Patrick deWitt is gaining a reputation as a risk-taking young author, cleverly parodying a different genre with each new work. Undermajordomo Minor is an old-world kind of folk tale at first glance, but readers will soon be delighted by how the author toys with our expectations in the vein of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride. Having made the comparison, it is necessary to add that deWitt is in a category completely to himself and unlike anything I have come across. His humor is quirky, pitch black and surprisingly thoughtful.
Lucy Minor is sickly and near death when he is visited by a mysterious stranger who spares his life after the young man admits he just wants something to happen to him before he dies.
Since he isn’t liked much by anyone in his village, including his mother, he sets off to find his fortune working as the undermajordomo at a far off castle. Thus begins an epic tale of romance, adventure and intrigue in a somewhat fairy tale setting. There is a castle, some loveable thieves, a crazy baron, a damsel in distress. However, there is also a train. So, expect the unexpected at any given moment.
From the moment his life is spared, Lucy’s life begins to careen down the most unexpected paths. Before his first day of work at the castle, he gets tremendously drunk with a couple of pickpockets he met on the train and falls helplessly in love with the daughter of one. Unfortunately, Klara is engaged to a devastatingly handsome soldier. His new boss, the majordomo, refuses to reveal exactly what Lucy’s job is or when he might be paid. When his job is in jeopardy, Lucy takes it upon himself to intercede on behalf of the Baron in his bizarre pursuit of his own wife, the Baroness.
In each strange, new situation readers revel in observing these delightfully weird characters interact with one another. The book is fast paced and compulsively readable.
There are manga, and there are sports. If the next thought in your head is “never the twain shall meet,” you might be surprised to learn that there’s actually an entire sub-genre of manga focusing exclusively on sports. Wataru Watanabe’s Yowamushi Pedal, (or “Wimp/Sissy” Pedal) does the most poetic job yet of bringing this delightful literary paradox to life.
To start with, Yowamushi Pedal does not at first seem to be about sports at all. Our protagonist is high school freshman and Otaku (anime fanatic) Onoda Sakamichi, who pours his passion into anime and manga and could never get along with sports or jocks. He sings anime theme songs on his way to school and while shopping for merchandise, he collects capsule toys obsessively and hopes to form an anime club. He doesn’t even realize that his weekly trips to Akihabara by bicycle are actually a grueling feat that have developed his unusual talent for biking.
While he might not have realized, he keeps getting noticed by skilled athletes at his school, whether it’s kind Kanzaki who thinks him a diamond in the rough, cold-tempered Imaizumi who is looking to test his recent training or wild Naruko who ropes him into chasing down a car. Eventually his dream of reviving the anime club seems to have been dashed — but in the process of meeting his new friends he unexpectedly develops an otaku-like passion for bikes and a new type of confidence. Onoda instead joins the biking team and finds himself on a path to discovering teamwork, exhaustion, victory and friendship like he’s never experienced before.
Watanabe’s storytelling and style are head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to new manga. His characters are as diverse in personality as they are in looks, and he weaves exciting tales of growing friendships and loving rivalries that are both thrilling and heart-warming. Although his artwork appears awkward at first, his fresh choices when stylizing his characters are consistent, lively and unique, allowing for a perfect range of emotion and movement as he shows us these high-speed races. If you enjoy Yowamushi Pedal make sure to check out similar titles like The Prince of Tennis, Big Windup, Cross Game and Fantasy Sports.
“Say nothing. Not a word to anyone.” So begins the painful odyssey of a frightened child in Andrew Taylor’s The Silent Boy. It is 1792 in Paris, and The Terror has begun. Turmoil grips the city. As the violence spins out of control, it overtakes anyone in its path. Terrified and covered in blood, the boy races through the streets of Paris to find an old servant who worked for his mother. She takes him to Monsieur Fournier, who believes the boy is his son. Together they escape to England to stay at desolate Charnwood Court.
Edward Savill, employed as an agent in London for a wealthy American, is informed that his estranged wife has been murdered in Paris. She has left behind Charles, a 10-year-old boy suffering from hysterical muteness. The boy cannot possibly be Savill’s, but he is still married to Charles’ mother and legally responsible for his welfare. Charles also has a half-sister, Lizzie, who is anxious to bring him home.
These conflicting interests clash to create an unrelentingly suspenseful tale. Savill, the wronged husband, is fiercely determined to provide for the boy; Fournier, the former lover, holds onto him as a talisman. Behind the scenes, political interests far more powerful than these two men pull the strings. Taylor has drawn such achingly real characters that the desire to rescue the boy is palpable. With characters reminiscent of Dickens, this tale creates a level of insecurity in the reader that mirrors Charles predicament.
Andrew Taylor is the author of several thrillers, including The Office of the Dead and The American Boy, both of which won Britain’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award, making Taylor the only author to receive the prize twice. With The Silent Boy he surely has another winner.
In his lifetime, Alexander von Humboldt was a superstar — a fearless adventurer, penniless aristocrat and brilliant polymath. He befriended and collaborated with many of his illustrious contemporaries, including Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was the personal hero of Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, and his work was the basis for their great achievements. But he is largely forgotten in the English-speaking world, despite lending his name to numerous places and even species. In her latest book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, author Andrea Wulf seeks to reestablish Humboldt’s celebrity and pay homage to his genius.
In keeping with a biography of a man whose curiosity knew no limits, Wulf’s take on Humboldt’s life is multi-faceted and includes detailed, interwoven narratives of the scientific fields his work impacted. She examines how his personal relationships, politics and ethics were formed and how he used his beliefs, in turn, to enact change in the turbulent world around him. Humboldt undertook two major expeditions — one to South America and another stretching across Southern Russia into the Mongolian steppes. The product of these voyages emerged as theories he developed about the interconnectedness of the natural systems that are the foundation of our understanding of biology today. His major work Cosmos can easily be seen as the precursor to the major documentary phenomena of 2006, Planet Earth. And yet Humboldt also famously brought a sense of wonder and poetry to his work that helped to form the Romantic and Transcendental movements in the arts. Reading about Humboldt’s remarkable achievements and the fantastic experiences of his journeys instill one with a sense of wonder and curiosity about what is outside.
This book has been released alongside a spate of literature on the natural world, including the 2015 edition of The Best of American Science and Nature Writing (edited by Rebecca Skloot), and many of these new titles will be make for good pairings alongside this denser read. The Curious Nature Guide and Cabinet of Curiosities will be particularly useful to any budding naturalists inspired to get out and explore the world around you, like Humboldt did.
Vulnerable, shimmering and desirable. Oh, to be a soul in David Mitchell's disturbing and fun new novel Slade House. Here horror meets plain old weirdness in a Faustian-like brew, stirred up by creepy twin siblings, Norah and Jonah Grayer. The two house residents must refuel in order to “live” out their immortal existence. But it's their energy of choice that is the stunner for those who enter their seductive property through their garden’s small iron black door.
Spanning 36 years starting in 1979, the story’s epicenter is the enigmatic haunted mansion that only appears once every nine years. One by one, Mitchell’s five “engifted” narrators are tricked by the twins into visiting the house, allured by a theatrical setting that conjures up images they want to believe in, images that make their lacking lives better. They end up in a precarious situation, trapped and doomed, while the unthinkable happens.
Mitchell, whose previous novels Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks received critical acclaim, started this latest work out of a series of tweets. It is a narrative that hints of larger life questions for which there are no answers. And while Mitchell deftly nods to his heftier previous works and the universe therein, it is not necessary to start there. In fact, Mitchell’s latest effort is a nimble and accessible stand-alone. It may be the perfect introduction to this author’s thought-provoking, imaginatively clever writing whose style blends mind-control and the supernatural with the essence of time, beguiling it might be. Mitchell fans have come to expect nothing less while newcomers will hopefully get what all the fuss is about.
Dealing with the loss of a parent is hard enough, but in Leza Lowitz’s Up from the Sea, teenager Kai must learn how to continue on after the loss of almost his entire world. March 11, 2011, should have been a normal day for Kai and his classmates; instead, it quickly turns into horrific tragedy as the students struggle to escape as their hometown is destroyed by the Tohoku earthquake and the resultant tsunami. In the course of a few hours, Kai goes from a normal student who loves soccer to one of the few survivors left alive to salvage what they can from the destruction.
The story then follows Kai through the next year as, angry and grief-stricken, he must come to terms with what has happened to him. This includes travelling to New York City to meet with young adults who lost their parents 10 years previous on September 11. Kai is encouraged to go as a way to heal and connect with others like him, but agrees only when he realizes he has a chance to find his estranged American father if he goes. But once in New York, Kai gains a greater understanding of how tragedy shapes us, and is inspired to reclaim his life.
Author Lowitz was living in Tokyo when the 2011 Tohoku earthquake struck Japan and took part in the volunteer relief efforts. While fictional, Up from the Sea is inspired by her experiences and by the survivor’s stories. Lowitz creates memorable images with very little description, allowing readers to share in both Kai’s grief and his burgeoning hope. Because it is a novel-in-verse, it’s a fairly fast and clear read, good for all kinds of readers. But that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of Kai’s journey from the dangers of the earthquake and tsunami to his struggles as he learns just how strong he can be.
Even though Kai’s loss is caused by an unexpected natural disaster, Kai’s personal journey is universal, one we all have or will have to face. Up from the Sea is ultimately a hopeful and encouraging story of humanity’s strength of will to persevere. Readers who enjoy this book may also enjoy Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira-Kira.
The most prestigious awards for teen and children's literature were announced by the American Library Association in Boston earlier this morning. Awards were given in a wide range of categories that covered all formats and age levels. A complete list of awards, winners and honorees can be found here.
The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. This year’s winner is Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear written by Lindsay Mattick and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Blackall's warm gouache-and-ink illustrations complement this story of the real bear who inspired the creation of the beloved Winnie-the-Pooh. Caldecott Honor winners include Trombone Shorty written by Troy Andrews and illustrated by Bryan Collier, Waiting written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement illustrated by Ekua Holmes and written by Carole Boston Weatherford and Last Stop on Market Street written by Matt de la Pena and illustrated by Christine Robinson.
The oldest of the medals awarded, the John Newbery Medal, is awarded to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. This year’s medal recipient is Matt de la Pena for Last Stop on Market Street, a picture book illustrated by Christine Robinson sharing the simple story of a young boy riding the bus with his grandmother and learning to find the beauty in everyday things. Three books were selected as Honor winners: The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson and Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan.
The Michael L. Printz Award annually honors the best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit. This year’s winner is Bone Gap by Laura Ruby. Ruby blends mystery, romance and magical realism and draws the reader into this place and the story of Finn, an eighteen-year-old outsider who is the only witness to an abduction. Printz Honor awards went to Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez and Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick.
The Coretta Scott King Awards are given to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values. Bryan Collier received the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for his vibrant mixed media collages which bring to life the story of author Troy Andrews who shares his childhood dream of becoming a musician. Rita Williams-Garcia, one of the authors selected for this year’s inaugural BCReads, was awarded the Coretta Scott King Author Award for Gone Crazy in Alabama, the final installment in the heartwarming Gaither family series that began with One Crazy Summer. Congratulations also to local author, Ronald L. Smith, author of Hoodoo, for winning the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award. Be sure to read more about our hometown winner in our interview with Smith earlier this year.
As the weather gets colder and the snow days start piling up, you may find yourself wondering what to do with your children now that they are stuck indoors more than usual. No need to sit them down in front of the television or computer — here are some great activity books for kids that are sure to alleviate their boredom and inspire their creativity.
The Curious Kid’s Science Book by Asia Citro encourages children to develop a scientific curiosity about the world around them. Citro points out that children are naturally inclined to ask questions about the way things work, making them “born scientists.” A science teacher herself, Citro reassures parents that the experiments in the book aren’t complicated and don’t need to be executed perfectly in order to have value — the main purpose of the experiments is to show kids how to use the scientific method and develop scientific skills. The book is divided into simple topics such as “plants and seeds,” “water and ice” and other concepts that introduce children to the basics of biology, chemistry, physics and even engineering. This book is great for parents of 4-7 year olds who want their children to start developing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills early in their education.
Do you have a budding chef or a young Martha Stewart on your hands? In Good Taste by Mari Bolte is filled with fun recipes that kids can put together and package with style to give as great holiday gifts. Bolte encourages kids to be creative with their presentation and packaging as that is often what makes a gift go from being ordinary to extraordinary. Some of the gifts include pickles in decorated mason jars, homemade marshmallows wrapped in colorful cellophane and ribbon and bouquets of fruit cut into decorative shapes. She also includes a section at the end where multiple gifts from the book can be combined into themed gift baskets. This book is best for slightly older children in middle grades with an aptitude for cooking and an eye for aesthetic appeal.
For parents whose children are more interested in arts and crafts, Paper Mania by Amanda Formaro has a variety of projects for kids of all ages and skill levels. The projects include everything paper: from simple paper airplanes to magazine collages and mosaics, from toilet paper tube marble racetracks to papier-mâché masks and decoupage. Children will develop their skills with cutting, weaving, pasting, measuring, folding, coloring and more. Formaro is a mother and blogger who has been crafting with children for years. Her blog, CraftsbyAmanda.com, includes projects for both adults and kids — so parents can join in on the crafting fun too!
Yo-Kai Watch is poised to become the next Pokemon! The Nintendo 3DS game about tracking and befriending cute little Japanese folklore-inspired ghosts has landed stateside and brought with it an anime show and a manga series. Kids everywhere can get their Yo-Kai fill no matter their preferred medium.
In the first volume of the manga, Yo-Kai Watch hero Nate Adams — an ordinary elementary school student — is on his way home one afternoon when he happens across a capsule machine made of stone. To Nate’s surprise, the machine still works and grants him a stone capsule. At first he feels slightly underwhelmed by the rock, but then it goes nuts and poofs out a floaty, unibrowed, blue Yo-Kai called Whisper.
Whisper is super grateful for being freed and pledges to serve Nate as his personal butler. He even gifts Nate a swanky watch...a Yo-Kai watch! The watch emits a special light that reveals the otherwise invisible Yo-Kai to its wearer, which Nate quickly realizes makes him his look like a crazy kid as he converses with his invisible familiar in front of his friends and family.
It’s for the greater good, though. Each chapter pits Nate and Whisper against a mischievous Yo-Kai hounding people around town. First is Jibanyan, a fiery two-tailed cat who vows to get revenge on the car that ran him over. Then there’s Happierre and Dismarelda, two bulbous spirits who alter the moods of everyone and everything around them but balance one another quite perfectly. Next comes Mochismo, an animated rice cake who haunts a child who never finishes his rice cakes whenever he’s treated to them. That’s not even all of the Yo-Kai Nate meets in volume one — they’re everywhere!
Children who know and love every last Pokemon or teens who grew up with the critters should definitely check out Yo-Kai Watch.