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Between the Covers / Shhhh... we're reading.   Photo of reading after bedtime
Meghan Menon

Meghan Menon has the happy fortune to work at the Cockeysville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library in the capacity of librarian. Her reading interests are tremendously varied and are influenced by patron recommendations. Among the genres she holds dearest to her literary heart are children's fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, mystery and meticulously well-researched historical fiction. When not tucking into the latest children's fiction or a well-thumbed copy of Pratchett, Fforde or Wodehouse, Meghan indulges other interests such as a hopeless obsession with ancestry.com, hunting for additions to her art collection, and improvising (mostly) delicious recipes with her husband. Her career as a librarian is the culmination of one of her greatest wishes and she takes joy in providing readers' advisory to patrons from toddlers to adults, in person and through "Between the Covers."

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Four Princes Suffering from an Identity Crisis

The Hero's Guide to Saving your KingdomAuthor Christopher Healy offers the refreshing The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, delving into the lives of four unsung heroes known collectively as Prince Charming. Inside we discover...

 

Frederic: When he met Ella once upon a dance floor, proper Prince Frederic (a.k.a. the Prince Charming of Cinderella) literally swept her off her feet. After his teensy-toed love had been located, they became engaged. But then Frederic discovers a note from Ella, gently informing him of the end of their engagement and her intent to pursue adventure. Ella’s flight and Frederic’s determination to follow ultimately lead this Prince Charming (and the other three of that moniker) to find one another.

 

Gustav: Gustav has always been overshadowed by his older brothers and wrestles with the need to prove himself a hero. It doesn’t help that his love, Rapunzel, ended up rescuing him with her daring, persistence and magically healing tears.  Now a laughingstock in his own kingdom, by the time he meets Frederic, Gustav is disgruntled and more determined than ever to prove himself.

 

Liam: Of all the heroes worth singing about, the bards really dropped the ball when they failed to name Liam, star of Sleeping Beauty. Since childhood, Liam has performed feats of the greatest daring and has enjoyed an excellent reputation among his people.  Yet when his intended, Briar Rose, reveals her waspish, mean personality and Liam decides to call off the wedding, his subjects are anything but supportive. Rejected and determined to restore his reputation as a Good Guy, Liam is off questing for adventure when he encounters Frederic and Gustav.

 

Duncan: Duncan is a bit of an odd duck who since the time of his princely boyhood has been convinced that he is gifted with magical luck (he isn’t).  He also has some rather off-putting habits like loudly naming any animal he sees. Happily, his bride Snow White loves him dearly. Yet sometimes even Snow needs a break from Duncan, and it is when he is left on his own in the forest that he meets the trio of princes. From there, the real adventure begins.

 

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is a story of many parts: know-it-all dwarves, dastardly thieves, kidnappings and well-mannered giants. At its heart though, it’s a story of the friendship between the four flawed, fastidious, courageous and just plain weird individuals behind the mask of Prince Charming. Written to appeal to middle-grade readers, the humorous novel will also tickle the fancy of older readers. And with the movie rights under contract and two more books expected in the series, the adventure will soon continue.

Meghan

 
 

Nancy’s Worlds

Nancy’s Worlds

posted by:
July 31, 2012 - 8:30am

Fountain of Age:StoriesIn her latest collection of short stories, Fountain of Age: Stories, author Nancy Kress offers her readers nine glimpses into futures fantastic, paired with human impulses as old as time.

 

In "End Game" an extraordinarily gifted seventh-grade boy named Allen is carried screaming from math class. He has come to a revelation that will alter the focus of his world and the world of those around him, half a lifetime in the future. In "Images of Anna" photographer Ben is increasingly flummoxed when the glamor portrait shots he takes of his latest client turn out to be anything (and anyone) other than he’d expected. In "Laws of Survival" Jill, a shattered survivor of The War, finds the most unlikely means of healing while trapped aboard an extraterrestrial outpost with 19 dogs. In "By Fools Like Me" Hope’s grandmother grapples with the morality of relinquishing a cache of sinful Pre-Crash artifacts to her society, which is hobbled as much by its ignorance of history as by its fear of repeating it.

 

Kress works in the media of human emotions upon the surfaces of extraordinary situations with the subtlety and skill that Andrew Wyeth once applied egg tempera to panel. The stories contained with Fountain of Age are provocative, mildly disturbing, and at times oddly wistful. They represent a curious blend of styles, at one turn reminiscent of O. Henry, at another, Shirley Jackson, yet in every respect distinctly Kress’ own.

 

Kress is recommended for readers who are short on time but crave well-crafted situational tales capable of fully absorbing the imagination. Those who have already read and enjoyed Fountain of Age may also enjoy Orson Scott Card’s Shadow Puppets.

 

 

Meghan

 
 

Drift Away and Dream of These

Drift Away and Dream of These

posted by:
July 18, 2012 - 7:15am

Far Away Across the SeaFrom the imagination of Dutch author and poet Toon Tellegen, comes Far Away Across the Sea, a collection of short stories tailor made for companionable adult/child reading. A comfortable collection of undemanding tales on its surface, the lulling prose is well suited for bedtime reading. Yet the themes related in Tellegen’s episodic vignettes are deceptively simple. Notably lacking in any overt plot or ongoing storyline, Tellegen’s almost Zen-like stories quietly highlight the subtleties of social exchange among friends, acquaintances and the inner self.

 

Through the tales of anthropomorphic characters Squirrel, Ant, Mosquito, Glowworm, Thrush and others, the author suggests gentle lessons. These cover many concepts, including friendship, persistence, the dangers of absolutes, the absurdities of fighting, personal reflection, and the everyday melancholy and pleasure encountered from moment to moment in daily life. The gracefulness of the stories themselves is matched by the delicacy of illustration present on nearly every page of the book. Illustrator Jessica Ahlberg’s interpretation of the characters and environment sketched in Tellegen’s fables is as deft and skillful as if she had imagined them herself. Her juxtaposition of illustration to text resoundingly echoes the traditions of A.A. Milne and Beatrix Potter.

 

Tellegen’s stories are ideal for young readers and listeners receptive to commonplace curiosities, like a tree picking up its roots and walking away for a time, or a squirrel who writes letters to himself and gets courteous and thoughtful responses. Widely open to interpretation, the fables recalled in Far Away Across the Sea invite children and parents to make up their own stories and background for Squirrel, Mosquito and other occupants of the Woods. These tales are recommended for bedtime readers and young philosophers; for fans of Winnie-the-Pooh and Peter Rabbit. The collection may also serve as a helpful stepping stone for parents introducing their children to poetry.

Meghan

 
 

Not As Easy As It Looks

Not As Easy As It Looks

posted by:
June 27, 2012 - 8:34am

The One and Only IvanMeet Ivan…just Ivan, please.

 

Ivan is an adult male gorilla - a silverback - born to defend his domain and protect his family. Or at least, in Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan, that’s the way it usually works. Instead, Ivan has spent the last 27 years as the main attraction at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.

 

Here, he can survey his entire domain without even standing. Here, there is no one to protect.

 

With enough time you can get used to almost anything, though. If nothing else, Ivan has had a lot of time. He’s not alone either. Ivan’s social circle includes Bob, a dog of dubious origins, and Stella, Ivan’s co-star at the Big Top Mall, an elderly and sweet-natured elephant who forgets nothing. Then there’s Julia, the janitor’s daughter who sits across from Ivan’s domain most evenings, completing homework and turning out dazzling drawings of Ivan, Bob and Stella. That’s something she and Ivan have in common – a passion for creating art. That and an endless supply of crayons.

 

Ivan’s life, with something to draw (mostly bananas), and friends to keep him company, is bearable if monotonous. Yet the life to which Ivan and the others have become resigned is about to change in ways they could never have imagined. And it all begins with the arrival of a baby elephant named Ruby.

 

It has been a long time since Ivan has known either the luxury or the agony of hope for another kind of life. With Ruby’s arrival though, he begins to awake to the reality of his situation and to the precarious state of Ruby’s own destiny. A singular and selfless object begins to develop in Ivan: he must shield hopeful Ruby from the state of apathy that has been his lot, whatever the means. At long last, Ivan has someone to protect.

 

Young readers who feel an affinity with animals and those who have enjoyed such animal rescue tales as E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath will flock to The One and Only Ivan. Inspired by a true story, this title is also recommended for readers who may find that the brevity of the chapters and the first-person narrative combine to create an unusually engrossing encounter with the main character.

 

It should be noted that unlike most stories of a related rescue theme, Ivan’s is of an altogether rarer sort. Despite his narrative - the tale is related largely through the gorilla’s own inner dialogue – Ivan is no human character in animal garb. Instead the author smoothly manages to convey a sense of Ivan as the silverback gorilla he is. Sentient and courageous, a true survivor, yet neither particularly imaginative nor overtly rebellious, Ivan’s character is rendered the more poignant for the simplicity of his ambition and the motive that drives him.

Meghan

 
 

Prelude to a Canticle

Prelude to a Canticle

posted by:
June 8, 2012 - 6:01am

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the FallIt wasn’t dark. It wasn’t light. It wasn’t anything except cold. 

‘I’m dead,’ thought Pete.

But of course, he wasn’t.

 

From the first page and as effortlessly as a beam of light slipping through panes of glass, author Nancy Kress eases the reader into a remarkable narrative of many faces. Simple and compelling, atheistic and allegorical, neither utopian nor dystopian, After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is a story of humanity in incubation.

 

After (2035): Earth’s fragile population consists of 19 humans living in captivity: five Survivors of the Fall, six genetically mutated and infertile offspring, and seven exquisitely precious Grab children. To each, the smooth walls of the Shell represent a prison and a home. At 15, Pete is among the oldest of the Six and one of the few children born to the original 25 Survivors. In ten minutes time, he will risk his life to save humanity – again.

 

Before (2013): Mathematician Julie Kahn has been collaborating for months with the FBI, tracking a tenuous pattern of mysteriously linked kidnappings and burglaries occurring along the eastern coast of the United States. A few hysterical parents babble incoherently about their babies having been snatched by misshapen teenagers before disappearing in dazzling streaks of light. Their sputtering accounts are largely ignored, except by Julie and Gordon, her FBI contact and onetime lover. Following a complex algorithm she’s devised, the next attempt may be the kidnappers’ last.

 

During (2014): Beneath the soil and all around the world, tiny mutations begin to occur almost simultaneously in the bacteria surrounding the root systems of clover, grass and other diverse plant life. By the time a low swell of awareness of the rapidly increasing dead zones boils into full blown paranoia, it will be too late for the humanity that was.

 

In this Janus-styled tale, Kress weaves together the converging paths of these very different slices of humankind. Juxtaposing contemporary characters such as Julie Khan against those stripped of the context of a complex society, such as Pete, Kress brings an unusual focus to the pause between disaster and rebuilding, after the fall of a society and before its rebirth. One notable trend in the sci-fi genre in recent years has been a tendency to employ near-future settings as narrative backdrops – scenarios which could conceivably come to pass in a generation or so. Here, Kress takes this trend one bold step beyond many of her peers by incorporating a disquietingly immediate future (2014) as the stage for the Fall itself. A cautionary tale as much as a work of science fiction, this title will have widespread appeal among readers of diverse reading habits. Those who have enjoyed Walter Miller’s timeless A Canticle for Leibowitz may particularly appreciate the cyclical nature of Kress’ narrative and her treatment of humanity in stasis, before the cycle begins again.

Meghan

 
 

Horten Finds a Clue

Horten Finds a Clue

posted by:
May 16, 2012 - 1:11am

Horten's Miraculous MechanismsSummer is off to a doleful start for 10-year old Stuart Horten. Stuart is the pint-sized son of exceptionally tall, exceptionally brilliant parents (his mother is a doctor and his father is a crossword puzzle constructionist). Clever as they may be, Stuart’s parents aren’t always the most sensible sort of people. This can surely be the only explanation for why they’ve chosen to uproot young Stuart just at the start of summer vacation, to move to nobody-knows-where Beeton. With the start of the school year and any reasonable opportunity of meeting kids his own age a far removed prospect, Stuart prepares to settle in for a very long, exceptionally dull summer.

 

Beeton does have one claim to familial fame and Stuart’s interest. It was here that his great-uncle Tony developed a dazzling career in magic, before mysteriously disappearing fifty years ago. However, those magical days are long gone; the mystery of Uncle Tony’s disappearance unsolved and mostly forgotten. Until this summer, that is.

 

Stuart resigns himself to exile in Beeton. However, he wasn't prepared for the meddling triplet girls next door, or the seriously spooky encounter with an out-of-order telephone booth. With one mystifying phone call, Stuart is set on a path of puzzles and clues, designed by his great-uncle Tony to lead the “right sort of boy” to an altogether splendid secret workshop filled with marvelous – perhaps even miraculous – mechanisms. With clues afoot, newfound friends at his back, and even a hint of danger in the air, Stuart’s summer is swiftly turning into the adventure of a lifetime.

 

Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms is perfect for children ages 9-12 and in particular for children who enjoy elements of mystery and puzzles in stories. Parents will also appreciate the expansive introduction to vocabulary provided by the dialogue of Stuart’s crossword clue-dropping father. Additional recommendations for those who have enjoyed this story include The 39 Clues series (various authors) as well as the Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Meghan

categories:

 
 

Pastoral Peccadilloes and Goblin Goings-on – ‘Snuff Said

SnuffFollowers of the sometimes fantastical, always immensely funny Discworld series can breathe a sigh of relief. The remarkable storyteller Terry Pratchett has released another compulsively readable adventure. In Snuff, the reader once again joins Commander Sam Vimes, the streetwise Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch and reluctant member of society’s highest echelons. The powers that be (namely his wife, the Lady Sybil) have decreed that Vimes is in dire need of a proper pastoral vacation. Resigned to his fate, Vimes bids farewell to his beat and arrives at the ancestral home and environs with his wife and young son. He sets his mind to relaxing but a copper is never really off-duty, and when the severed hand of a goblin turns up, it isn’t long before Vimes finds himself called upon to unravel a mysterious death and restore justice to the most unlikely of citizens.

 

Pratchett’s characteristic humor and sense of timing are in fine form in this latest Discworld adventure, and those who are familiar with the characters the author has honed over the years will not be disappointed. For those new to Pratchett though, a caveat: Snuff is a uniquely Vimes-centric story and as such is not an ideal first foray into the Discworld. Recommended prior reading includes Guards! Guards! and Night Watch

 

Whether a seasoned sci-fi/fantasy enthusiast or a hesitant newcomer ready to dip one’s toe into the genre, the works of Terry Pratchett are equally accessible and more than a little addictive. Granted there are certain fantastical elements (The City Watch counts among its employees various trolls, vampires and dwarves; Death is really a loveable fellow once you get to know him - he has a soft spot for kittens - and oh yes, the entire world is one large disc supported by four elephants that are in turn balanced on the back of a great turtle. You get the idea.) Yet at the heart of what Pratchett really writes are wildly humorous, acutely insightful commentaries on the nature of humans and the societies they cobble together.

Meghan

 
 

After the Ship Went Down

After the Ship Went Down

posted by:
April 24, 2012 - 11:20am

Ghosts of the TitanicThis year, April 15th meant more than the usual tax deadline; this year the date marked the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. In commemoration, scores of authors have already risen to the challenge of supplying children with new stories surrounding that fateful journey. Among so many new titles from which to choose, the selection process can present a challenge, particularly for parents or teachers whose intent may be not only to entertain but to educate young readers. To this end, Canadian author Julie Lawson’s Ghosts of the Titanic is a well-suited choice. Told through a dual perspective narrative, the book follows the converging chronicles of two seemingly disparate characters, separated by a century and connected by a mysterious inheritance.

 

Kevin Messenger: Class clown, history buff…about to embark on the mystery of a lifetime

Kevin is a precocious boy; talented and likable, but easily distracted and outspoken at home and at school. A frequent source of frustration for his parents and teachers alike, he is also a Titanic fanatic and can’t resist a good mystery. So when his father suddenly announces that the family has inherited an oceanfront property on the other side of the country – from a man they’ve never met – Kevin is only too eager to unravel the mystery of their enigmatic benefactor, Angus Seaton.

 

Angus Seaton: Ordinary sailor, witness to Titanic's aftermath…haunted madman?

Angus at 17 is barely more than a boy himself when he is assigned to Titanic victim recovery. Sailing out of Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1912, the crew of the MacKay-Bennett is tasked with the recovery and identification of the hundreds whose lives were lost. What he encounters there in those long days of retrieval will haunt him for the rest of his life, in more ways than one.

 

An engaging mystery, peppered with elements of the supernatural, Ghosts of the Titanic is an absorbing read. Yet despite the fictional nature of the narrative, Lawson manages to integrate an impressive amount of historical detail about recovery methodology and the lives touched in the days and weeks following the calamity.

Meghan

 
 

A Binocular Vision of History

The Company of the Dead The improbable history of the sinking of the Titanic is legendary. The “unsinkable” ship’s maiden voyage was favored with the advantages of an experienced captain, a capable crew, and peerlessly clear weather. She had every probability of reaching her destination unscathed. Yet despite the clear night and the watchful lookout, a looming, unseen colossus was destined to sink her. Of course, even the smallest twist in the kaleidoscope may produce chaos. It is on this premise, embodied by the mysterious, anachronistic presence of a pair of 21st century night vision binoculars, that author David Kowalski launches his epic exploration of “what if?” What if the Titanic hadn’t struck the iceberg? Or, what if she had, but on a different side? Who lives that night, who dies and how - these subtle changes will reshape history as we know it in breathtakingly plausible ways. That is, unless one man’s profound sacrifice in 2012 can reset the Titanic on its original date with destiny.

 

At just under 750 narrative pages, The Company of the Dead is a tome to be sure, yet not a page in its composition is superfluous to its intricately-woven plot and character development. Throughout the story, Kowalski demonstrates compulsive attention to historical detail and lyrical language. These elements serve to draw the reader ever further into the author’s ambitious yet startlingly realistic vision of a world reshaped and on the edge of the apocalypse.

 

The Company of the Dead is broadly recommended for readers of any genre who are prepared to invest time in an absorbing adventure. Technically a secret rather than an alternate history, The Company of the Dead nevertheless plays on the same “what if?” element characteristic of so many alternate history titles. It will therefore strike a particular chord with devotees of alternate history and historical fiction. Readers beguiled by alternate histories involving familiar historic figures and locations may also enjoy Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series as well as a smorgasbord of series and standalone titles by Harry Turtledove.

Meghan

 
 

The Universe Takes Care of All its Birds

WonderTen-year-old August Pullman (Auggie to family and friends) sees himself as a pretty ordinary kid. Or at least, a pretty ordinary kid with a most extraordinary face. You see, August’s face is the result of a most improbable genetic lottery, a one-in-a-million ticket called mandibulofacial dysostosis which, despite countless corrective surgeries, has gifted August with the kind of face that causes children to run screaming and even the kindest adults to avert their eyes.

 

However ordinary August might feel on the inside, at first – and second – glance the world has always seen a freak, or at best, a gut-wrenchingly pitiable boy. As his sister’s childhood friend Miranda puts it, “…the universe was not kind to Auggie Pullman.” Yet, as the story unfolds over his first year of middle school, August’s teachers and his classmates will learn that August’s face really is the least extraordinary thing about him.

 

First time author R.J. Palacio brings August and the other characters of Wonder to life with tremendous poignancy, realism and a supersized measure of practical humor. The perspectives of many characters are sampled and distilled into a comprehensive experience of what it means to be different, to love (and sometimes resent) someone who is different, and what extraordinary beauty can be seen beyond the peephole. Palacio’s characters and situations are deftly constructed, startlingly realistic, and likely to resonate with anyone who’s ever been there, whether as the awkward student on the first day of middle school, the parent or sibling of a child whom the world sees as different, or the “normal” kids and adults who must face their own internal concoction of fear, politeness, meanness, and most importantly, kindness when confronted with someone who is different.

 

Ultimately, this is more than a story about fitting in and more than a caution against judging a book by its cover – though Wonder certainly encompasses both of these messages. It’s a story about the beautiful, the ordinary, and the unseen ways in which an unkind universe still takes care of all its birds.

Meghan