Puff the Magic Dragon conjures up a saccharine image, kind of like a winged Barney. A dragon named Melted Face with hide like Kevlar is more a feature of nightmares. Unfortunately for herpetologist CJ Cameron, Melted Face and his cronies have her in their sights in the rip-roaring action thriller The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly.
CJ is flying to China. The Chinese government is sparing no expense to bring her, along with influential politicians and reporters, to premiere their nation’s newest attraction: a phenomenal zoo designed to make the Disney’s amusement empire look rinky-dink. As they arrive at the park, located in a remote no-fly zone, CJ is stunned to see Greyhound bus-sized mythical creatures soaring through the sky. The official announcement? “Welcome to Great Dragon Zoo of China.”
Like a surreal Sea World, the visit starts with the equivalent of a dolphin show. A cute handler prompts dragons through tricks, explains they were were hatched from ancient eggs buried miles beneath the earth’s crust and ends by saddling up a sweet yellow dragon and flying into the clouds. CJ, however, sees both grim intelligence and simmering resentment in the lizards’ eyes, and this public relations visit quickly turns into a blood-soaked battle for survival as hordes of angry dragons turn their captors into prey. Furiously paced and laced with reptilian scientific factoids, The Great Zoo of China is an adrenaline-charged adventure of a tale.
Every DIYer out there has a story or two about a project that ended up going awry. Heather Mann compiles hysterical craft disasters in CraftFail: When Homemade Goes Horribly Wrong. Spanning the worlds of food, home décor, fashion and kids, Mann’s entertaining collection will amuse non-crafters and comfort those dedicated crafters who have all experienced hiccups despite the best laid plans.
Mann, creator of the popular blog CraftFail.com takes a look at what happens to those of us who aren’t Martha Stewart. The effort and good intentions are definitely there but, sadly, the end result doesn’t match. Photographs of craft failures, including new ones not seen on the blog, include glitter shoes that look like a puddle of sparkling slop and spaghetti-stuffed garlic bread which is anything but appetizing. These projects all sounded cool and seemed attainable, but the outcomes were decidedly dreadful.
Mann’s funny look at crafting gone wrong also serves as a celebration of the creative process. Failure is always a possibility, but that shouldn’t be a barrier to inspiration and imagination. The photographs and sharp writing all combine to create a humorous homage to the internal HGTV designer inside each of us who perseveres and keeps on crafting. This charming collection also highlights two important imperatives all crafters should adopt as a mantra when starting any project — follow directions and don’t substitute!
Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini take you on a journey as twisted and complex as the streets and alleys of San Francisco’s Chinatown in their latest work The Body Snatchers Affair. John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter, former Pinkerton detectives now operating an independent detective agency, have seemingly unrelated cases. John is searching the back alleys for illicit opium dens in the hope of finding a prominent attorney who has gone off the rails. Sabina is trying to retrieve a corpse snatched from the vault of a recently bereaved wealthy family and foil the blackmailers’ ghoulish scheme. Operating in Chinatown under the imminent threat of a tong war, John and Sabina must negotiate the corruption in both the police department and the city’s underworld. They are also negotiating their increasingly complicated relationship as Sabina is wooed by a prominent gold engineer and John deals with his jealousy. Lurking in the shadows is a crackbrain character claiming to be Sherlock Holmes.
Rich with the atmosphere of late 1890s San Francisco, the author’s passion for the city’s culture and history shines through every page. They are the only living married couple to be named Grand Masters by the Mystery Writers of America. Marcia Muller is considered to be the mother of the female hardboiled detective genre, introducing Sharon McCone in Edwin of the Iron Shoes in 1977. Bill Pronzini is known for his Nameless detective series set in San Francisco. The Body Snatchers Affair is the third entry in this series, but is an excellent read even without reading the previous titles. Fans of Shirley Tallman, Victoria Thompson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will enjoy the period, while fans of Agatha Christie will enjoy the plot twists and turns.
Amy McCulloch is an editorial director for a children’s publisher, so while this is her debut as a novelist, she is no stranger to the writing process. It’s clear from this novel that she carefully constructed a young adult series that weaves together mysticism, intrigue and suspense.
The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is the first in McCulloch’s The Knots Duology. This introductory novel is set in a fantasy world where a person’s oath is their soul and the consequences of going back on your word have a devastating effect. It’s the very foundation of the world’s structure and is infused in every decision each character makes.
Raim, the protagonist, is from a nomadic tribe of goat herders and has been raised as a warrior apprentice since he was 7. He was just a baby when he was given an oath that he wears as a knot around his wrist — a reminder of a promise he cannot remember. It’s this oath, made long before his memories start, which holds a mystery that could unravel his well-planned future or be the answer that saves a kingdom.
This historical fantasy is a fast-paced whirlwind of a ride that will leave you eager for more. Its sequel The Shadow’s Curse, though already published in Canada and the UK, does not yet have a publication date for the US. After The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, you won’t be able to wait for its release.
M. O. Walsh’s heartbreaking novel My Sunshine Away follows a man looking back at tragic events that formed him into the adult he became. It was 1989 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a teenage girl is raped in a middle class neighborhood, throwing suspicion on several of the people that live there. One of the suspects is a teenage boy who has become obsessed with the victim, and his obsession leads him on a quest to discover the truth, even when the victim herself just wants to leave the past behind her. While he ruminates over the event that will ultimately change him, life continues to move forward, throwing more tragedy and grief his way. He must find a way to come to terms with where he has been in order to become who he is meant to be.
My Sunshine Away is beautifully written but is not an easy read. It deals with the darker corners of the human heart, and the sense of loss and longing is palpable. M. O. Walsh is a gifted writer, and, even if you don’t genuinely like the narrator at times, the reader will be captured by his story and his need to press forward. The author uses events in American history to further capture the sense of place and time, and his descriptions of Baton Rouge bring the city to life. Ultimately, it is a coming-of-age tale, told from the male perspective. The author does an amazing job getting inside the narrators head, slowly revealing things needed to be said. Truly a discussable novel, My Sunshine Away would be a perfect fit for book groups. After this, you may want to try The Little Friend by Donna Tartt or Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.
According to Chinese astrology, time passes in a 12-year cycle with each year associated with an animal. On February 19, it will be time to welcome in the Year of the Sheep (or Goat). Those born in the year of the sheep are believed to be cooperative, kind-hearted and creative. These aspects can be seen in the main character, Sydney, in The Year of the Sheep: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac by Oliver Chin.
The sheep family welcomes a new year and a new baby, Sydney, into their herd. The shepherd’s daughter, Zhi, and Sydney become great friends, and Zhi teaches Sydney how the people and the sheep take care of each other. Most of the sheep would stay together when going out to pasture, as there is safety in numbers. However, Sydney wants to explore and has a tendency to stray off the beaten path. Luckily, Zhi and her dog Dao come to her rescue as her curiosity results in Sydney getting stuck in a tree and later falling down a chimney. When a storm comes, it causes the land to become a mess. The pasture withers and the river no longer flows with water. Can Sydney discover what has caused this devastation and rally the animals of the zodiac to help Zhi bring the water back to the riverbed?
With themes that include cooperation, friendship, creativity and even a dose of engineering, this delightful picture book is an excellent choice to share with young children. The soft watercolor illustrations by Alina Chau are a perfect fit for the story. My favorite picture is towards the end of the story where the tiger is taking a “well-deserved rest” and is counting sheep with numbers written on their wool in Chinese.
Age and ability share a unique relation in fiction. Sometimes authors choose to write prodigious characters who display impressive physical prowess and struggle with complicated emotions earlier in life. In his debut novel If I Fall, If I Die, author Michael Christie pits 11-year-old protagonist Will against the sprawled, dilapidated Canadian port town of Thunder Bay.
Will’s childhood has been squandered within the confines of his home, due to his mother’s plethora of phobias. A former artist, Will’s mother is so afraid of what exists beyond her front door that she cloisters herself and her son within their dwelling. Will stews in his room painting abstract art while nursing a burgeoning curiosity of the Outside, about which everything he knows is cobbled from brief interactions with delivery men on the porch. One such meeting with a boy named Marcus opens Will’s eyes to the omnipotent wonders of the woods beyond his yard, and leaves him yearning for adventure into town. Exceptionally wily thanks to his mother’s unique homeschooling methods, Will finds every opportunity to venture further into the world with his only friend Jonah, resorting to his recently acquired and rapidly evolving sense of perspective as a heading.
Readers will delight in Christie’s frequent and masterful use of similes throughout If I Fall, If I Die as they color Will’s Wizard of Oz-esque quest for humanity. A debut that reads as beautifully as it echoes, If I Fall, If I Die is for readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories or tales of adventure. Readers who enjoyed Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian will see shades of Junior in Will, and will definitely like his story too.
Christopher Scotton's ambitious debut novel The Secret Wisdom of the Earth generated such a torrent of in-house support from the publisher that the novel's first printing was bumped up to 100,000 copies. Scotton, CEO of a software company, took 15 years to write this story of a 14-year-old boy who spends a fateful summer with his grandfather in Kentucky coal country. Widely appealing and whispering of second chances, the coming-of-age tale mines the burden of loss for those living in a poor rural landscape that will never look the same. Recently, Scotton answered questions for Between the Covers.
Between the Covers: You capture so eloquently your characters' voices. What was the process for making them come alive for your readers? Was there anyone from your background who was the inspiration for your protagonist, Kevin?
Christopher Scotton: I create a deep written study for each main character, detailing everything about them and getting to know who they are — their hopes, fears, histories and dreams. Then I just let them combust in the plot. The old English 101 chestnut, show don’t tell, is probably the best single piece of advice about creating great characters. If one describes a character through their actions it’s just a more fulfilling experience for the reader — it allows the reader to better build out the wireframe of the characters in their mind. Kevin is very similar to the kind of kid I was at 14 — insecure, unsure, a bit nerdy. Fortunately, I had none of the grief and guilt that life has layered on him.
BTC: You have multiple stories and themes coursing through the small town of Medgar. How did you prepare yourself for telling the story of this unique local culture since you are not from Appalachia?
CS: I visited the region often in my teens and 20s and again when I was writing the novel. I let the feel of the place seep into my marrow so that, when back in London, I could transport myself there. On my trips I would just listen to the stories folks would tell, listen to the rhythm of their dialect. What I found was that small town Kentucky is not that different from small town Maryland where I grew up.
BTC: The setting for your novel is 1985 Kentucky coal country, where the earth seems to languish as much as your characters. Were you looking to make a statement about the devastation of mountaintop removal?
CS: I was not trying to make a statement so much as present the truth of mountaintop removal — the argument is not as simple as big bad coal vs. the people. The issues are much more nuanced than that. There really are few economic options for the hard working folks in the region so they are left with some very hard choices to make about their future. I’m personally against mountaintop removal, but I hope the novel presents a more balanced approach to the problem.
BTC: Your readers may be encountering a “madstone” for the first time. Why was introducing this folklore important to the story and your characters?
CS: A madstone is an old folk remedy to cure snake bites and fevers. It’s a calcified hairball-like thing from the intestine of a cud-chewing animal. You’re probably thinking, “Cool, where can I get one!” If someone is bitten by a copperhead or a rabid dog, the madstone would be applied to the bite, and the poisons would be drawn out of the bite. Madstones vary in strength and effectiveness — a madstone from a cow is only mildly effective, a madstone from a deer is considered quite powerful. However, the madstone from a white deer is the most powerful of all and unicorn-like in their scarcity. Interestingly, madstones can’t be bought or sold or they’ll lose their power; they must be found or given.
In the novel, the earth becomes a madstone for several of the characters, drawing out the pain and poison from the losses they suffer. The healing properties of the earth — both to heal us, her caretakers, and to heal herself — are a major theme in the novel, and the madstone is an example of that theme.
BTC: You grew up outside of D.C. in an area not too different from your protagonist, Kevin. Can you talk about how your experiences impacted the writing of the novel?
CS: I was born in Washington, D.C., but moved out to the country 30 miles north when I was 9 or 10 — back then it was undeveloped land and a truly magical place to be a kid. Those summers of secret swimming holes, tree forts, mud pits and dammed-up creeks provided a rich influence for Kevin and Buzzy’s back-country adventures. In my early teens, developers bought up much of the land and the endless woods of my youth became tract housing. I tried to bring that same “loss of place” experience to the novel. Being an outsider, as is Kevin, allowed me a bit more freedom to write as an outsider — but ultimately the narrative needed to be authentic, and I hope it is.
BTC: These are exciting times for you. Hachette ordered a 100,000 first printing. Reviews have been favorable. Some have compared your book to To Kill a Mockingbird. Taking a breath now, how has this whole process of publishing felt to you as a new author?
CS: It’s been fascinating, fun and more than just a little surreal. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be in this place. Hachette is taking a huge gamble on me as a complete unknown, with zero writing credentials and no platform. It really does demonstrate their commitment to bringing new voices to the market. The support I’ve gotten within the company, especially from the sales team, has been overwhelming…I’ll start breathing again come summer.
BTC: What’s next for you?
CS: I’m working on my second novel. It’s a completely different time period and a different setting from Secret Wisdom. It takes place in 1875; two 14-year-old Irish twin sisters emigrate to New York to live with their aunt and work as domestics. After a few weeks in America, they disappear without a trace. Their 19-year-old sister comes over to try and find them and she follows their trail from New York, across the country and ultimately out west in an attempt to rescue them and bring them home. It’s a great story and based on an actual series of events that happened in my family in the 1800s.
"Eat it, Nosey," he said again. "Only this time make sure you chew."
Allen Kurzweil is 10 years old, and his roommate at an elite Swiss boarding school is forcing him to eat bread soaked in hot sauce until tears are streaming down his face and then some. This incident, along with several others at the hand of Cesar Augustus Viana, causes Allen to leave the boarding school that summer after his first year. While the view of the Alps may be far behind him, the memory of Cesar, his tormentor, never dies.
Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully documents the adult Kurzweil’s journey to track down Cesar and confront him at last. His quest takes him back to Switzerland to look for the ghost of his past in old dormitories, to an ill-fated beauty school in Manila, through New York City law firms and to a Californian federal prison. As he unearths more of Cesar’s movements and where he might be now, Kurzweil finds himself under the weight of tons of documents convicting Cesar in a bizarre international, multi-million dollar bank fraud case.
Will Allen follow through on his promise to punch Cesar right in the nose if and when at last they meet? Will all of his meticulous research and a lifetime of reliving the horrors at the hands of Cesar be in vain? More importantly, has Allen’s obsession with bringing Cesar to justice and righting past wrongs turned him into what he has feared: Has he become the bully?
Kurzweil’s obsession for all things related to Cesar’s life make this a fascinating read. Biography and memoir fans looking for something a little unconventional will be happy with the level of detail and the thoroughness of the research.
What would have happened if the author of Frankenstein and the world’s first computer programmer met as girls in early 19th century London? Why, they would have joined forces and become private detectives! Follow along as Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace sort through a false confession, eliminate some odd suspects and finally solve the mystery of a stolen necklace in The Case of the Missing Moonstone, book one of The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series by Jordan Stratford.
Brilliant, yet socially inept Ada Bryon is not happy about the departure of her governess and the arrival of her new tutor, Peebs. However, this change does bring to Ada the first true friend she has ever known, the adventurous and kind Mary Godwin. The girls notice the newspaper contains several articles about crime so they decide to form a “private and secret constabulary for the apprehension of clever criminals.” It isn’t long after they run their advertisement for the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency that they accept their first case and begin their adventures.
A host of historical figures, including Charles Dickens and Charles Babbage, make appearances in this fun children’s book. While Stratford has admittedly taken liberties with regards to the timeline (Mary Shelley was actually 18 years older than Ada Lovelace), the setting and character behaviors are historically accurate. A humorous, action-packed story, this book features strong female characters who use math, science and deductive reasoning skills to solve the crime in a vivid, alternative historical setting. I wouldn’t be surprised to find this one on school reading lists this summer.