For almost as long as monarchs have held court, dwarfs have found a foothold – however humble – amongst their courtiers. More often for the amusement or the curiosity of their host royals, the role of a court dwarf was like to be as ignominious a position as it was privileged. It is into the world of this overlooked margin of court society that author Katherine Marsh first thrusts her appealing protagonist, Jepp, Who Defied the Stars.
Born to a loving mother and cosseted by the tiny close-knit community of Astraveld, Jepp has enjoyed a sheltered childhood. As the son of the village’s only innkeeper, Jepp has become accustomed to meeting strangers and hearing curious tales of faraway lands. Over time too, he has become accustomed to being considered a bit of a curiosity himself, at least to the inn’s less frequent visitors. One night in his fourteenth year, Jepp’s quiet and comfortable life comes to an abrupt crossroads with the arrival of a well-dressed stranger. The courtier, known to the reader as Don, offers Jepp what appears to be the opportunity of a lifetime – a position as a court dwarf at Coudenberg Palace, the lush seat of the Spanish Infanta. Jepp’s decision to follow his stars to court will forever alter his destiny, for good and ill.
Out of the sparse strands of the historical Jepp and those like him, Marsh weaves a startlingly graceful and poignant tale. Readers will come to care for this vulnerable yet strong, sensitive yet brave boy as he leaves his sheltered childhood behind to follow and mold his destiny. At turns heart-wrenching and gentle, suspenseful and reflective, Jepp’s story is one that will resonate with teens and adults alike.
Seth Casteel, award-winning pet photographer and animal rights activist, presents amazing images of over eighty dogs in aquatic settings in Underwater Dogs. Each canine has an individual portrait which captures the unique personalities in exuberant action shots chasing a ball. From the human perspective, this game of chase seems simple – ball is thrown, dog retrieves it, and surfaces triumphantly. But beneath the water, there is a major drama playing out complete with bared teeth and arched bodies. From leaping lab to diving dachshund, each dog approaches this game a little differently. Some lounge in the water and paddle slowly, while others are aggressive and shark-like in their focus and determination. Of course, the elegant poodle still manages to maintain an air of refinement even when soaked. Casteel started this project by posting the photos on his blog, and since that time the viewership has surpassed 150 million.
Who doesn’t love puppies? Photographer J. Nichole Smith offers photographs of twenty-five different baby canines in Puppyhood: Life-size Portraits of Puppies at 6 Weeks Old. The coffee table size allows the puppies to be shown in full actual life size at six weeks. These engaging photographs show all the details that make puppies so irresistible, from their pink bellies and tiny teeth to their soft ears and oversize paws. The book features purebred and mixed breed doggies in a variety of puppy pastimes such as sleeping, staring down the photographer, and of course, playing. All of the photographs will have readers yearning for their own puppy to cuddle. And indeed that is part of Smith’s plan, as her epilogue is complete with information on adopting all of the twenty-five pictured pooches, as well as providing contact information for a number of national shelter networks and the breeders of the purebreeds featured in the book.
Sarah Jio’s new novel Blackberry Winter weaves together the past and present in a captivating tale of loss and a mother’s love. Reporter Claire Aldridge is assigned to cover a snowstorm on the anniversary of a similar surprise storm that shut down Seattle on May Day nearly 80 years before. This kind of late-season storm is called a blackberry winter. Claire’s research for a feature article on the twin snowstorms uncovers the unsolved kidnapping of a child in 1933. On that cold night, a young mother named Vera Ray was forced to leave her young son Daniel home alone while she went to work the night shift. She kissed him goodbye and went to work as a maid at the Olympic Hotel. When she returned the next morning, Vera found that 3-year-old Daniel was gone. The only trace left behind was his teddy bear Max, which Vera found outside in the snow. Police said that the boy was a runaway, but Claire doesn’t believe that’s possible of a child so young.
Vera’s tragic loss hits home for Claire, who struggling under the weight of a crumbling marriage and the loss of her own baby. She takes it upon herself to find out what really happened to Daniel. As she searches through records and learns more, she is also finally forced to face her own loss. The narrative of Blackberry Winter alternates between Claire and Vera’s perspectives to bring both of their stories to life. Jio brings readers an emotional tale with a unique conclusion to the mystery of Daniel’s disappearance.
Change can happen in an instant. This is the central message in Lee Woodruff’s debut fiction book, Those We Love Most. On the surface, this is a story of old themes. Members of an upper-middle income, multi-generational family are devastated by a tragedy, and existing small cracks and relationship fissures are suddenly split wide open. Roger and Margaret Munson are an older couple with three grown children. They have a seemingly stable marriage, yet pursue separate interests much of the time. Their eldest child, Maura, is a product of her parents. Married with three young children, she and her husband live a comfortable if staid existence until one spring day when their eldest son is struck by a car and killed. The four adults all cope with the loss differently and must face past transgressions and secrets as part of their path to healing.
Lee Woodruff writes from personal experience about unexpected tragedy. Her husband, Bob Woodruff, was an ABC News Anchor who was injured in an explosion in Iraq in 2006 and suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result. She has written two non-fiction books about her experiences, one co-authored with him. Despite the somewhat predictable plot, Woodruff creates characters with depth and believability, and this is what keeps the reader engaged in this heartbreaking yet redemptive story. Although there are no real surprises in Those We Love Most, it is a thoughtful study about how people cope with grief as individuals and as a family unit. Is there one prescribed path individuals should follow when processing loss? Are beliefs in an afterlife or higher power necessary to come to terms with the death of a child? Far from sentimental, this book raises difficult questions about death, redemption and putting lives back together in a less-than-perfect fashion.
Debut author Ayana Mathis is having the best week ever! Oprah Winfrey just announced that Mathis’s novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is her next Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection. Authors and publishers know that having your book selected for Oprah’s Book Club is like winning the publishing lottery. Her stamp of approval has catapulted many authors to the bestsellers list, and The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is certain to make Mathis the next. Oprah praised the book saying, “I can’t remember when I read anything that moved me in quite this way, besides the work of Toni Morrison.”
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie follows an African American family over the course of sixty years. After her father’s death, Hattie Shepherd fled Georgia with her mother and sisters to make a new life in Philadelphia. In 1925, sixteen-year-old Hattie’s children Jubilee and Philadelphia die of pneumonia, a loss that marks Hattie for the rest of her life. She goes on to have nine more children, raising them to face the harsh realities of the world. The novel focuses on the experiences of her adult children and granddaughter. With each chapter narrated by a different family member, the novel is like a series of connected short stories tied together by the common thread of family bonds. Mathis brings the Great Migration to life in this unforgettable story of a family’s resilience in the face of adversity. Readers can join in the discussion on Goodreads or Twitter (#OprahsBookClub) and watch Oprah’s interview of Mathis, which will air on February 3 on Oprah’s cable network OWN.
Whitney Otto has created eight memorable female photographers in her new novel Eight Girls Taking Pictures. The novel is written episodically; each character appears in a separate short story, but there is a common thread running through the entire novel. The first story features photographer Cymbeline Kelley, studying photography in the early 1900s and discovering what it means to be a female artist in her time period. Cymbeline is the glue that holds the novel together. Even after her own story is completed, she is often mentioned in the stories that follow, so the reader will learn what happens to her as she ages. Many other characters are equally fascinating and the novel spans many years during the twentieth century. Charlotte Blum, a Jewish photographer in Germany during World War II, is falling in love with another woman. Miri Marx becomes a wife and mother and moves to an apartment in New York City, contenting herself by taking pictures of Central Park from her window. Each story begins with a photograph, allowing the reader to discover how this particular photo fits into the life of the photographer. Otto covers many themes in the novel, including what it means to be a women and an artist and how to balance what is expected of you with what you hope to achieve. Because the novel spans so many years, the reader can witness the changing times but still appreciate the similarities of these different women from separate eras.
Readers will remember Whitney Otto from the sensational How to Make an American Quilt. Eight Girls Taking Pictures follows that similar short story style and will satisfy fans of Otto as well as attracting new readers. The photographers she writes about are fictional but are loosely based on real women photographers, and Otto provides a bibliography in case she piques a reader’s interest to learn more. Truly a wonderful novel, Eight Girls Taking Pictures will also provide lively discussions for book groups.
As a cog in the wheel of an industry that survives on its image, Jacob Tomsky knows a thing or two about hotels. His new book, Heads in Beds, a Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, takes a sassy, insightful look inside the lodging establishments that employed him for over a decade. Humorously eye-opening and slightly bawdy, Tomsky's take on the hospitality business is everything you ever wanted to know (maybe) but were afraid to ask (really) about what goes on in the “heart of the house.” Little in Tomsky's background prepared him for his career path. Armed with a philosophy degree, he ends up working the valet stand at a newly opened luxury hotel in New Orleans, where he quickly moves from parking cars to front desk clerk to overnight housekeeping manager. Fifteen hour shifts come with the territory, as do lying, finessing, and bartering, all in the name of good customer service. Eventually he hits the big time when he is hired by an upscale Manhattan hotel, where for fun he and coworkers race down hallways on a power scooter at three a.m.
There are plenty of anecdotes that make this part-travel memoir, part-industry exposé a brisk, entertaining read. Some of it is disturbing, like knowing the housekeeper may be spraying furniture polish on your drinking glasses for that spotless shine. The author is also happy to share helpful insider tips, like how to get that coveted room upgrade and techniques for disputing mini-bar, also known as "fridge of joy" charges. Naturally, tipping figures prominently. Tomsky's honest introspection about the coworkers who form this closed society extends his writing to more than just a tell-all. With a clear-eyed wit, he deftly peels away layers of the hotel trade and its practices in order to enlighten even the most frequent traveler. Don't be surprised when the amusing and helpful appendices at the book’s end bring a wide smile.
Many of us can remember receiving a life-changing book and the story behind it. Maybe it was a childhood birthday present, a memento from a failed relationship, an impulse buy, a bequest from a late relative, or a suggestion from a favorite teacher. Whatever the reason, the ways in which these special books enter our lives can often be as powerful as the books themselves. The Books They Gave Me: True Stories of Life, Love, and Lit, based on editor Jen Adams’ blog of the same name, chronicles over two hundred anonymous anecdotes about the books we give one another and why.
These candid submissions – with themes ranging from “How did she know?” to “What was he thinking?!” – celebrate the humorous, profound, and sometimes disastrous connections that our lives make through literature. A good number of the stories focus on breakups, but the collection never feels dull thanks to the constant stream of different voices and experiences. In fact, this charming, accessible little book can easily be read in one sitting. For those looking for further reading, this collection doubles as an extensive book list, cataloging a variety of classic novels, memoirs, poetry, self-help guides, and even dictionaries. Color illustrations of each featured title provide appealing visuals from beginning to end. The Books They Gave Me is a bibliophile’s dream and encourages readers to reflect upon their own treasured books. As one contributor beautifully puts it, “I believe that giving a book to a person is like giving a piece of your soul to them.”
Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat and this year Santa gets some help from that crazy Pete the Cat! That’s right, the blue fun-loving feline is back in Pete the Cat Saves Christmas, by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. At Santa’s request, Pete steps in when Santa falls ill with a chill. Pete begins his holiday adventure in typical cool-cat rhyming style - Pete jumped in his minibus and started to roll. “Road trip!” cried Pete. “First stop – the North Pole.” The vividly colored, abstract and energetic illustrations and zany, ear-catching story in rhyme have real kid-appeal. There’s added entertainment value with a free download of the complete story and accompanying song read by the author. Kids can listen or read along, and check out Pete’s reproducible booklet of Christmas activities like a holiday word scramble, connect the dots, and maze. Now that’s “totally groovy!”
Charlie and the Christmas Kitty is a sweet winter time treat for families. Written by Ree Drummond, New York Times bestselling author of The Pioneer Woman Cooks, and featuring her own Basset Hound, Charlie, this down-home story is simple and wholesome, much like her country cooking. As “King of the Ranch”, Charlie oversees the comings and goings of humans and animals on their country spread. Adorably floppy, with his long ears, wrinkly skin, slightly short legs, and penchant for bacon, Charlie settles down for a little shut-eye while the family is busy preparing for Christmas. Imagine his surprise the next day when a new creature is introduced to the mix. Is it a rabbit? No, it’s an unapproved Christmas kitten! Charlie tries his hardest to ignore the little fluff ball, but finally relents after the curious kitten follows him throughout the day. All’s well that ends well, until a snuggly, beribboned Basset pup shows up – not again! Diane deGroat, award-winning children’s book illustrator and author/illustrator of the best-selling picture book series featuring Gilbert the opossum, creates the appealing kid-friendly artwork using watercolor paint over digital art on hot press paper. Animal lovers and families will enjoy this book and can try Charlie’s Favorite Christmas Cookie recipe included at the back.
During the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, hundreds of young people, led by library director Ismail Serageldin, joined hands around the world-famous Alexandria Library to protect it from damage by the marching crowds. Although much property was destroyed and many people died, the Library survived unscathed. Susan L. Roth and Karen Leggett Abouraya invest these dramatic events with emotion and suspense in their book Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books.
The story is told from the point of view of a fictional librarian - at first caught up in the excitement of the march, then worried about the library, then proud of her countrymen for this act of love and peace. Roth's collage art is, as always, especially appealing to young people. Her naive, frontal compositions are constructed from brightly colored paper in a variety of textures: crinkled, fuzzy, fibrous, corrugated, and even iridescent. Protest signs in Arabic appear throughout the book, and though one page contains images of violence, in general the energy, scale, and potential havoc of the march is skillfully communicated by two-page spreads depicting large crowds.
The back pages of this book are especially informative: including the history of the ancient and the modern Library of Alexandria, a brief discussion of the Egyptian Revolution, translations of words on the protest signs, and, perhaps most importantly, photographs of the events described in the book. These pages use collage representations of quilt squares as a border, suggesting that the immense crowds that marched in Egypt were made of a kaleidoscope of unique individuals.