When A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo opens, the main character, Michael, is an old man trying to discover the place in Belgium where his grandfather died during World War I. As he wanders the peaceful countryside where a battle once raged, he thinks back to his childhood in London and the events that led him to this spot.
Called “Poodle” by his classmates due to his curly hair and his French mother, Michael quickly discovers ways to deal with the taunts and prejudices that he encounters throughout his childhood.
Although his father died when Michael was a baby, his mother stays in touch with his father’s family, which consists of two rather eccentric, elderly aunts. Michael wonders about his father and wants to know more about him, but no one is willing to tell him much. However, one day, Michael receives a package from one of the aunts that contains a small notebook that reveals secrets about his father and grandfather that he could have never imagined.
Morpurgo is a masterful storyteller whose past work includes the best-seller War Horse, and he is at his best when writing historical fiction. His plot for A Medal for Leroy is loosely based on the life of Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British Army. This book is a rare one for me: Not only was it suspenseful and poignant, but I could not put it down, and I read it in one sitting.
Easter Quillby is a caregiver despite her tender age of 12. She takes care of her little sister Ruby as well as her pill-addicted mother, who mostly wanders around in a fog when she’s not passed out. Brady Weller is a disgraced ex-police detective who works for his ex-brother-in-law installing home security systems. Mostly alienated from his ex-wife and daughter, Weller volunteers as a court-appointed guardian ad litem. Finally, meet Pruitt: He’s a bodybuilding, former minor league baseball player recently released from prison, and he’s also a facially disfigured psychotic contract killer. (Is there any other kind?) Easter, Brady and Pruitt take turns narrating author Wiley Cash’s new novel, This Dark Road to Mercy.
Easter and Ruby end up in a children’s group home after their mother dies from an overdose. Weller is assigned to look after the girls’ interests. Easter’s master plan for life, which is college and a career as an FBI agent all the while raising her sister, is at risk when she overhears her foster mother discussing the sisters’ maternal grandparents’ plan to move the girls to Alaska to live with them. When Wade, the girls’ sad sack estranged father, himself a washed-out pitcher, shows up in the middle of the night toting a gym bag filled with ill-gotten gains, Easter impulsively grabs her sister and they take off with not-so-dear-old Dad ... only to find that Weller, Pruitt and the FBI are all in hot pursuit.
Set against the backdrop of the 1998 Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire race to break Roger Maris’ home run record, Cash explores the unbreakable ties of family and the sins from the past, just as he did in his first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home. Easter’s voice is especially engaging as she tells her story with a clear-eyed realism. This Dark Road to Mercy will leave the reader rooting for the Quillby sisters and hoping for a grand slam ending.
Maisie’s middle name is Danger because her parents thought it would be funny, but she embraces her middle name when she goes on the adventure of her life. Dangerous, a new novel by award-winning author Shannon Hale, is fraught with adventure and gripping storylines, a combination that makes it hard to put down.
Maisie has always dreamed of becoming an astronaut, and even though she’s never heard of a one-armed astronaut, she’s not going to let that stop her from trying. It’s no surprise that when she spots a contest for astronaut camp on a box of cereal she enters immediately, but winning the contest changes her life more drastically than she could have ever anticipated.
After arriving at astronaut camp, Maisie is assigned a fire team to work with. Her team excels, and because it finishes in the top spot, it is given an opportunity to visit a launch site owned by the sponsors. Upon arriving, each member of her team is unexpectedly given a token beyond anything from this world, and it’s a gift they can’t give back.
With these tokens comes a new sense of purpose and responsibility. The group must learn how to use its gifts and work together to accomplish a common goal. The goal is at first ambiguous, causing the fire team to slowly weaken as a group and its members to go their own way. However, the team leader must learn how to reunite the group in an effort to have a positive global impact.
“Give me your tired, your poor…” beckons the Statue of Liberty, its words a siren call to immigrants with an implied promise of the American Dream. The idea is that, in the United States, anyone can succeed through hard work regardless of the circumstances of their birth and background. But is the deck stacked? Amy Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, analyze this notion in their new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.
Chua and Rubenfeld are not looking at what makes individuals succeed but rather the overall success of cultural groups defined by religion, ethnicity or country of origin. Chua is no stranger to evaluating success; her previous book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, examines the child-rearing customs of Asian immigrants, which are at great odds with western notions of parenting but often result in astoundingly high-achieving children. In The Triple Package, the authors review at least eight distinct and seemingly disparate groups that have attained great and disproportionate financial success. Successful groups studied include Mormons, Nigerians, Persians and Cubans. The three traits shared by all the groups are a collective belief in their own group superiority, a contradictory feeling of insecurity resulting in the need to prove oneself and a well-regulated impulse control. Group members influenced by this trait trifecta are well equipped to run – and win – in the rat race.
Chua’s Tiger Mother attracted critics appalled by Chua’s mothering techniques, and The Triple Package is drawing controversy for what some readers see as the espousal of alarmingly elitist social theory. Chua and Rubenfeld do acknowledge a darker side to the package that can feature anxiety, depression and bigotry. The Triple Package provides an alternative slant on achievement in America.
Baltimore’s Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte was known as the most beautiful woman in the United States. Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother, was more interested in women than war games. The pair fell madly in love, and in so doing, changed their destinies and affected international diplomacy. Carol Berkin shares the story of this remarkable woman in Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte.
Born in Baltimore in 1785, Betsy was the eldest child of William Patterson and Dorcas Spear Patterson. Betsy’s beauty was renowned and coupled with her intelligence, wit and independence, it made her one of the most sought-after women in America. She refused marriage proposals from wealthy, powerful men, writing to her father, "Nature never intended me for obscurity." Her 1803 marriage to Jerome ensured her place in the spotlight and in history. Her father’s opposition to this union paled in comparison to Napoleon’s livid reaction. When the couple traveled from Baltimore to France, Napoleon banned the then-pregnant Betsy from disembarking in any European port. Napoleon also gave Jerome an ultimatum: Stay married to Betsy and get nothing, or marry a woman of Napoleon’s choice and enjoy wealth and power. Jerome ended the marriage in 1805 and was made king of Westphalia.
England welcomed the sensational Betsy with open arms, and it was there that she gave birth to her son and only child. She spent the rest of her life traveling between Baltimore and England and grew to admire the refined English society and despise America’s obsession with commerce. Despite her disdain for her country’s moneymaking mania, she fought for and received a pension from Napoleon that she invested, ultimately amassing a great fortune. Using Betsy’s letters, Berkin goes behind the tabloid-esque story and creates a portrait of an independent woman struggling to find her place in a changing world.
The Maryland Historical Society’s exhibit "Woman of Two Worlds:" Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy” brings to life the two worlds that Betsy inhabited and showcases her jewels, silver, furniture, paintings and much more, including one of her scandalous gowns.
Ishmael Beah writes as though he is guided by a kaleidoscope of imagery. The old man's hair was not gray; it was the "color of stagnant clouds." Such is the pleasure of reading this Sierra Leone-born author, who recently published his first novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, about the aftermath of civil war in his home country. The book, part fable/part allegory, is really several individuals’ stories set in the village of Imperi. It is about the redemptive nature of those who have suffered heartbreak few can imagine and the human need to renew, rebuild and rejuvenate.
Imperi is a devastated, desolate place since the war. Villagers are now making their way back, past the rows of human skulls that line their path. They bring with them memories. They bring physical scars as well, like those borne by Sila and his two children, whose hands were cut off by a 16-year-old boy soldier now living among them. They crave a return to the old ways, like Bockarie and Benjamin, two teachers at the center of the story who find it difficult to inspire students when conditions are so poor. Fortunately, there are storytellers, like the elder Mama Kadie, whose evening tales swaddle those listening in the tentative celebration of tomorrow. As more villagers return, we learn of their pasts. Insidious corruption from both within and outside of the government complicates matters.
Beah, a former child soldier who wrote about his experiences in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, was influenced by the tradition of oral storytelling as a young boy. "I bring a lot of that oral tradition to my writing and I try to let it seep into the words." His evocative narrative, conveyed in the third person, borrows from his native Mende as well as other languages. It is lyrical prose that invites readers to slow down and drift into a world Beah knows all too well.
Photographer Rebecca Winter became a feminist icon, celebrated artist and a wealthy woman thanks to her “Kitchen Counter” collection of domestic photographs. In Still Life with Bread Crumbs (also the name of Rebecca’s most famous photograph), Anna Quindlen confronts the challenges involved with aging – financial decline, parental infirmities, career relevance and love.
Rebecca, now 60 years old and long-divorced, is dealing with dwindling finances, supporting her elderly parents and supplementing her grown son’s income. These obligations are coupled with a drastic reduction in income and force her to sublet her cherished Manhattan apartment and rent a small country cabin in a town where everyone soon knows her name. Almost immediately, she is faced with decidedly nonurban issues such as raccoons in the attic and a lack of power outlets. Local roofer Jim Bates offers assistance with her home and also secures her a paying gig photographing birds. When not sitting in a tree stand with Jim, Rebecca embraces the nature around her and slowly feels her creative spark returning.
Quindlen’s nonlinear narrative infuses Rebecca’s tale with a fresh pace as the depth of her story is uncovered layer by layer. Her past has shaped the woman she is today and the reader gets glimpses of key events that had a profound impact on her evolution. In moving to the country, she has physically distanced herself from friends and family and embarks on a soul-searching journey. While she may no longer be the same woman who snapped those famous photographs, she is still vibrant and willing to embrace second chances. Quindlen once again delivers with this beautifully written, insightful novel of one woman embarking on a new phase of life filled with professional rejuvenation and unexpected love.
Walk down the toy aisles at your local store and you will see that the aisles are divided into two categories. The aisles with shelves lined in pink that contain the soft, sweet, nurturing toys are obviously marketed toward girls. Those blue shelves with the rough-and-tumble, mechanical looking toys built for speed and smashing things, well, that’s where the boys should shop. But what if your child doesn’t conform to society’s gender norms? Then perhaps you may enjoy Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman, illustrated by Chris Case.
Jacob loves to play dress-up at school with his best friend, Emily. Although most boys in his class want to dress as a knight, fireman or dragon, Jacob is much happier when he puts on a pretty dress and imagines that he is a princess. Even though he is being teased by some of his classmates, Jacob musters up the courage to ask his mom if he can wear a regular dress, not just a playtime dress, to school. While his parents don’t immediately embrace the idea, Jacob’s mom helps him sew a dress to wear to school. With the support of his parents (“Well, it’s not what I would wear, but you look great” – Jacob’s Father) and his teacher (“I think Jacob wears what he’s comfortable in. Just like you do. Not very long ago little girls couldn’t wear pants. Can you imagine that?”), Jacob shows everyone that there is more than one way to be a boy.
Case’s soft, moving illustrations help set the mood of the story while the Hoffmans’ text conveys far more than a singular lesson. This story is great for teaching children about diversity, acceptance and self-confidence. The authors’ note at the end of the book helps to explain how all adults who play a role in raising, nurturing and educating children can make a difference in the lives of those children who do not conform to typical gender roles.
A heavily and densely woven debut novel by author Laura McHugh, The Weight of Blood oozes mystery, secrets and pain like a long-festering wound. Told primarily from the perspective of Lila, a young mother burdened by her past, the story is paralleled by Lila’s now 17-year-old daughter Lucy’s story. Lila disappeared when Lucy was just a baby, and she always wondered what really happened the day her mother was last seen holding a gun and heading toward a cave deep in the Ozark Mountains. When Lucy’s childhood friend, Sheri, disappears and is found dismembered a year later, old secrets and suspicions begin to surface as Lucy works to uncover the truth.
Lucy lives with her father who is often away for days at a time working out of town. Even when he returns home he is still only half there, the other half still consumed by the pain of losing his young wife so many years ago. Lucy has an intimate support network of pseudo-family members, her mother’s once-best-friend and her daughter, a grandmotherly figure who lives nearby in the woods and her father’s brother Crete who is fiercely protective of Lucy, treating her like his own daughter.
In a small town, where heritage is held to the highest of standards and outsiders are always kept at arm’s length, there are no limits to what someone will do for the sake of family. The events that unravel through Lila’s and later into Lucy’s stories attest to the lengths one will go for family.
Tedd Arnold, author and illustrator of The New York Times bestselling Fly Guy series, has come out with a new book, Fix This Mess! In this new beginning reader, Arnold plays with words and the importance of meaning what you say.
Jake orders a robug through the mail that he intends to use to clean his filthy mess of a house. When he asks the robug to “Fix this mess,” the robug proceeds to move one mess to another area. This makes Jake frustrated. Will Jake ever get the robug to fix the mess? Well, not unless he changes his tactic.
Jake isn’t the only messy dog in town. Bad Dog, by award winning author and illustrator David McPhail, is a realistic fiction work about another messy dog, but unlike Jake, this one doesn’t have opposable thumbs to help clean his own messes.
Bad Dog is a beginning reader about a little boy with a bad dog named Tom. Tom does everything from destroying the family’s TV to digging through the garbage. One day, the boy’s parents get so fed up that they are ready to find Tom a new home, but then an unexpected event changes their perspective, at least for the time being.
While Arnold uses bright and busy illustrations, McPhail utilizes more subtle hues and contained illustrations. Both of these books have just one or two sentences to a page, making them great books for your beginning reader.