John Milliken Thompson, author of The Reservoir, now brings us Love and Lament, a Southern historical drama told from the point of view of idealistic Mary Bet, the youngest of the troubled Hartsoe family’s nine children. Due the woeful succession of deaths on the Hartsoe homestead, Mary Bet grows up believing her lineage is cursed. Her innocent mind makes sense of the losses by assuming that it is God’s punishment for her own sins, despite that they are slight offenses to everyone’s eyes but her own.
Against the landscape of pastoral North Carolina undergoing industrialization from the late 1800s through World War I, Mary Bet struggles to make a life for herself. She is a fresh and likable soul through whose eyes we see a pastiche of townsfolk. There are her dueling grandfathers whose ancient property feud comes to a scuffle over a poker game. And there is the illegal distillery worker who has to ruin his own batch of mash during a late-night booze raid on which she has tagged along as honorary second deputy.
Although grief, atonement and the misfortunes of love are deeply intertwined in the episodic trials and tribulations of its brave heroine, joy, wit and laughter are skillfully sewn into this Southern saga. The tumult of Reconstruction is evident at the ballots, in the work place and throughout the social order of the land. Thompson’s research and talent of narrative make this a perfect pick for fans of accurate historical fiction.
Clever photography and appealing foot facts make Best Foot Forward: Exploring Feet, Flippers, and Claws, by German author Ingo Arndt, a pleasure to read. Using the structure of a two-page spread close-up of an animal foot and the question “Whose foot is this?, the answer appears on the next page along with other animals’ feet that have similar purposes or capabilities. Some of the categories include feet that are best suited to digging (tortoises), climbing (chimpanzees) and swimming (seals). Facts about each of the featured appendages are included to whet the interest of young readers to further explore the lives of the animal.
The close-up photography of the feet is the most fascinating aspect of the book. Whether it be counting the individual tortoise scales and claws, or seeing a mole foot up close, many of these are feet that people rarely notice. The more commonly seen webbed feet of ducks and gripping toes of a gecko are enlarged to see all the detail that make those feet perfect for the animals’ habitats. The most amazing foot featured is that of the kangaroo. Modified for jumping, this long, spring-loaded lever is a sight to behold when shown out of context. This book encourages animal-lovers to look beyond faces and other more obvious features to examine all facets of the creatures who share our environment. A final whimsy is the author’s biography photo – of his foot!
Sylvie Mason’s family life is anything but ordinary. Her parents earn a living exorcising tormented souls and traveling the country giving lectures on these experiences. Her older sister Rose rebels at every opportunity, and has a serious mean streak. There is also a possessed Raggedy Ann doll caged in her basement. Things aren’t any easier at school where Sylvie faces constant ridicule from classmates as a result of the bizarre stories circulating regarding her parents. Then tragedy strikes one stormy night when her father and mother are gunned down in their church, which is where Help for the Haunted by John Searles begins. These senseless murders set the tone for this cryptic and eerie novel.
The story is presented from two different perspectives with chapters alternating in time between present day, and life in the Mason household before the murders. Searles authentically captures Sylvie’s 14-year-old voice throughout the course of the novel, from her frustration with her sister and worry for her mother, to her overwhelming desire to say what people want to hear. This character driven story is also swathed with shadow and uncertainty as unexplained events keep the element of mystery growing. Searles joins the esteemed company of Laura Lippman and Martha Grimes in setting his suspenseful and creepy novel in a Baltimore County community. Readers will appreciate the many local Dundalk references and landmarks, which punctuate the story and lend it an air of authenticity. The mystery of what really occurred on the night of the murders drives the story to an exciting and astonishing conclusion. Help for the Haunted is a fascinating novel that puts a different spin on the traditional ghost story.
Sugar is a spunky 10-year-old living on the Wills’ River Road Plantation in Reconstruction Mississippi. She is named after the cane she toils in and despises. Her father was sold when she was a baby, and her mother died two years earlier after years of brutal labor finally took its toll. It is 1870, and while slavery has been abolished for five years, questions and economic concerns remain for these freed men, women and children. Coretta Scott King Honor Winner Jewell Parker Rhodes brings this tenuous time to life in Sugar.
The Beales, fellow sugar workers, have become her surrogate grandparents, and the other workers are protective of Sugar as the only child in their midst, yet barely tolerant of her rambunctious ways. As the community dwindles in number, Mr. Wills, the owner, needs more help and brings laborers in from China which initially concerns Sugar and her friends. But Sugar is quickly intrigued by these men and longs to make new friends from a foreign land outside of River Road.
As Sugar develops friendships with Billy Wills, the owner’s son, and the Chinese workers, she is exposed to worlds far different from her own. Billy lives a life of luxury, but is just a boy looking for adventures and a friend in Sugar. The Chinese men work hard but also share their traditional tales, food and toys. Rhodes deftly describes all of Sugar’s sensory experiences, while offering a realistic portrait of her hard realities and the unique cross-cultural community created for a time on this Mississippi plantation. Sugar is a most appealing and memorable heroine who manages to muster enough courage to step away from the only world she’s ever known in an effort to live her mother’s dying words of: Do. See. Feel.
Something very wrong was happening to patients at various hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Mysterious deaths and a higher than usual number of unexplained incidents followed nurse Charlie Cullen as he hopscotched from one hospital to the next. In The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder, Charles Graeber relays a chilling, true crime account of a board-certified nurse who killed an unknown number of the hospitals’ most vulnerable patients over the span of 16 years. More disturbing was the hospitals’ handling of it. Although Cullen had been dismissed or summarily fired from jobs, he never seemed to have problems finding another position. Fearful of appearing incompetent or risking internal investigation, hospitals did not report missing drugs or unusual deaths. Cullen was often allowed to resign with the promise that incidents would not show up on his record. Even when police investigators became involved in 2003, one of the hospitals blatantly lied about their ability to access data showing which drugs were requested by which nurses.
The Good Nurse is the result of six years of research by Graeber, including interviews with a now- imprisoned Cullen. Through these interviews, plus police records and court documents, Graeber reconstructs Cullen’s violent family history and the convoluted methods he used to manipulate the hospitals’ drug-dispensing systems in order to kill patients with overdoses. He gives readers insight into a complex man who could just as easily build rapport with co-workers and woo women as he could mercilessly kill the sick and infirm. The total number of victims will never be known, although Graeber describes him as “perhaps the most prolific serial killer in American history,” with estimates as high as 300 deaths. True crime and medical thriller readers shouldn’t miss this story of a “good nurse” with deadly intentions, and the detectives who were in a race against time to arrest him before he killed again.
Most people count sheep to fall asleep. Dani counts happy thoughts. My Happy Life by Rose Lagercrantz tells the tale of a little girl just starting school as she deals with first day of school jitters, making friends, losing friends, getting hurt, hurting others and all the other ups and downs in the life of a child.
Dani is a wonderfully realistic character who demonstrates resilience in the face of sadness. She is both excited and nervous about the first day of school, but she soldiers on and starts to have fun. Quickly making a best friend in Ella, Dani is happier than ever. Disaster strikes when Dani learns that Ella is moving away. Her sadness is heartbreaking. After a few rough days, and a few missteps, Dani slowly finds ways to be happy again.
Manageable chapters with limited text and plenty of delightful illustrations by award winning illustrator Eva Eriksson, make this book excellent for beginning readers. Through the combination of words and illustration, Lagercrantz and Eriksson perfectly capture the essence of a little girl’s life. My Happy Life is a very sweet, honest story suitable for both independent reading and reading aloud. This charming story is refreshingly free from “cuteness” and serves as a great example for children in how to handle hard knocks.
This murder mystery is a true whodunit with murder served up as the main course, while romance and comedy are definitely delectable side dishes in this new series, Rules of Murder, by Julianna Deering. Deering takes a foray into the past with Rules of Murder, which takes place in 1932 and is set in a quaint countryside town in Hampshire, U.K.
The novel opens to Drew Farthering returning to his extravagant manor house after a long vacation with his friend Nick. Drew returns home to find that his mother and stepfather are entertaining guests for this weekend including his stepfather’s beautiful niece, Madeline. It’s during the festivities that they find two people dead on the property.
Drew, being a fan of murder mystery books, is eager to see if he can uncover the plot behind the murders using Ronald Knox’s “Ten Commandments for Mystery Writers.” He soon discovers that he isn’t the only one interested in deciphering the mystery as Madeline inserts herself into the investigation. The two “detectives” make a connection at the party that blossoms as they work together to uncover the murderer.
This book felt like a combination of The Great Gatsby and a Sherlock Holmes mystery. The mystery will keep you guessing until the end though; the reader is given enough information to take a stab at uncovering the murderer, if they read carefully. There are touches of fact mixed in with the fiction that add to the realism of the book. If you enjoy Agatha Christie, this book may be for you.
Could a simple mistake ruin the future of a 7th grade student? In Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills, it looks as if Sierra Shepard is going to pay a heavy price for picking up the wrong lunch bag on her way to school. Sierra has always been the model student: straight A’s, honors classes and a member of the Leadership Club. However, one day she hurriedly picks up her Mom’s lunch bag instead of her own and discovers a paring knife inside to cut up an apple. When Sierra sees the “weapon” in her bag at lunch time, she immediately alerts the cafeteria monitor of the mistake. Despite her good intentions, Sierra’s principal is bent on having her expelled for violating the school’s “zero tolerance” policy on weapons.
Her father, a high-powered attorney, is determined to keep her in school, even if it costs her principal his job. As the hearing to decide Sierra’s fate looms before her, she begins to discover that not everything in life is as black and white as she always believed it to be. Sierra must decide what is really important to her. Are the other “bad kids” serving in-school suspension as guilty as she always believed them to be? Are her friends on her side, or are they just enjoying her publicity? Does making a mistake mean that it’s okay to do something she knows is wrong to prove her innocence? These questions and others not only cause Sierra to re-evaluate her life, but they make good talking points to share with young people about some very touchy subjects.
Picture books are not just for children; in fact, many of the best examples of the format prove entertaining for all ages, while some feel decidedly more adult. Kitty & Dino, by Sara Richard, begins with a child’s discovery of an unusual egg. This nearly wordless story unfolds as the Siamese cat of the household checks out the egg as it’s in the process of hatching. Much to Kitty’s distress, the new arrival is an attention-seeking baby dinosaur. Rendered in illustrations heavily influenced by the Japanese style of ink painting known as sumi-e, the panels that make up the story radiate an energy that keeps this story flowing. The characters of Kitty and Dino are depicted in a naturalistic way, with their postures and behaviors bringing this captivating story to life. Kitty slowly warms up to her housemate, teaching him about mealtime, grooming and play. As the pages turn, Dino grows older (and much bigger) and the unlikely friends’ bond grows deeper. Charming, funny and superbly illustrated, Kitty & Dino is a book for everyone.
Author/illustrator Dan Krall comes to picture books by way of a rich career in both TV and film animation. His beyond unusual story, The Great Lollipop Caper, has a quirky grownup sensibility. Leaning heavily on pun, the titular caper is both a character and the crime he commits. Yes, the protagonist is a tiny pickled caper berry who wants children to appreciate his “complex flavor.” Would caper-flavored lollipops help to expand his fan base to the very young? Wide-eyed cartoony character illustrations and speech bubbles lend to the offbeat humor that may be best appreciated by a hipster adult reader.
Set in the late 1800s just as the Eiffel Tower is being built, Elizabeth Ross’ Belle Epoque tells the story of Maude Pichon, a 16-year-old girl who ran away from her small French village to Paris. Maude’s fresh start in the City of Lights doesn’t go exactly as she’d planned, as she has trouble finding work, and quickly runs out of money. However, things seem to be turning around for Maude when an ad for a job with the Durandeau Agency catches her eye, and she is hired on the spot. The details of the job are sketchy; Maude only knows that the work is supposed to be undemanding and well-paying.
On her first day at the agency, Maude learns that the young women are hired by wealthy Parisians as repoussoirs. The owner of the agency, Durandeau, had the idea that rich Parisian women need a repoussoir, an ugly woman, to make them seem more beautiful in comparison. Maude is dismayed at the thought that she is ugly enough for the job, but given her dire financial situation, she feels she has no choice but to accept the work.
She is quickly hired by Countess Dubern to be the repoussoir for her daughter Isabelle, with the caveat that Isabelle can never know that Maude has been hired to spend time with her. Instead, the countess tells Maude to pretend that she is a distant relative of a friend, who has just arrived in Paris for the season. Maude quickly gets swept into Parisian high society, attending operas and balls, dressed in the latest fashions, all the while becoming friends with Isabelle, whom she is supposed to be deceiving. Belle Epoque is a fascinating novel—a coming of age story, mixed with a bit of romance, and a lot of history—perfect for fans of historical fiction.