Few writers can jump from one form of media to another and still produce award-winning work, but with his 2013 Hugo Award winning series Saga, Brian K. Vaughan has proven he is one of those rare writing talents. Vaughan is no stranger to accolades; his previous comic book series, Y: the Last Man and Ex Machina, not only won awards but were both optioned for films. His heart-wrenching graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad, looks at the non-human consequences of war.
Vaughan, who has been writing for TV shows like Lost and Under the Dome, and artist Fiona Staples have created a family drama that is half Romeo and Juliet and half Firefly. Saga, Vol. 1 is the tale of two worlds and two species at war. In the midst of the conflict, a man and a woman from opposing sides meet and fall -- slowly and painfully -- in love. They escape their families and their worlds and have a child together. That’s when things get interesting for them. Neither side in the conflict likes what their love and their child represent and make the elimination of the trio a priority.
Saga, Vol. 1 is full of interesting worlds and species, like a slew of bounty hunters out for blood and cash. If the story sounds vaguely familiar, it is given fresh life by Vaughan’s writing and Staples’ art. Vaughan is known for his snappy and often funny dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in a Joss Whedon film. A great deal of the charm of the series is the characters and their interactions, which always come off fresh and, well, human. The first volume follows the initial pursuit and escape.
Vaughan has again found a way to take an unusual concept and tell an incredible story.
Saga is for mature audiences only, due to violence, language and adult situations.
Witnesses. Accomplices. Killers. One thing is clear from Wendy Lower’s chilling new book Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. Regardless of the prism through which German women viewed the Third Reich’s maddening quest for racial purity few escape Lower’s dogged search for the answer to “why?” Why did this “darkest side of female activism” rear its head and consume a generation of women that found themselves thrust into a war they did not want but nonetheless embraced for their own selfishness and ambition.
For the thousands of women coming of age in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the dividing line between home front and battlefront was practically nonexistent. While most women found ways to distance themselves from the violence of the war, a third of the female population was actively engaged in a Nazi Party organization. Many volunteered to be sent to the Eastern Front where some of the worst atrocities against Jews were documented. Clerical, teaching and nursing jobs became the sinister underpinnings of the Nazi machine, where new career tracks beckoned young women seeking a steady paycheck. How these women, some barely out of their teens, others young mothers, evolved into indifferent bystanders or cold-blooded killers, is the thrust of Lower's dramatic account.
Lower sorts her 13 "main characters" into three categories: witnesses, accomplices and killers. It is the latter perpetrators of genocide that evoke the most study. Women like Johanna Altvater, a secretary who lures Jewish children with candy only to shoot them, or Liesel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander who shoots Jewish slave workers from her balcony with her child in tow, are impossible to fathom. Lower, who is a Holocaust historian, explores shocking behaviors like these in this 68-year-old story of one of the most disturbing puzzles of women's behavior. Hitler's Furies has recently been named a finalist for the National Book Award.
Sir Sidney runs a very unusual circus. Children are admitted free, everyone is given complimentary popcorn and lemonade, and he manages to keep his ticket prices to $1 for adults. While this may seem like an odd business model to adults, children will be delighted by The Show Must Go On!, the first book in the Three-Ring Rascals series by Kate Klise. Klise and her sister M. Sarah Klise, who draws the whimsical illustrations, have collaborated on other children’s books including Letters from Camp and Regarding the Fountain and their teamwork makes for a fast-paced story with plenty of pictures.
Sir Sidney loves his circus, but he decides he needs to take a break and advertises for someone to take over for him. Enter Barnabas Brambles, a somewhat shady character who presents his certificate from the University of Piccadilly Circus in London, England to prove he is a “certified lion tamer.” The wary Sir Sidney decides to let Brambles take over the circus for a week on a trial basis. Soon it becomes apparent that Brambles is up to no good, and the plucky performers must act quickly to save their beloved circus. Children who love animals and circuses will find plenty to like, even adults will enjoy the silly humor that is a trademark of the Klise sisters.
Marta has stopped taking her pills. After years of following a routine the way her husband and mother-in-law expect her to, she wants to do something differently and see what happens. She desperately misses her adult son who recently announced his engagement and fears losing him forever. Emma Chapman’s debut novel, How to Be a Good Wife, sends readers down a path of uncertainty where every move Marta makes leads to more questions and even less answers. When her husband dispenses her medication to her, she hides them underneath her tongue, then sneaks them into a grate in the floor. Her days become strange as she frequently finds herself in rooms she doesn’t remember entering, feeling as if she has lost pockets of time and seeing a young, dirty, blonde girl named Elise who seems very, very real. When it appears as if Marta has attempted to abduct a little girl in broad daylight, her family has her committed to a psychiatric facility.
Chapman’s story is unnerving and readers are just as in the dark as Marta. As tiny sprinkles of light begin to open up the secrets of her hazy past, the possible truth of how she came to be Mrs. Marta Bjornstad is shockingly incomprehensible.
Dogs have become ubiquitous in American society. Their physical abilities and emotional connections with humans have been studied and marveled about for generations, no more so than today. Rebecca Ascher-Walsh has now compiled a collection of short vignettes celebrating the human-canine connection in Devoted: 38 Extraordinary Tales of Love, Loyalty and Life with Dogs. Handsomely illustrated with candid photographs of the dogs and the humans with whom they share their lives, this is a perfect book to dip in and out of as time permits.
While some of the two- to four-page stories are, perhaps, more “extraordinary” than others, it is likely that readers will find themselves smiling, tearing up or both as the connection between dog and man is recounted. Some of the amazing stories include dogs that have bravely served the military both in the theatre of war and with veterans back on the home front. Other pieces involve therapy dogs, including those that serve as lifesaving alarms for people who suffer from blood sugar fluctuations and those dogs who provide comfort to humans dealing with mental or emotional trauma. Still more feature canines that have come to the rescue in crisis situations, sometimes almost unbelievably, saving their human companions through intelligence and will.
Short blurbs about the breed of dog showcased and other information related to the story round out each article. A list of resources to learn more about organizations that support these incredible feats and encourage better dog welfare is also included. Its handy, easy-to-hold trim size and heartwarming accounts will make Devoted a sure favorite with animal lovers young and old.
Best-selling author of medical and political thrillers Michael Palmer has passed away at the age of 71. First published in 1982, his debut novel The Sisterhood dealt with the controversial subject of euthanasia. Palmer went on to write close to 20 novels, the last of which, Resistant, is scheduled to be published in May of 2014.
Born in Massachusetts, he graduated from Wesleyan University, as had fellow medical thriller author Robin Cook. Upon reading Cook’s runaway hit Coma, Palmer decided that he too could write novels of the same style. After attending medical school in Cleveland, Palmer worked as a physician in the Boston area for a number of years before writing took more and more of his time. Even after a decades-long career as a New York Times best-selling author, he continued to work part-time with the Massachusetts Medical Society’s physician health program. His sons Daniel and Matthew have continued the Palmer family writing legacy with novels of their own.
Roald Dahl is arguably the most popular children’s author of all time and with good reason. His books stand the test of time and continue to delight children around the globe. The multitude of adaptations in a wide variety of arenas is a testament to the enduring appeal of the magic of Dahl. Two of his most popular works are celebrating milestone anniversaries this year.
One of Dahl’s darker titles, The Witches, was first published 30 years ago and is the story of a young boy, his Norwegian grandmother and a whole lot of witches bent on eliminating the children of the world. This story won Dahl the prestigious Whitbread Award (now the Costa Book of the Year) for “Best Children’s Literature.” In 1990, the year of Dahl’s death, the book was adapted into a film starring Anjelica Huston and Rowan Atkinson. More recently, the book was transformed into an opera. Actress Miranda Richardson spectacularly narrates a recent audio version of this remarkable story that makes a great family listen.
Matilda, the story of Matilda Wormwood, a genius with awful parents, marks its 25th anniversary of publication. With illustrations by Dahl’s friend, Quentin Blake, this story captures the imagination of readers who can empathize with the main character and the nasty adults wreaking havoc in her world. The novel was adapted as a film in 1996 and a London musical in 2011. The musical premiered in the U.S. earlier this year and has set box office records. A recently released audio version narrated by Kate Winslet, capturing the essence of this tale, is garnering rave reviews. For a taste of the fabulous Ms. Winslet’s splendiferous performance, listen here.
Maryland author Charles Belfoure’s debut novel The Paris Architect is gaining the attention of readers across the country. In 1942, Parisian architect Lucien Bernard is largely indifferent to what is happening to Jews in Occupied France. When he is asked to create a hiding place for the Jewish friend of a wealthy businessman, he can’t resist either the challenge or the compensation, so he agrees. Despite the danger, he begins designing places for others to hide from the Gestapo. His ingenious designs embed hidden cubbyholes into the architectural features of buildings. When one of his hiding places fails, he can no longer ignore the reality of the situation. Over the course of the novel, the horror of what is happening to Jews in his city becomes very real and personal to Lucien.
NPR’s Alan Cheuse compares this story to novels by Alan Furst. The historical and architectural details bring the story to life. This fast-paced World War II thriller leaves readers wondering how we would have reacted in the same situation, which makes it a good choice for book clubs. Discussion questions and additional information about Belfoure’s inspiration are also included in the book. The Paris Architect will appeal to readers who enjoyed Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay and City of Women by David R. Gillham.
Belfoure, who lives in Westminster, wrote a fascinating series of posts about this novel for The Jewish Book Council blog. He will appear at several upcoming local events to promote his novel. A full list is available here.
Acclaimed poet Mary Oliver, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, celebrates the dogs she has loved with words of tender care on each page of Dog Songs. Pet owners and animal lovers alike will find a kindred spirit in the voice of Oliver, who has immortalized her wooly confidantes with compassion and humor in a tone reminiscent of the veterinarian memoirist, James Herriot.
Oliver is known for her elegant treatment of the natural world but Dog Songs reveals a rare and intimately domestic side to the poet’s heart. She invites us into her home and introduces us to the cherished pets of her past and present like the unforgettable souls of Bear, Luke, Benjamin and Percy. Whether on a long walk, down at the surf or curled on a couch, each dog’s personality radiates with bliss and, at times, secretive wisdom.
However, we are not spared the pain that unavoidably comes with loving a life outside your own. While grieving in the poem “Her Grave,” Oliver addresses her lost friend by asking “How strong was her dark body!/ How apt is her grave place./ How beautiful is her unshakeable sleep./ Finally,/ the slick mountains of love break/ over us.” Too often the death of a pet is portrayed as an unimaginable horror but Oliver offers a holistic alternative where heartbreak and light might linger. Although devastated, she holds onto the love she has shared with her fallen friend and stands in awe of the animal who has brought her such joy, warmth and spiritual fullness.
Lifelong fans of Oliver, acclaimed for Why I Wake Early, Red Bird and Thirst, will find this both a gratifying and surprising addition to her life’s work. The narrative tone of these portraits, accompanied with gentle line drawings, make this collection appealing to non-poetry readers as well.
With the ongoing 150th anniversary of the Civil War, quite a few books have been published recently dealing with many of the famous figures and battles of that era. However, one area that has not been explored very deeply is the role women played in shaping this period of history. In her book Maryland Women in the Civil War: Unionists, Rebels, Slaves and Spies, author and former Stevenson University History Professor Claudia Floyd examines some of the ways that women were able to make a difference behind the scenes whether they were for the Union or Confederacy.
Well-researched with an extensive bibliography and endnotes, Floyd sheds light on some remarkable Maryland women who often risked their reputations, freedom and lives to assist with issues about which they were quite passionate. During the Civil War, Marylanders fought for both the North and South, although the state technically remained part of the Union. Floyd introduces the reader to some remarkably courageous women who took up both sides of the cause. Some are familiar (Harriet Tubman) and some obscure (Anna Ella Carroll) but they all helped in ways that included assisting slaves to freedom, nursing wounded soldiers, spying (for both North and South) and holding together their families torn apart by the loss of the security provided them by their absent male relatives.