A hound who has gone mute because he was chained outside with no shelter. A Lab-pit mix who is afraid of sticks. A Rottweiler who was dumped from a moving car and chased it as it sped away. A deaf dog who was given up by her owners when a new baby arrived. A Scottie who was left behind in an abandoned apartment when the owners were evicted. A young woman who has left behind a troubled past and is determined to start anew. These are the colorful characters who make up Ellen Cooney’s The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances.
When Evie sees an online ad for becoming a dog trainer, she sees it as an opportunity to reinvent herself. She heads to The Sanctuary, an isolated mountaintop shelter where dedicated volunteers take on the most tragic cases of dog neglect and abuse; there the animals are trained for potential adoption, or in some cases, trained for jobs at the shelter itself. It is readily apparent that the dogs are not the only damaged ones: Staff members, like the authoritarian innkeeper Mrs. Auberchon and the gentle teenager Giant George, suffer from problems in their pasts.
The narration of the novel switches from omniscience to Evie’s point-of-view, where the reader is treated to her extensive notes and new glossary for training terms. Items on her list include words like “Patience. Working on it” to “Real. You cannot be fake with dogs.” As Evie makes mistakes and processes them through her glossary, we root for her to come into her own as both a trainer and a person.
At the heart of this story is the idea that we humans are not so different from the dogs we love: We all want to be praised for a job well-done, we all want to belong to a pack and we all want to be loved. Dog-lovers who barked for fiction like A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron or nonfiction titles like Jim Gorant’s The Lost Dogs or Oogy by Larry Levin will find The Mountaintop School for Dogs a wonderful warm “tail” of redemption and perseverance.
At turns hilarious and poignant, Sisters marks Raina Telgemeier’s latest autobiographical graphic novel reminiscence of her childhood and adolescence. This family story is a companion of sorts to her earlier Eisner Award-winning Smile. The events of a fateful summer of her early adolescence are clearly depicted in episodic arcs which show the early days of two young artists. As the book opens, Raina, her younger sister Amara, and little brother Will are packing camping supplies with their mom as they travel from San Francisco to a family reunion in Colorado. This road trip doesn’t go quite as planned, of course, and the journey plainly displays a long-seething sibling rivalry between the two girls. In flashbacks, Raina’s initial desire for a baby sister quickly turns sour when Amara’s personality doesn’t match Raina’s expectations.
And there are other issues at play here as well – Raina’s father has been laid off from his job, and her parents’ relationship suffers because of it. A string of ill-conceived pet adoptions, culminating in a snake escape, adds another wrinkle of tension among the family members. But the concerns are limited compared to the amusing situations Raina finds herself in. Telgemeier’s signature vibrant line-drawings are deceptively simple, and her characters are portrayed with expressive detail. The full-color illustrations make for an appealing package which is easy to follow, given the non-linear chronology. Readers can easily empathize with the Telgemeier family and their frustrations and triumphs. Sisters is a quick, pleasurable read, and the book will become a sure-bet for siblings dealing with conflict.
Everything changed for Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, when he sold his services to Mab, Queen of the Fairies, to save his daughter. He's been not quite dead, trapped in Fairy politics and sent on a wide variety of suicide missions. That was the easy part. Nicodemus, Knight of the Blackened Denarius and one of the cruelest enemies Dresden has ever faced is back in town, planning a major heist. And Harry's stuck working for him.
By turns Skin Game by Jim Butcher is a ripping heist novel, a hilariously goofy urban fantasy, with enough touching moments to give real weight. Butcher has won the ability to write gripping, fun and magical crime novels, and he's fought for that ability in this very series. It's not recommended to start with Skin Game if you're going to read the Dresden Files series because too much of the book is dependent on things that have come before. I don't recommend beginning at the first book either, because Butcher didn't really find his footing until the third. Start with the third book, Grave Peril, because the Dresden Files are a journey. Characters grow, wrestle with themselves, face up to things they don't want to deal with. There's a whole lot Dresden doesn't want to deal with, from dragging his friends into danger to stronger and stronger deals with dangerous and inhuman powers. Life has a tendency to get a whole lot bigger than the people living in the Dresdenverse.
If this were a movie, it would be a summer tent pole, a certified blockbuster. It has huge, explosive action, romance, comedy, true love, and cute animals. There are double and triple crosses and rivalries that zoom along. It would be better than anything you're going to see in the theater this year. But it gets even better if you haven't read the rest of the Dresden Files, because now you have an entire book series that's better than anything you're going to see in the theater, and it's still building up to even bigger things.
From panda parents to tiger moms and wolf dads, prescription parenthood has gained a toehold in our culture. And it’s little wonder. In a world of increasingly global competition, it’s understandable that today’s parents question whether the way they were raised is an effective model for the next generation.
Some authors have sought to capitalize on this cultural anxiety, confirming fears of parental inadequacy and boldly prescribing a veritable menagerie of methods for ensuring the success of our children. Perhaps the most controversial of these is Amy Chua, who’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which outlined what she termed “Chinese parenting,” caused a stir across the country.
Now, in The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American Kids, Quanyu Huang presents a gentler, less abrasive analysis of the differences between Chinese and American parenting.
As a product of Chinese education and culture himself as well as the parent of a child raised in America, Huang presents a uniquely balanced perspective on the subject. Acknowledging the undeniable academic success of Asian and Asian-American children, he also draws attention to the post-academic success of many adult products of the American experience, who seem to “catch up” in the college years. Instead of ascribing to an either/or model, Huang advocates “co-core synergy education;” a compromise between the Asian style of parenting and the American.
Huang’s premise is an interesting one and bears reflection. If The Hybrid Tiger has one flaw, it is that the text occasionally suffers in its execution, feeling at times a little awkward. Huang’s samples of questions from Chinese/American parents feel a little forced and seem to function as a platform for his own interpretation of what these parents should be asking rather than as actual examples of questions he’s encountered from either set. Nevertheless, the overall message is a unifying and commonsensical one emphasizing parental involvement in academic discipline without sacrificing socialization and creativity.
Readers who enjoy The Hybrid Tiger may also enjoy The Dolphin Way: A Parent's Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy and Motivated Kids–Without Turning into a Tiger by Shimi Kang.
Amidst the commotion of V-J Day, 8-year-old Wally Baker is enjoying the sights and sounds of a joyous Brooklyn celebrating the end of the tumultuous war; shopkeepers are handing out candy and toys, school friends are marching with tiny flags attached to pencils, and everyone is smiling, laughing and dancing in the streets. Wally’s mother, Stella, is stoically guiding her to her grandmother’s house among the boisterous throng of people, and Wally wishes to be a part of the party. What Wally doesn’t know is that this day, one that changed the lives of so many, will change her life and that of her family forever.
Elizabeth Gaffney’s When the World Was Young is a novel of war and its aftermath: both in wars fought overseas and by the intimate secrets that divide a family and people from themselves. Each character–from Loretta, the housekeeper who is more like a second mother to Wally (without receiving the acknowledgement that she is), to Ham, Loretta’s son, to the Baker family’s odd boarder Mr. Niederman–has something to hide, and finds war-time to be the perfect cover-up. “How many other sins and secrets had been papered over by the war?” wonders Mr. Niederman. But after the war, how can those sins and secrets stay hidden?
Ultimately, the novel is Wally’s story. We follow her from an 8-year-old girl obsessed with entomology to a young woman who hasn’t quite left her childish outlook behind, even as both her world and the world at large have changed over time. Sexism, racism, family crisis, suicide and other injustices shape her character, and she walks the line between being pitied and admired. Readers who are looking for a novel of definitive time and place will love the descriptions of post-WWII Brooklyn brownstones. Fans of multi-layered character novels and historical fiction, like those of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Penny Vicenzi, will welcome this new novel.
Tessa Harris’ fourth entry in the Dr. Thomas Silkstone mysteries examines the ethics of scientific research and the tenuous laws governing slavery in Georgian England.
It is 1783, and for most doctors in England, bloodletting is still the preferred treatment. Philadelphia-born Thomas Silkstone is a gifted anatomist and physician whose modern treatments prove controversial. Considered a rebel and an upstart, he is welcomed by some and vilified by others. Highly respected by more progressive scientists, Thomas has been chosen by the president of the Royal College to identify and catalog almost 200 different species of Caribbean plants which may contain unusual life-saving properties. The scientists involved in the expedition have died during the voyage and their notes have disappeared. This greatly complicates Thomas’ daunting task.
Examining the exotic plants introduces a whole new world to Thomas; at once fascinating and repellant. The Caribbean is the home of some of the most brutal slave plantations on earth. Called upon to treat a slave-owning planter visiting London, Thomas discovers a dark world of fear, exploitation and magic. Has an ancient ritual brought about the mistresses’ mysterious illness, or is there a medical explanation? Is it possible to bring the dead back to life, or is it mere trickery and deceit? As Thomas ponders these questions, he discovers that the eminent anatomist Hubert Izzard is suddenly obtaining an abundance of fresh corpses to dissect. In Georgian England, no person of decent family would turn over their loved one’s body for dissection. Then, Thomas learns that all of these corpses are the bodies of African slaves. Suspecting foul play, Thomas is determined to unearth the truth and achieve justice for the most vulnerable victims of all.
Tessa Harris has created a thoroughly researched work which brings to light a little-known aspect of English history and law. This complex tale of ambition and greed is capped by an unexpected ending. The Lazarus Curse is sure to please fans of Imogene Robertson’s Gabriel Crowther and Alex Grecian’s Dr. Bernard Kingsley.
One of the most anticipated debut novels this fall is The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith. The novel centers on a family living in a small coastal town in North Carolina at the end of the 18th century. Anita Shreve praises the novel, saying that it will give readers “several hours of pure pleasure and a rare glimpse of grace in a fictional world.”
Smith recently answered some questions for Between the Covers readers about The Story of Land and Sea and the fascinating inspiration for her novel.
Between the Covers: What inspired you to write The Story of Land and Sea?
Katy Simpson Smith: The germ of the story came from a trip I took to Beaufort when I was living in North Carolina. It’s a beautiful historic town [with] a graveyard chock full of interesting stories. One of the graves that most arrested me had a marker that read “Little Girl Buried in Rum Keg”—no name, no date. Imagining this girl’s life led me to all the other characters in the novel.
BTC: Will you tell us a little bit about the research that went into creating this story?
KSS: I have a background in history and particularly studied the late 18th century when I was writing my dissertation in graduate school. For that project, I read so many letters and diaries and record books that the language of the time period became an almost natural rhythm in my head. That’s, of course, the hardest leap—trying to imagine not just what these people ate and wore but how they formed their ideas. But I also had to research all the small things, too: the various parts of a ship, the stages of yellow fever, the movements of the Continental Army. This is probably one of the most enjoyable parts of writing for me.
BTC: Parent-child relationships play an important part in the novel. What do you think it is about that relationship that makes it so compelling even though it’s such a common theme in fiction?
KSS: I think families are something every one of us can relate to; we’re all born into them, for better or worse, and the presence or absence of parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. can shape how we respond to our environments. Family is the lens through which we interpret what happens to us. The interactions between parents and children are so various and weighted with meaning that we could write fiction for another thousand years and never exhaust the subject.
BTC: You have earned a Ph.D. in history as well as a MFA, so writing a historical novel seems like the perfect way to combine your interests. Did you always want to write fiction?
KSS: I’ve been writing since I was tiny! Stories about fairies, stories about little girls with a dozen siblings, mawkish poems. I think it just took me many years to realize that making up stories could be more than a secret passion. Taking that first step from history to fiction was remarkably scary, but it turns out that doing what you love really is the best feeling in the world.
BTC: The Story of Land and Sea is your debut novel. What has been the most exciting thing about the publishing process? Has anything surprised you?
KSS: Everything has been pretty exciting, but I think I was giddiest when I flew to New York to meet with editors. Not only did I get to walk around New York, feeling like an awestruck country mouse, but I discovered that all these big-time publishing people aren’t scary at all—they’re simply regular people who love books an awful lot, just like me. As for what’s been surprising, again, it’s kind of everything! I hope one day that I’m an old hand at all this, but I can guarantee it’s going to take a long time for the novelty to wear off.
BTC: What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
KSS: I’m actually working now on my second novel, which is also historical and set in the South. It’s been good to have a project to bury my head in during the craziness of the publishing process!
Cole is a top-ranked student whose main focus throughout high school has been getting into an Ivy League school. But he’s been distracted lately ever since girlfriend Winnie dumped him for jock Josh. As Josh and his band of morons continue their routine harassment and Winnie only looks at him with scorn, Cole’s best friend Gavin convinces him to exact revenge. Wickedpedia by Chris Van Etten is the terrifying story of what happens when online retaliation goes horribly awry.
Following success pegging Josh as a plagiarizer and getting him kicked off the soccer team, Gavin and Cole set their sights even higher. The duo create Wikipedia pages for Josh, Winnie and the rest of their cronies with the intent of ruining their lives. Josh is first and his page is filled with crazy lies capped with the gruesome details of his death. When Josh dies in a freak accident identical to that imagined by Gavin and Cole, the pair drop any future Wikipedia fun and games. But why are articles about classmates’ grisly deaths still being created? And more importantly, who is making them come true?
When Cole finds a Wikipedia page created for him which includes a date of death, he knows he has one week to find the murderer’s identity or his fate will be the same as his classmates. This fast-paced, suspenseful tale reads like a good horror movie, but it's not for the squeamish. Wickedpedia marks the return of the popular Point Horror series with a focus on online misdeeds. Other titles include DeFriended, Identity Theft and Followers. These contemporary creep-fests are perfect for fans of R.L. Stine and Caroline Cooney.
Matthew Thomas is a New Jersey high school English teacher who has spent the past decade writing his first novel We Are Not Ourselves. A labor of love well worth the effort, his debut is being heralded as the next major American novel.
The story begins in the early 1950s with Eileen Tumulty, the American daughter of two Irish immigrants. Eileen’s hard-working, barroom-preaching father is trying his damnedest to provide while shunning racetrack bookies. Her mother, reeling from a miscarriage, spends her days drinking herself into a quiet stupor to quell the pain. Eileen is left without anything to call her own, and vows to become empowered and successful as she grows up. We Are Not Ourselves is Eileen’s story as she searches for the American Dream in New York City.
After college, Eileen takes a well-paying job in a city hospital and marries Ed Leary. Ed is a scientist and professor at a community college whose dedication to academic integrity keeps him in the classroom and out of the Dean's office, where Eileen wishes he would be. After months of failed conception, Eileen and Ed are graced with Connell, who grows up pudgy and struggles with body image issues amongst his classmates. Against Ed’s wishes, Eileen decides to move the family out of their comfortable apartment in Jackson Heights and into a large, dilapidated house in the upper-middle class suburbs. She hopes that tasking Connell and Ed with evening home improvements will help bring the family closer, but Connell is preoccupied with developing renown at his new school and Ed is seemingly inundated with his studies. While Eileen achieves her childhood goal of working domesticity, the Learys are not nearly as cohesive as she wishes. Her efforts to bring them together only cause more tension, which, when combined with the everyday tribulations they experience in their personal lives, stress everyone into a state of crisis.
Thomas asks in We Are Not Ourselves if it still counts as the American Dream when it comes with so many hitches and broken promises, and he does so through an incredibly well-developed cast of characters and with beautiful, insightful prose. Contemporary fiction enthusiasts and readers who enjoy deep characterization should not miss this wonderful debut.
Anthony Breznican, senior staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, is trying his hand at fiction writing with his debut novel Brutal Youth. This omniscient view of a parochial high school demonstrates how vicious adolescence can be, and what lengths people will go to hide their secrets.
In a parochial school where sins are so pervasive that they fill the halls, the students just try to make it through the day while administrators work to save the school for another year. On Davidek and Stein’s introductory visit to St. Michael's, the halls are so full of tension that a student snaps and begins throwing objects at other students while fortified on the roof. It’s Davidek and Stein’s quick thinking that allows them to save a fallen student and, due to their efforts, they’re bonded in friendship.
Despite their abysmal first impression of the school, both students find themselves enrolled for their freshman year. The novel follows their first year of high school from freshman hazing to dysfunctional families and even relationship woes. An omniscient narrator is able to show how anxieties trickle down in the school from administrative setbacks to pressure on teachers who let off steam by cracking down on students who then turn on the freshmen.
This bold debut takes an interesting look at a subject that’s all too relevant in today’s society where bullying runs rampant. The setting of a parochial school is a thought provoking choice as well because expectations are different for public school versus religious establishments. However, the reader will quickly discover there’s not a whole lot of difference other than the dress code and course offerings.