Widely regarded as one of the best spy writers alive, Robert Littell is often compared to John LeCarre and Alan Furst. In his new novel Young Philby, readers are treated to an absorbing fictional biography of the notorious double agent. Anyone interested in spies and Cold War history will certainly know the name Hadrian Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, one of the most fascinating figures in the history of modern espionage. He was a high ranking British double agent and one of the members of the infamous Cambridge Three. While spying for the Russians, Philby managed to have a successful career in both the British and American intelligence agencies. He caused incalculable damage with the secrets he shared.
Littell explores Kim Philby’s life story as a young man, including his early attraction to communism. Littell also tells of the Soviets tapping Philby, and details the methods they used to make him look attractive to the British Secret Service. Littell’s narrative is particularly compelling because he tells his subject’s story through the lens of a various people who knew him throughout his life. We get to know “Philby the man” through his lovers and his father, and “Philby the spy” through the eyes of his Soviet handlers. But even with the distinctly different views into this notorious spy, Kim Philby remains an enigma. As with Littell’s other novels, Young Philby manages to be both a well-researched historical novel as well as a riveting read.
HBO and BBC have partnered to bring Parade’s End, based on Ford Madox Ford’s classic modernist tetralogy, to the screen in a new five-part miniseries that will premiere in the US on February 26th on HBO. Ford’s novels, published separately between 1924 and 1928, were first combined and reissued as Parade’s End in 1950. The story follows Christopher Tietjens, the wealthy heir to the estate of Groby, who is serving in the British army during World War I. Christopher’s personal life is complicated by a love triangle. He is torn between his socialite wife Sylvia, who Graham Greene called "surely the most possessed evil character in the modern novel," and his suffragette mistress Valentine. Rather than focusing on the upstairs/downstairs themes of Downton Abbey, Parade’s End portrays a broader view of England and the English gentry around World War I. Parade’s End is a challenging but worthwhile read. The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch calls the novel “The Better Downton Abbey,” citing the characters’ sharper edges and the novel’s drama that excels where he feels Downton Abbey has begun to fall flat.
The miniseries was adapted for the small screen by Sir Tom Stoppard. Director Susanna White says that Parade’s End, which was commissioned before the Downton Abbey craze, is its own unique take on the time period. Get a sneak peak at this critically-acclaimed drama, featuring the BBC’s Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher, here.
Abraham Lincoln was an inexperienced president in 1862 when he faced his troubled country's most daunting crises to date. With the new year came the inescapable truth of a nation divided, broken, and at war. To realize his vision for the union would take patience, even-keeled fortitude, and the ability to draw in friend and foe alike. In David Von Drehle's terrific and highly readable book, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year, the historian reconstructs in a dramatic but disciplined tone the year's greatest challenges for the self-schooled Illinois lawyer. Unfolding month by month, Lincoln's growth as a leader is as transformative for the 16th president as it is for the state and stabilization of the union.
There is no doubt that issues were burning for Lincoln and the country. Aside from a civil war and unabated "secession fever,” the president was facing a government overwhelmed, a treasury without money, and a war department reported in shambles. Europe was exhibiting impatient leanings toward the south. At home, Lincoln's domestic situation presented its own challenges and heartache. The moral crisis of slavery, which would eventually catapult Lincoln to greatness, was looming.
Von Drehle's careful chronology of this tumultuous year begins with New Year's Day and concludes a year later with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In captivating narrative guided by hefty research, layers of political, military and diplomatic maneuvering are peeled away as Von Drehle attempts to define the man Lincoln became as a result of the year's high stakes. Micro-biographies of the usual players add color, as do the plethora of Lincoln quotes, many poignant. Readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough will recognize here the republic at a crossroads and the bellwether of a nation who saw beyond.
The inspirational story of a Ugandan teen is deftly shared by Tim Crothers in The Queen of Katwe: a Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. Phiona Mutesi lives in poverty with her mother and three siblings. Meals are hard to come by and Phiona’s education has been haphazard at best. In 2005, at age nine, Phiona met Robert Katende, who had also grown up in slums, was a war refugee, and worked tirelessly as a missionary. His dream was to empower children through chess – highly unlikely since the game was so foreign there wasn’t even a word for it in the children’s language.
Children were enticed to the chess lessons by the promise of porridge, but soon many grew to love the game. Of these children, Phiona stood out as a talented, thinking chess player. In 2007, she was her country’s junior champion and continued winning titles over the next several years. In September 2010, she traveled to Siberia to compete in the Chess Olympiad, the world’s most prestigious team-chess event. Although she didn’t win, she did earn the respect of competitors and teammates. The Queen of Katwe is the story of a young girl struggling against every conceivable obstacle to pursue her dream. Readers will root and hope that Phiona will one day succeed as a Grandmaster and will remember her uplifting spirit long after the book is closed.
Crothers first shared Phiona’s story in an ESPN Magazine article, which was a finalist for the National Magazine Award. To hear some of the story in Phiona’s own words, watch this video from ESPN. In September, 2012, Phiona again competed in the Chess Olympiad, and her strong performance earned her the title of Woman Candidate Master, making her the first titled female player in Ugandan history. This fantastic dream may just become reality.
Take a peek inside the mysterious and mischievous world of twins in three books for children with appeal for multiples and singletons alike. The nineteenth century counting rhyme “Over in the Meadow” inspired Ken Geist’s Who’s Who which puts the spotlight on twin animals. These six pairs of twins include calves, bunnies, monkeys, and fish and are featured in their natural habitats. Illustrator Henry Cole vividly depicts these landscapes in acrylic and colored pencil and moves from farmyard to jungle to bat cave. The memorable rhymes highlight the twins’ activities through the day and match the warm, detailed illustrations.
The Twins’ Blanket, written and illustrated by Hyewon Yum, shares the story of identical twin sisters who at age five are growing up and a little apart. The girls’ favorite blanket is no longer big enough for sharing, so Mom creates new blankets for each girl with pieces from the old. Yum does a fabulous job of differentiating between these twins, by giving each girl her own side of the book. It isn’t until the girls reach out to comfort each other that they cross over the center of the book. Yum, a twin herself, uses prints, colored pencil, watercolor, and other media in her bright illustrations, and makes great use of white space to complement the quiet, narrative text.
In Take Two: a Celebration of Twins, J. Patrick Lewis, the current Children's Poet Laureate teams with Jane Yolen to present more than forty poems about life as a twin. Sophie Blackall’s watercolor, pencil, and collage illustrations complement the varied poems which are divided into sections representing stages and milestones, and a final section features famous twins. Lewis is a twin himself and Yolen is the grandmother of twins, so the two are quite familiar with the world of doubles. Readers will also enjoy the “Twin Fact” feature found throughout, such as the Russian woman who was mother to sixteen sets of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets!
Ask a kid where their dinner comes from and you might hear, “McDonald’s”. That trend is reversing, however, as more of today’s families are re-discovering the joy of cooking and paying attention to where their food comes from as well as how to prepare it. Cooking with kids is a hot activity right now and an easy way to introduce skills such as reading, math, science, even art.
Tyler Florence, celebrity chef on the Food Network and co-founder of Sprout organic baby food, encourages kids to explore cooking in Tyler Makes Pancakes! Little Tyler and his dog, Tofu, decide to start the day right with a plan to make breakfast for mom and dad. Armed with a list of ingredients they head to the local market. Simply colored stick figure illustrations by Craig Frazier are highlighted by lots of white space and short text which gives a pleasing clean-as-a-chef’s-kitchen flavor to each page. Tyler’s blueberry buttermilk pancake recipe is included so kids can learn to measure and combine ingredients and make a quick and easy meal. A list of interesting food facts will encourage them to learn even more.
The life of Julia Child, doyenne of classic French cooking in the U.S., has had renewed interest in recent years. Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, by Susanna Reich, is a charming picture book homage which will delight both children and adults. While Julia perfected her cooking skills, she would prepare a variety of delicacies and offer tastes to little cat Minette, who more often than not, preferred a simpler palette of traditional mouse or bird. This gentle story blends facts from Julia’s life and her various books into a mélange of fact and fiction. Peppered throughout are quotes from Julia’s original letters and a sprinkling of French words and cooking terms. Amy Bates draws the reader in with engaging pencil and watercolor illustrations of multi-colored Minette and charming kitchen and street life scenes in muted tones.
Fitzgerald McGrath is a 15-year-old boy who lives with his mom in St. Paul, plays guitar in a band with his best friend, and has a crush on a pretty red head at school. On the surface, he appears to be an average teenage kid. However, readers soon find out that he has a turbulent, pain-riddled side to his personality, which has progressed to the breaking point. Fitz, by Mick Cochrane is a skillfully crafted novel which explores the impact and consequences of a boy who never had a father.
From childhood fantasies of a loving Dad who watches him from afar, to seething anger toward a man that has never been in touch, the reader easily identifies with Fitz’s anguish. Not knowing anything about his father, other than his once-a-month monetary contribution to the household, has gotten to be too much for Fitz to handle. Taking matters into his own hands, Fitz purchases a Smith & Wesson .38 Special and kidnaps his father. What follows is a day that will forever change both of their lives.
This bittersweet novel establishes characters the reader will completely empathize with, being in turn both hopeful and fearful regarding the story’s outcome. The steady and measured rhythm provides a perfect balance for the intensity of emotion experienced by both father and son. The climax of the story will have people holding their breath. In Fitz’s own words, “It feels like the longest day of his life. It also feels like the shortest” and there isn’t a reader who will want it to end.
Morgan Rhodes’s new teen fantasy novel, Falling Kingdoms, is a fast-paced, thrilling read—a mix of betrayal, secrets, and magic. Mytica, the fantasy land where the novel is set is made up of three kingdoms—Auranos, Paelsia, and Limeros. The kingdoms are very different and as a result, they are held together by a tenuous peace at the start of the novel. Following the murder of a boy from Paelsia by an aristocrat from Auranos, that peace ends, and war becomes imminent. Meanwhile, the novel’s four main characters, Cleo, Jonas, Lucia, and Magnus, become embroiled in the conflict, despite their very different lives.
The novel switches between each teenager’s perspective, telling four different stories that eventually merge into one. Cleo, a princess from Auranos, fights against her royal destiny by fleeing her home in an attempt to find magic. His brother’s death pushes Jonas, a rebel from Paelsia, to fight against those in power. Meanwhile, Lucia, who was adopted as a baby and raised as a princess in Limeros, discovers she is a powerful sorceress and begins to realize the strength of her magic. Finally, Magnus, the heir to the Limeros throne, tries to please his father and king, but at the same time resents him. By the end of the novel, their lives become increasingly intertwined, as their kingdoms fight each other and magic returns in full force to Mytica.
Teen and adult fans of fantasy will enjoy this new series. Falling Kingdoms has elements reminiscent of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Readers looking for something similar will enjoy the vivid world that Rhodes has created, and will look forward to exploring the world more in the novel’s sequel, Rebel Spring, which is set to be released in late 2013.
Some reading experiences are meant to be savored. Jess Walter creates one in Beautiful Ruins, which begins in 1962 at Hotel Adequate View on the Italian coastline. Pasquale Tursi, who runs the hotel, is captivated by the blond woman who arrives at his hotel. She turns out to be a dying American actress, and thus begins a novel that sweeps over decades and contains a cast of captivating characters, all “beautiful ruins” in their own right. In the present day we meet Michael Dean, a film producer who has recently returned to favor with the popularity of a reality television show, and his long suffering assistant Claire Silver, who is in the process of discovering another line of work. Next comes Shane Wheeler who wants to make a pitch to Michael Dean with a screenplay about the Donner party. Other characters include a would-be novelist, a failed musician and a famous film actor. These lives are woven together in an unusual style that includes chapters of novels, film treatments and even a play.
The characters Jess Walter creates are completely realized and finely detailed. The story captures the imagination and you can’t help but care for this motley crew as they try to create something that matters, only to find themselves failing and falling and further affecting all the other lives around them. Although the characters seem separated at the beginning of the novel, the stories begin to intertwine and blend, leading to an incredible crescendo. Thoroughly discussable, this novel is perfect for book groups. Beautiful Ruins will pull you in, capture your heart and will make you reflect on your own life choices.
Books about children in the foster care system tend to be a largely grim bunch. Fiction or fact, they are often filled with requisite accounts of, at best, benign neglect and frequently tell a far more horrifying tale. In her debut novel, Y, author Marjorie Celona explores the concept of family ties that bind both by blood and by choice.
The headline reads “Abandoned Infant: Police Promise No Charges” after a newborn baby is found in the early morning on the steps of the YMCA. The revolving door of foster families grinds into motion as baby Shandi gets shuffled about, her name changed to Shannon and her arm broken by a foster father. As a preschooler, Shannon lands in the loving home of single mother Miranda and her daughter Lydia-Rose who is the same age as Shannon. Miranda’s home is modest and her income small, yet she is determined to form a family which includes loving Shannon as her daughter, as Lydia-Rose’s sister.
Could the story end here? Instead, Celona goes on to explore the effects of abandonment and subsequent feelings of alienation on Shannon as she grows up in Miranda’s home. At the same time, she alternates Shannon’s story with that of her parents and grandparents, revealing the trajectory of events which led up to the morning at the Y. Celona uses Shannon as an omniscient narrator and allows her to completely relate her own story; this includes her search for her “real” parents. At the same time, she is recounting her biological family’s history, chronicling incidents occurring long before her birth. Ultimately, Shannon must figure out what constitutes “family” for her. For more about growing up in the foster care system, try Janet Fitch’s White Oleander or Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s biography, Three Little Words.