After spending days on her own, struggling to survive with little food and water and against dangerous jungle animals, Charlie finds others who have been similarly marooned. You might think that would make the plot of a pretty good book, but we’re just getting started.
Charlie disappeared while walking across a Target parking lot at midday. A portal picked her up and deposited her on the island of Nil. If the circumstances of Charlie’s relocation weren’t frightening enough, Charlie soon learns that there is much more to Nil than the island paradise it appears to be. She has exactly one year to make her way off the island by finding another portal. Three hundred and sixty-five days before she dies, just like everyone else who ran out of time.
This title is another example of excellent YA world-building. Matson has created a world with great structure and rules which hold it together. It’s a high concept novel with high payoff as long as you buy into the premise and go along for the ride. While there is little explanation regarding the whys of the world of Nil, there is hope that more backstory will come in Nil Unlocked, due out this May.
Check the WRL catalog for Nil.
Dianne Wolfer walked the Kokoda Track in 2002 and was inspired to write this picture book exploration of the complications of war after interviewing veterans. This book is recommended for older children and adults as it deals with violent and difficult themes. Photographs in the Mud follows the lives of both an Australian and Japanese solider during World War II during battles in Papua New Guinea. Wolfer and Brian Harrison-Lever balance both sides by giving the reader information about Jack, the Australian solider, and Hoshi, the Japanese soldier, and their families back home. Eventually, both men are injured in battle and lay beside each other. They share their photographs, but will they both be able to make it through the night?
The delicate, realistic pencil drawings contrast the horrors of the tale while giving life to the characters. Red paint splatters the page when both men are injured. This book is a chilling dedication to the men who fought in World War II along the Kokoda Track. Wolfer and Harrison-Lever finish the book with an inscription that can now be found along the track, “They are not dead; not even broken; Only their dust has gone back home to earth/For they; the essential they, shall have rebirth/Whenever a word of them is spoken.”
Check the WRL catalog for Photographs in the Mud.
I’m not normally a fan of the mashup. The book that started the craze, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was well done, but in most of these projects, the best joke is in the title. Ian Doescher has created a happy exception, taking the scripts from George Lucas’s Star Wars films and translating them into iambic pentameter, making books worthy of both the Bard and the droids. It’s a fine marriage, with the melodramatic space opera of Star Wars suited perfectly for Elizabethan language.
The success of the project has encouraged Doescher to continue with the series. The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return are already available, and more are in process. If you know your Shakespeare even a little, you’ll catch references to his famous lines throughout the works, as in the Hamlet reference in the quote above or when Han Solo quips, “Nay not that: the day when Jabba taketh my dear ship/Shall be the day you find me a grave man.”
Doescher tackles the challenges of the project with panache. R2D2, for instance, begins speaking in iambic beeps and squawks, but then switches to Shakespearean asides to complain about the “prating tongue” of his pompous golden friend. These extras add extra dimension to the interior world of beloved characters, perhaps even improving on the original. When the action cannot be conveyed by character speeches, Doescher doesn’t fret, he brings in a chorus to inform the audience of necessary plot developments. The book is graced by illustrations in the style of Elizabethan woodcuts.
You know the story, you know the style, but this combination is clever and executed brilliantly. I suspect smart English teachers will be using these books to great effect for years to come, but why leave the fun for the classroom? Take it home yourself and enjoy the experience all over again.
Check the WRL catalog for William Shakespeare’s Star Wars
When it first arrived in 2008, Tana French’s In the Woods, the first book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, won many awards: the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry Awards for First Novel. I’m happy to report that it’s good enough to merit all that praise.
The story concerns two young partners on the Dublin Murder Squad, Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox. The story is told from Ryan’s perspective. In his childhood, in the 1980s, Ryan and two friends were the victims of a crime near their home in the Dublin suburbs. The three went into the woods on a summer day, and two were never heard from again. Rob was found clutching a tree and unable to remember what had happened. He moved away, made a new life, and has become a relatively normal adult, a police detective hiding an important secret about his past. As the novel opens, over twenty years later, a call comes into the station. Another victim, a young girl, has been found at an archaeological dig near the same woods where Rob’s friends disappeared. Despite the danger to his hidden past, Rob convinces Cassie (who is the only one in the department who knows) that they should take the case.
The story goes two directions, alternating between the investigation into the contemporary crime and explorations of the past. Both are delicate affairs. Family may be involved in the new girl’s death, and political powers want the case cleared quickly so that property development can take place. Rob is fascinated by the possibility that the current crime is connected to his past, but must investigate gingerly for fear of being recognized by elderly and middle-aged locals who might recognize the current detective as the boy left digging his nails into a tree trunk. It’s a complex plot, but French handles it gracefully, presenting a plethora of well-drawn characters and interweaving story lines without confusion.
The relationship between Rob Ryan and Cassie is fascinating. They are professionals, and so close as partners that they haven’t quite registered that there is a romantic spark as well (or at least he hasn’t). But readers will pick up on it, and spend most of the book wondering whether the spark will ignite or the relationship will explode from all the tension.
Each book in French’s series (the fifth entry was recently released, and all have had strong reviews) is told from the perspective of a different member of the Dublin Murder Squad. It’s an approach I haven’t seen used since Ed McBain wrote his 97th Precinct series many years ago. I know that I, for one, will have to go on at least to book two, The Likeness, to hear Cassie’s side of the story.
Check the WRL catalog for In the Woods
Or try In the Woods as an audiobook on CD
The bestselling author of the Llama Llama books has another hit on her hands with Nelly Gnu and Daddy Too. In this adorable father-daughter story, Nelly and Daddy Gnu work together to create a beautiful playhouse for Nelly from a large box. After the frame is done, they have to go on an adventure to the hardware store for paint and a small flashlight, which Daddy Gnu surprises Nelly with right before bedtime. Dewdney writes, “Every night and every day, Daddy makes it all OK. He always knows just what to do…Nelly’s Daddy, Daddy Gnu.” The colorful illustrations help to drive the story, but the love between the father and daughter as they work towards a common goal make this a book worth reading.
Check the WRL catalog for Nelly Gnu and Daddy Too.
Charlotte shares this review:
All the world’s a stage, literally, in this fun romp for stagestruck teens.
ENTER Beatrice (Bertie) Shakespeare Smith, a foundling and a born troublemaker. She has grown up in the Théâtre Illuminata, a fantastical, metafictional theater housing all the Players from all the works of the stage. Bertie gets her clothes from Wardrobe, and her bedroom is a set. She’s constantly accompanied by her own comic relief: a slapstick entourage of Midsummer Night’s Dream fairies. And, like a girl in a Disney musical, at any time, the lights may come up, the orchestra start playing, and her life transform into a song-and-dance number with tap-dancing starfish.
It may be the only home she’s ever known, but Bertie is about to be kicked out of the Théâtre unless she can prove to its Manager that she has something valuable to contribute, like a sellout show. Bertie’s plan: Hamlet, but in Egypt. Cue the asps! But while Bertie is getting her Cecil B. Demille on, a rebellious yet extremely swoonworthy Ariel—I’m picturing Labyrinth-era David Bowie in this part—figures out a way to free the Players into the real world. Chaos ensues.
The Théâtre Illuminata is a fantastic conceit and debut author Mantchev has a lot of fun with it. Bertie is a lively, if romantically confused, heroine who defends herself with one-liners and, when necessary, with jujitsu (Petruchio had it coming). Hamlet and Ophelia, the revolutionary students from Les Mis, members of the Greek Chorus: they’re all here, trading theater in-jokes and Shakespearean insults. It’s a busy stage both literally and metaphorically, each character and subplot vying to upstage the others, and everything moves at a cappuccino-fueled pace. Some of the plots are resolved, but that’s an intermission curtain at the end, not a finale; Eyes Like Stars is the first in a planned trilogy.
EXIT, pursued by a sequel.
Check the WRL catalog for Eyes Like Stars.
Talk show monologues, celebrity gossip columns, even South Park episodes are full of jokey references to the quirky beliefs of Scientology and adherents like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. If you’re like I was, you laugh along with these, but don’t really know anything about Scientology. I watched The Master, a film with Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to try to get some insight. The film piqued my interest, but left me with more questions than answers.
As I learned while reading Lawrence Wright’s excellent Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, my confusion was no accident. Scientology is a slippery subject for at least five reasons. First, it’s not a religion in the traditional sense that many of us assume. In particular, there isn’t much reference to a god or gods in Scientology. Second, terminology within the religion is full of strange jargon that outsiders find hard to decipher. Third, even within the religion, access to beliefs is parceled out to each adherent as they gain different levels in a hierarchy. Fourth, the beliefs of the religion have shifted over time and continue to change. Fifth, and perhaps most central to the book, it’s not easy to leave Scientology, and life can get quite unhappy for those who divulge Scientology’s secrets publicly. Those who protect the religion aren’t above smear campaigns against Scientology’s critics, and there’s an organized campaign to put out favorable disinformation in response. Only the disgruntled are likely to go public, and they aren’t the most reliable sources. Add all of this up, and it’s no wonder that Scientology makes for a distinctly blurry target.
That’s why it’s so important that someone of Lawrence Wright’s stature and thoroughness as a researcher and writer took on the subject. Wright is an award winning journalist and writer whose previous book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, won the Pulitzer Prize. Wright spent years interacting with former Scientologists and pursuing queries with current adherents to the highest level. He’s not just repeating the gossip of a few disgruntled apostates. Everything in the book is carefully documented with multiple sources and the book was singled out for multiple awards, including a National Book Award nomination.
All of that makes this sound like a dreary tome, but far from that, it’s also a fascinating and highly readable narrative, covering Scientology from its odd beginnings, through years at sea where L. Ron Hubbard traveled on ocean liners, unable to find a country to call home for his religion, even as its beliefs developed in many strange directions. The tale continues into the modern era when celebrity adherents are carefully groomed, lavished with perks, and then kept cautiously in line, and on to David Miscavige, who took leadership in a late 1980s coup against Hubbard’s intended successors and continues to rule his flock with an iron fist.
Along the way Wright catalogs Scientology’s odd collection of beliefs about reincarnation; its battles with psychology, the IRS, and the legal systems of many nations; its extortion of money from believers and extended investment in real estate; and most of all, its cruel treatment of adherents who fall into disfavor with the Church’s leaders and sustained campaign to keep them in the religion’s control. Wright debunks Hubbard’s many lies about his background. He shows how Scientology has extorted money from adherents by forcing them to take expensive classes and even making charges to their credit cards without permission. He documents Miscavige’s physical and emotional abuse of even his highest lieutenants. He reveals the lush treatment given to Tom Cruise, including the way that Scientology helped him procure a new partner after his split with Nicole Kidman. Most horrifically, Wright describes the way in which Scientology has broken the families of members, taken away children, mandated divorces and abortions, and imprisoned, tortured, starved, and brainwashed those singled out for punishment.
For a taste, check out this summary of some of its revelations, but to put yourself fully in the know, check out the book and read it in its entirety.
Check the WRL catalog for Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief
Or listen to Going Clear on audio CD
Cheers for a Dozen Ears: A summer crop of counting by Felicia Sanzari Chernesky, illus. by Susan Swan
Susan Swan’s amazing illustrations steal the show in this simple counting book that encourages kids and adults to buy fruits and vegetables from their local farm stands. The vibrant colors will keep young children interested in the basics of counting and eating healthy. All of the fruits and veggies at Watermelon Acres farm stand look so delicious that you might want to have some of your own to munch on as you read! After getting everything on Mom’s list, the kids decide to add one more item. Felicia Sanzari Chernesky writes, “Add a summer sunflower from the jar. Now let’s take this garden to our car! But first, put some money in the can. Farmers work hard to feed this land.”
Check the WRL catalog for Cheers for a Dozen Ears: A summer crop of counting.
Jennifer D. shares this review:
Anthony Horowitz may be best known in the book world for his Alex Rider adventures. I, however, first became aware of him through his Diamond Brothers Mystery series. Set in London, the books are narrated by Nick Diamond, kid brother to “detective” Tim Diamond. I put detective in quotes because he is rarely able to actually detect anything. His real name is Herbert Timothy Simple, and he was fired from the police force before becoming a private eye. Although Nick is the younger brother, he is the real brains of the operation.
Their first story is The Falcon’s Malteser, an obvious play on the Maltese Falcon. It is the story of a box of Maltesers, or malted milk balls, that once belonged to a criminal by the name of The Falcon. See what Horowitz did there? The box is left in the care of Tim, but when the man who pays him to look after it turns up dead, Tim is suddenly a suspect. Nick must take over the case to prove Tim’s innocence, protect the box of Maltesers from all of the shady characters after it, and discover why The Falcon prized a box of candy so much. It is an update on a classic noir, with mystery, suspense, and humor.
Check the WRL catalog for The Falcon’s Malteser.
For his combination of physical prowess, braggadocio, mental agility, and artistic flair, one can’t beat Cyrano de Bergerac. Add in the famous nose, with all of its comic exaggeration, and readers are in for a timeless treat.
De Bergerac was a real dramatist and duelist, immortalized (and fictionalized) 240 years after his death in a French play by Edmond Rostand. Those who know the story are most likely to know it from a film: the 1950 classic for which Jose Ferrer won Best Actor; the contemporary retelling Roxanne, which Steve Martin adapted and led in 1988; or the marvelous French film from 1990 featuring Gerard Depardieu. It’s the tale of a man with prodigious talents for dueling and bragging, but also for the facility of his tongue and pen.
Cyrano is in love with Roxane, but she doesn’t know, and makes him promise to aid and befriend the handsome Christian. Loyal to his promise, and embarrassed by his huge nose, Cyrano even goes so far to help the tongue-tied Christian to woo Roxane, figuring that at least he can express his love to her through another. His words succeed, but too well, as Roxane begins to love Christian’s words more deeply than his looks. War intervenes: will Cyrano and Roxane come together? Well, you’ll have to read the story to find that out.
While all three of the movies I mentioned are superb (and the filmed stage performance with Kevin Kline is no slouch either), I recommend reading Cyrano first to appreciate its linguistic force. There are two great adaptations in English. Many prefer the earlier Brian Hooker adaptation, but my favorite is by Anthony Burgess (of A Clockwork Orange fame), who retains the rhyme scheme and emphasizes humor at the play’s opening, drama at the finish.
Skim to one of the spots where Cyrano’s words tumble out in a torrent. Two of the best are in the second act: his list of ways to ridicule his nose and the “no thank you” speech, where he catalogs his reasons for being a soldier instead of a poet. If these sections don’t capture you, check your pulse. This is the ultimate work of bravado, of romance, of panache, a play that every reader should experience once for its exuberant joy and then again whenever a little encouragement is needed.
Check the WRL catalog for Cyrano de Bergerac
This young adult historical romance is set in 1523-24, embroidering on what little is known about young Anne Boleyn, before she ever caught the eye of Henry, King of England. Recently returned to the English court after years abroad, she is an outsider with the wrong looks and clothes, standing out for her French manners and fashion just in time for war with France, oops. Her tyrannical father is pushing her marriage to a boorish Irishman (actually, historically nicknamed James the Lame), and Anne is desperate for another choice.
Thomas Wyatt, playboy poet and professional flirt, offers to take on the project—for a wager—of elevating Anne’s social profile. With his savvy advice and very public attention, he can remake her into a centerpiece of the court. Only young Anne is never quite sure whether they are playacting. And even with her newfound status, nothing is simpler. Everyone who’s enamored is already married, or out of her social league… or the King of England. Who is, of course, sleeping with Anne’s sister.
Langshore writes a determined but vulnerable Anne who doesn’t have many options and hasn’t yet settled on a path of action. Her ambitions, her desire to be heard, her dysfunctional family, and, yes, her schoolgirl crushes are all very relatable, which is probably why her story has been retold so many times.
Tarnish is the middle book of three that are set in the Tudor court, but they don’t have to be read in order. Gilt tells the story of Catherine Howard, number five among Henry’s queens, and Brazen centers around Mary Howard, who married Henry’s illegitimate son.
Check the WRL catalog for Tarnish.
This imaginative little book highlights the contrast between what adults and children see by alternating between the perspectives of an adult looking on and a little pig with a stick and a powerful imagination. Every other right-hand page pictures the pig holding a stick opposite an adult injunction: “Hey, be careful with that stick.” The rest show him as he sees himself, holding a fishing pole, baton, paintbrush, etc., opposite his increasingly insistent “It’s not a stick.” Although the line drawing illustrations are extremely spare, the layout, with solid-color left-hand pages, gives the book a stylish look. It recalls the classic Harold and the Purple Crayon. This title will pair well with Lily Brown’s Paintings, another book about an imaginative child. Not a Stick is perfect for a preschool storytime for a small audience. It will be most enjoyed by children ages three to five. The author and illustrator, Antoinette Portis also produced Not a Box.
Check the WRL catalog for Not a Stick.
As my fellow youth services librarians will attest, I am a pretty organized person. You know the old adage, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” That’s me. That is perhaps what initially drew me to a book called 100 Cupboards. I would love to have a wall covered with 100 cupboards, as that would mean 100 places in which I could compartmentalize things! The book’s cover, depicting a few of the 100 compartments, cupboards, drawers, and cabinets that line one attic wall, is certainly eye catching, as well.
For those less interested in organization, the second best thing about the book is that each cupboard leads to a different place, different time, or different reality. As you can imagine, this could easily lead a young boy to adventure. The boy’s name is Henry York, and he has just come to live with his aunt, uncle, and three female cousins after his parents were taken hostage in Colombia, South America. Hey, it could happen.
In his attic bedroom, Henry discovers the aforementioned wall of cupboards hidden behind a wall of plaster. After removing all of the plaster, and making quite a mess, he begins to explore the cupboards and where they lead. The cupboards are controlled by two knobs in the center of the wall, which work like compasses. The doors will open according to the direction the knobs are facing. And that is just the beginning. There is also a door in the house that is locked, and cannot be opened by anything, including a chain saw. There are the letters which come through one of the cabinets, which is really a small post box. And there is the numbered diagram in the front of the book, depicting all of the cupboards with notes regarding where and to when they lead. There are still so many cupboards to explore! You’ll be anxious for more by the book’s end, so be sure to check out the sequel, Dandelion Fire.
Check the WRL catalog for 100 Cupboards.
Miss Frederica “Free” Marshall is a suffragette, which, as she points out, is pronounced with an exclamation point. An investigative reporter for her own Women’s Free Press, she campaigns for the vote while fighting accusations of plagiarism, threats of arrest, and attempts to burn her home and business.
Edward Clark doesn’t really do exclamation points. After a harrowing experience abroad during the Franco-Prussian war, he’s a realist with a particularly dark view of reality. While he doesn’t have any problem with Free’s lady-empowering views, he doesn’t understand why she devotes time and passion to a cause so unwinnable, so much like “emptying the Thames with a thimble.”
Also, Clark is secretly Edward Delacey, Viscount Claridge, whom everyone knows to be missing in the Siege of Strasbourg and believes to be dead. (Yes, it’s a “Surprise! A lord!” romance!) Being a viscount is something else Edward doesn’t have any patience with, so he’s reinvented himself as a metalsmith, a forger, and an all-around scoundrel. Sharing a mutual enemy, Edward and Free engage in bouts of flirtation via blackmail and reverse blackmail.
This is a surprisingly lighthearted and joyful book, skating very lightly over the history of struggle and suffering that inspires it—wartime firebombings and the investigative exploits of women like Nellie Bly and Josephine Butler. Milan, in her author’s note, actually calls it “as much an alternate history as it is a historical romance.” Great women characters have been true of every one of Courtney Milan’s books I’ve read, but with a suffragette main character, this is unsurprisingly the most overtly feminist of her romances. The “huzzah” moment in this book isn’t even to do with the romance, it’s Free’s rousing explanation of just what she’s trying to do with her thimble and the Thames.
Check the WRL catalog for the ebook of The Suffragette Scandal.
Jessica shares this review:
Greg Heffley is being forced by his mother to keep a journal (“but if she thinks I’m going to write down my ‘feelings’ in here or whatever, she’s crazy”). Except we really probably ought to call it a diary, since that’s what it says on the cover, despite Greg’s instructions to his mother (“when Mom went out to buy this thing I SPECIFICALLY told her to get one that didn’t say ‘diary’ on it”).
Since Greg is a sixth grader, he writes a lot about his classes and his friends and his activities in school. He’s not one of the jocks or the cool kids (“the best I can figure is that I’m somewhere around 52nd or 53rd most popular this year”) but he’s high enough on the social hierarchy that he feels comfortable running for Class Treasurer. He would have had a shot at it, too, except that the principal made him take down his campaign posters against his opponent.
“Remember in second grade how Marty Porter had head lice?” asks one of the posters. “Do you really want him touching YOUR money?” In the middle of the words is a picture of Marty vigorously scratching his head.
It’s the pictures that make the book so good. I really like Greg’s diary writing—he says a lot of funny things—but his pictures are just hysterical. There’s at least one drawing on practically every page. The artwork is more sophisticated than stick-figure drawings, but only barely, which is probably why I like it so much.
My colleagues over in Youth Services inform me that the Wimpy Kid series is really popular with young men and I understand why—the hero is someone you can relate to, and it’s funny while still being realistic—but I’d like to encourage people outside the demographic to give it a chance. I am a female who hasn’t been in the sixth grade for a long time, but I’m racing through the books. Give this a try even if you aren’t a sixth-grade boy.
Check the WRL catalog for Diary of a Wimpy Kid
In this charming book about having a new baby in the family, a new big sister, frustrated with the baby’s limitations, dreams of everything she’ll do with her baby when she’s big enough. She plans to teach the baby important things like how to walk, how to look both ways at the corner, and how to lick up ice cream drips. She imagines singing songs with the baby. Getting carried away she asks, “Baby, do you want me to teach you a song?” The following double-page spread makes the baby’s displeasure abundantly clear: strips of brightly colored paper shoot violently over the page. On one side is a small drawing of the baby with a wide-open mouth, dwarfed by the volume of her screams. The illustrations are done in collage, ink, and oil pastels with riotous color and texture on every page. This book is perfect for a preschool storytime on siblings or new babies. There are many great books on these themes; two are Katy Duck: Big Sister and Yum Yum, Baby Bundt. The author, Nancy Patz, is also an artist. Her paintings have been shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art, among other places. Illustrator Susan L. Roth has illustrated many books of Native American folk tales.
Check the WRL catalog for Babies Can’t Eat Kimchee.
I’ve been enjoying this rambling tour of the Paris art world in the 1860s and ’70s, when the established traditions of great painting were under siege, and newcomers wielding their paintbrushes like floor mops were revolutionizing, or possibly just ruining, French Art.
It’s organized loosely around the careers of two painters, figureheads of the opposing schools. Ernest Meissonier paints musketeers and subjects from history, in moments that impart a moral lesson. Edouard Manet depicts absinthe drinkers and prostitutes, a contemporary crowd in modern dress (or inexplicably nude while picnicking). Meissonier, passionate about historical accuracy, collects period dress and weaponry to create military re-enactments on canvas, laboriously layered with great detail and rewarding examination with a magnifying glass. Manet, if his critics are to be believed, slops the paint (or coal dust) on with a floor mop, approximating a scene without finishing it. Are first impressions good enough? They are for the painters who are not yet called the Impressionists, a disgruntled but passionate lot of struggling artists who are repeatedly rejected from the Paris Salon or whose paintings are “skyed,” hung so high on exhibition walls that no one can see them.
Call me old-fashioned, but I have to side with Meissonier, who is described as one of the best-selling painters you’ve never heard of. You have to respect an artist who, after his scale model of a battlefield is ravaged by mice, recreates it in full size in his yard, dragging heavy carts around to furrow the ground and strewing bags of flour about to simulate a snowy landscape. (Fortunately, he resembles Napoleon enough to model for his own paintings.) He has the local cavalry charge about on maneuvers so that he can get a better idea of how to paint horses in motion. And here comes a generation that paints wisps of colors and calls it an “impression”!
Well, history and auction prices have come down on the side of the Impressionists. But King immerses you in their controversies with great relish, including the politics of the Salon de Paris, the juried exhibition that could make or break a painter’s career. Such passions! Paintings are assaulted with walking sticks, styles are derided with great energy and imagination in the (censored) press. “This is the painting of democrats,” writes a Salon director about the new style, “of men who don’t change their underwear.” There are fisticuffs over newspaper reviews! Duels are fought!
A wealth of anecdotes, mingling history, art history, and biography, cover a lot of ground but not very deeply. This is the kind of book that adds to your to-be-read pile with tantalizing references to people and subjects you now need to know more about. Or you could go from here to Christopher Moore’s irreverent but wildly enthusiastic novel of the same time period, Sacre Bleu.
Check the WRL catalog for The Judgment of Paris.
WRL also owns the audiobook.
In this young adult mystery, Abigail Rook, a young woman recently arrived in New England in 1892, apprentices herself to a detective of the supernatural. Author William Ritter owes a double thanks to the cover artist, for the gorgeously eerie book jacket, and to the publicist who decided to market the book as “Doctor Who meets Sherlock Holmes.”
The character of R. F. Jackaby deliberately evokes Conan Doyle’s detective, if Watson had ever been turned into a duck. (Jackaby’s previous assistant is “temporarily waterfowl.”) Aloof, inscrutable, and garbed like an eccentric in a wild hat and scarf, Jackaby sweeps around the city of New Fiddleham dealing with the domovyk, kobold, or pixies that the police force overlook. The police may not be fond of him, but his esoteric skills and bottomless pockets full of tuning forks and gizmos for spying the unworldly make him an invaluable asset when a serial murderer preying on the city seems to be not a man, but a monster.
Narrator Abigail is resourceful, a paleontologist’s daughter who took off to see more of the world than her staid English upbringing could show her. She quickly adjusts to sharing her living quarters with a ghost, not to mention to encounters with bridge trolls and a perfectly chilling banshee. Like any good Watson, she grounds her employer in the mundane world, noticing the overlooked details and trying to be as helpful as one can be when one’s boss is dogged by unsettling paranormal occurrences and doesn’t know how to give a straight answer to a question:
“How many people have you got living here?….”
“Well… that depends on your definition of people… and also of living.”
I’m honestly not sure why the novel is set in America, as its inspirations are so very British, and the humor has a decidedly English twist, a reined-in Douglas Adams voice: “Across town, Mr. Henderson–the man who had heard the banshee’s silent scream—spent the evening dying. To be more accurate, he spent a very brief portion of the evening dying, and the rest of it being dead.”
Quirky and occasionally touching, this is a promising start to a series with spooks and derring-do that should appeal to fans of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood and Company.
Check the WRL catalog for Jackaby.
“Never have I seen a deadlier-looking collection of firemen, street brawlers, Party thugs, and fighting entrepreneurs in my life…. If you were loyal to the Party or maybe even a good watchman, you could wear a copper star. If you looked like you’ve killed a man with your bare hands and aren’t shy about doing it again, you could be a captain.”
It’s 1845. A blight on potatoes is sending wave after wave of destitute Irish through Ellis Island. Anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feeling run high on the streets of New York, and political debate, as often as not, takes place between mobs armed with lead cudgels. Nominated for a 2013 Edgar award, Faye’s entertaining crime novel is set at the genesis of the NYC police force, a motley crew of ruffians and Democrats nicknamed the Copper Stars.
New Yorkers are not enamored of the baby police force, decrying it as a “standing army” and an infringement of their native liberties. And barkeeper Timothy Wilde has no desire to fight crime or support the political party in which his older brother, Valentine, is such a rising star. But when an explosion wipes out his home and his livelihood, his brother pulls party strings to get Timothy a job as a Copper Star in the crime- and rat-infested Sixth Ward. Only a few days into his rounds, Timothy is involved in a foul case of murder and debauchery: he’s sheltering a ten-year-old runaway from a brothel, who won’t tell him how she came to be covered in blood. And the murder of a second child, blamed on an Irish madman, could be a lit match set to the tinder of NYC.
Faye’s first novel, Dust and Shadow, was one of many in which Sherlock Holmes confronts Jack the Ripper, and in some ways this reads like the same story on a different continent. Mutilated bodies, missing spleens, mad letters signed dramatically, “the Hand of the God of Gotham…” Wilde even has a crew of newsboys reporting to him, his own New York City “Irregulars.” Author Faye is enamored of her setting and its language, loading the story with vivid metaphors and slang straight out of a period lexicon compiled by George Washington Matsell, the city’s first police commissioner.
If bringing evildoers to justice is the main narrative thrust of the novel, its secondary theme is “Damn you, Valentine Wilde.” Val, the older and less responsible brother, lights up every scene that he stumbles into, whether drunk, hung over, coming down off a morphine high, or holding rehearsals of how to properly stuff a ballot box. A childhood’s worth of rivalry and resentment, plus the ability of any sibling to know exactly which button to push, makes the brothers’ relationship a suspenseful and entertaining crime scene of its own.
I listened to both Gods of Gotham and the sequel, Seven for a Secret, on audiobook, and they were fantastic picks for a long commute. Reader Steven Boyer conveys Wilde’s narration with wry flair and creates engaging voices for the other characters as well. There was only one drawback to listening, rather than reading: each chapter is prefaced by a quote from some anti-Irish writings of the period, and every single time the text mentioned the evils of Popery, I had a moment of confusion. Potpourri? Evil?
Check the WRL catalog for The Gods of Gotham.