Nearly every small child has a special stuffed animal, and two recent picture books take a look at these imaginative friendships. In No Fits, Nilson!, written and illustrated by Zachariah OHora, the title character is depicted as a towering blue gorilla who dwarfs his constant companion, a young girl named Amelia. With his black porkpie hat, tennis shoes and collection of six wristwatches, Nilson exudes cool, although he is prone to temper tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. Throughout the story, Amelia must remind him to stay calm. Acrylic paintings in a muted pastel palette done on printmaking paper lend a retro quality to this gentle, sweet book that speaks to patience, sharing and working past minor setbacks.
Paul Schmid’s Oliver and His Alligator takes a look at a small boy’s apprehensions about the first day of school. Pastel pencils combine with soft digital colors to bring to life tousle-haired Oliver and his alligator, whom he brings to class “in case things got rough.” And when Oliver feels immediately shy and unsure, with a “munch, munch!” his alligator swallows a woman who greets him, and then his classmates in quick succession. Children will enjoy the humor of the situation, possibly wishing they had an alligator of their own to vanquish anxiety. But Oliver soon comes around to thinking that he may be missing out on something by sitting quietly by himself. Oliver and His Alligator makes for a welcome addition to the canon of books that address first day jitters.
As sumptuous and richly textured as the Renaissance age she resurrects, Blood and Beauty’s descriptive language beguiles the reader from the start, sweeping away the veils of a half a millennium to reveal the all too human nature of some of the papacy’s most notorious players: Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. From her first foray into the conclave of cardinals at the book’s opening, author Sarah Dunant hooks the reader, sparing none of the earthy details of Rodrigo’s physical surroundings and fostering no sense of reverence for the chasm of time separating the modern reader from historical figures. Instead, Blood and Beauty reads as though we are joining the author on the scene of a current event, as breathless with anticipation as the citizens waiting outside on that sweltering summer’s day.
Thoroughly researched, Dunant’s narration often lends the flavor of the objective journalist, parsing through the rumors and mystique of the Borgia legacy to hint at another layer of truth behind the real people and events as they bloomed to life. The scope of Durant’s task is ambitious. Contemporary and historical accounts of the Borgias suggest so intricate a web of deceit, power lust and manipulation that a sensationalist approach might all too easily have suggested itself to a writer.
Instead, Dunant refrains from judgment in her analysis, casting a more sympathetic portrayal of Lucrezia, and skillfully demonstrating the transformation of a teenage Cesare from a youth to the hardened, brutal character who would later inspire Machiavelli. The resulting multi-layered personalities prompt an altogether more subtle, nuanced interpretation of the infamous Borgia clan, rendering their story that much more compelling.
Recommended for those readers who favor a certain historicity in their narratives. Fans of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and any number of Sharon Kay Penman’s works will be drawn to Blood and Beauty.
David Oliver Relin did not live long enough to witness the publication of his new book, Second Suns: Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives. It is a top-notch, inspiring account of two brilliant physicians from opposite ends of the world, one a Harvard-educated adrenaline junkie from America, and the other a disciplined trader's son from a remote Nepalese village. The unlikely duo combine their generous talents for one lofty goal: to cure preventable blindness. In 1995, they founded the Himalayan Cataract Project as a way to treat thousands of impoverished Himalayans in that isolated, mountainous region.
For ophthalmologists Geoffrey Tabin and Sanduk Ruit, the means to an end seemed simple yet difficult. In developing countries, cataracts are the leading cause of preventable blindness among the poor, including children. In wealthy countries, it is a common and treatable ailment of the elderly. "Some conditions of existence are more painful than others," Ruit tells Relin. Ruit would know; growing up, the nearest doctor was a six-day-walk away. He watched as his siblings died of curable illnesses.
Relin transports readers to Ruit's temporary eye hospital, formerly a filthy military post in the village of Kalikasthan, where young and old shuffle in from scorching heat to have red-brown dust scrubbed from their faces. The high energy Tabin, who early on abandoned a medical career to pursue athletic passions, was inspired by Ruit. Together, their respective stories led the dynamic pair to their calling. Thousands have been cured with their simple surgery that costs a mere pittance.
Relin, who co-authored the now controversial bestseller Three Cups of Tea with Greg Mortenson, committed suicide in November 2012. In telling this compelling and hopeful story of two medical pioneers, the author was not immune to the poignancy of what he was witnessing. When an elegant 56-year-old seamstress, who was forced to sell her sewing machine, finally sees again, Relin thrust into her hands a wad of bills. "For a sewing machine," he said.
Always eagerly anticipated, Great Britain’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction committee announced its 2013 Long List on July 23. The Man Booker is widely considered Britain’s most prestigious literary award and has such a devoted following that one can lay odds with a bookie on the winner. The Long List will be whittled down to six selections in September with the winner declared on October 10, 2013.
The books and authors on the Long List are often an eclectic bunch and this year is no exception. Ireland’s Colm Toibin is named for his The Testament of Mary, a very short novel written in the first person from the perspective of the grieving and bitter mother of the crucified Jesus Christ. Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki, who divides her time between British Columbia and New York City, made the list for A Tale for the Time Being, in which a Canadian woman finds the diary of a bullied Japanese teen washed up on the Pacific shore. The story unfolds as the diary entries are read.
We Need New Names: A Novel is Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s contribution to the list. Preteen Darling, her home destroyed and father gone, lives with her mother in the shantytown of Paradise. She and her friends play games inspired by the violence of the post-colonial Mugabe regime until Darling is shipped to America to live in “Destroyed”, Michigan with her aunt’s family. Bulawayo writes “there is no journey without a price”, and Darling’s journey from comfortable home to Paradise, then from Paradise to America all comes at a cost.
In her captivating new novel The Husband’s Secret, Australian author Liane Moriarty examines the nature of secrets through the lives of three women connected by an elementary school. Everyone thinks Cecelia has the perfect life. She has a profitable Tupperware sales business, a loving husband and three beautiful daughters. She is the president of her daughters’ school’s Parents and Friends Association. One day, she finds a letter hidden in a box of old tax papers. It is from her husband John-Paul, and it says that she should open it upon his death. When she asks him about the letter, John-Paul says that it’s nothing, but Cecelia can’t stop thinking about it. She eventually opens the letter, and nothing in her world can ever be the same.
Tess’s life is turned upside-down when her husband and cousin Felicity reveal that they have fallen in love. Betrayed by the two people who she trusts most, Tess immediately leaves to stay with her mother in Sydney, enrolling her young son at St. Angela's Primary School. That’s where she reconnects with her ex-boyfriend Connor, who is now a teacher there.
Rachel’s life was destroyed when her teenage daughter Janie was murdered in 1984. She has always believed that Connor, the last person to see Janie alive, was the murderer. Now, she is the school secretary at St. Angela’s, and it kills her to see Connor going on with his life as if nothing has happened.
The Husband’s Secret is charming, witty and unforgettable. Author Emily Giffin calls it “a story reading groups will devour. A knockout!" Secrets swirl throughout the novel, and the reader soon understands that the stories of these three women are irrevocably intertwined. Each of the characters learns that once you know the truth, you can never go back to not knowing it. This novel is a page-turner, and it will stay in your mind long after you finish reading the last page.
Bestselling crime writer Elmore Leonard passed away today at age 87 following a stroke earlier this month. Leonard’s remarkable publishing career spanned six decades. His initial works were westerns, and the first of these was published in 1953. His most recent book, Raylan, featuring one of his most popular characters, was released in 2012.
Leonard’s colorful characters, strong dialogue and gritty, realistic settings quickly caught the eye of Hollywood. Twenty-six of Leonard's novels and short stories have been adapted for movies and television. Among his best-known works which made it to the big screen are Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Hombre and Rum Punch, which was filmed as Jackie Brown. Several of Leonard's short stories were also made into popular movies, including 3:10 to Yuma and The Tall T. The current FX series Justified is based on short stories and novels featuring Leonard’s enduring character Raylan Givens, a deputy U.S. Marshal.
While maintaining a popular readership, Leonard also received critical acclaim. In November, Leonard received a Medal for Distinguished Contribution from the National Book Foundation. Other honors include a Peabody Award for the television show Justified, a Grand Master Edgar Award and a PEN Lifetime Achievement Award.
Check out some of the titles available in a variety of formats by this legendary author.
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.