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Archive for the ‘Charlotte’s Picks’ Category

13

Author Maureen Johnson will be Skyping with readers at the Williamsburg Regional Library on March 21st from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Come hear the stories behind her young adult novels, including 13 Little Blue Envelopes and the Shades of London series. The visit is open to ages 13-22, and space is limited. Call the library at 757-259-4050 to sign up!

I do try to be a cool aunt, but Aunt Peg, Ginny Blackstone’s bohemian artist aunt, takes the cake. Who wouldn’t enjoy an expenses paid tour of Europe? The only problem is that Aunt Peg isn’t there to share the adventure any longer. Ginny’s “runaway aunt,” never the most reliable person, took off two years ago without a forwarding address, and the next thing her family heard, she had died overseas. As the next best thing to being there, she’s left her 17-year-old niece money for a solo plane ticket to London and 13 envelopes, each to be opened only in a certain time and place.

London, Edinburgh, Paris, Rome: in each city, Ginny has instructions. Find a particular café, fund a starving artist. When in Rome, ask an Italian boy out for cake! Obviously Aunt Peg’s posthumous mission is not only to retrace her European travels, but to push quiet Ginny out of her comfort zone. Feeling more and more ordinary without the company of her extraordinary aunt, Ginny fumbles her way through the assigned tasks. She meets the Harrod’s manager who packs Sting’s holiday baskets, is temporarily tattooed by a famous artist, and is briefly adopted by the world’s most frighteningly organized tourist family. It’s an emotional scavenger hunt: with each letter, Ginny learns a little more about her aunt’s missing two years, and that she isn’t finished grieving for her aunt… or quite through being angry that she vanished in the first place.

Teens will enjoy Ginny’s not-exactly-a-relationship with her adopted starving artist and the whirlwind tour of Europe with nothing but an oversized backpack and a bank card, but I finished this book thinking about things from the aunt’s perspective. If you wanted to lead someone through the greatest hits of your life—the places where you were the happiest, or learned the most important lessons—where would you send them?

Check the WRL catalog for 13 Little Blue Envelopes.

There’s a sequel, too: The Last Little Blue Envelope.

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You’ve just been accused of stealing 17 yards of lace. Your trial lasts eight minutes. No one testifies on your behalf. Verdict: Guilty! Sentence: transportation to Australia. Don’t you wish you’d had a lawyer?

Set in the late 1700s, this BBC courtroom drama brings all the plot twists and cross-examinations that we have come to expect from a long line of lawyer shows, but with an entertainingly rudimentary legal system that is not yet close to what we would consider a fair trial. It’s based on the career of English barrister William Garrow, who championed such radical ideas as “innocent until proven guilty” at a time when it wasn’t even a given that you’d have a lawyer for the defense.

A Robin Hood of the legal system, Garrow speaks up for the poor and powerless, the defendants most easily steamrollered by the machinery of justice. He shakes up the status quo with his indignation and debate skills, and he doesn’t make himself any more popular by starting an affair with Lady Sarah Hill, the wife of a politician. (Lord Hill is played by the dashing Rupert Graves, whom it pains me to watch in a villainous role. Disliking Rupert Graves, even in character, goes against natural laws.)

Over three seasons, Garrow confronts corrupt thieftakers, slave traders, and the infamous “London Monster,” said to have disguised a knife in a bouquet of flowers to stab young ladies in the face as they bent to smell the roses. Many details of the cases come from the archives of the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court. Even the pettiest cases can be life or death. Under what would later be referred to as the “Bloody Code,” an enormous number of crimes could incur the death penalty. The emphasis on crimes against property seems to defy reason: note that Renwick, the London Monster, isn’t tried for assaulting a young woman’s person, but for ripping her dress.

Enjoy the raucous, public trials; the charismatic acting; and the period Georgian sets and costumes. WRL owns all three seasons (twelve episodes).

Check the WRL catalog for Garrow’s Law.

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imageI hadn’t meant to write about The Monuments Men, which, thanks to a movie starring the dapper George Clooney, already has an impressive reserves list. But I keep running into folks who say, “I had no idea there was a book!”—a statement that brings out the evangelical librarian in me. So: there is a book! And if you’re at all interested in the intersection of art and WWII, then you’ll enjoy learning where history and the movie overlap, and where the truth has been stretched to fit a different story.

Nazi art thefts during WWII were meticulously planned and immense in scope. After the war, 400 tons of artworks removed from museums and private collections were found in salt mines and castles, the best of them earmarked for Hitler’s proposed Führersmuseum, never built. But while the scale of art plundering was unprecedented, so were the preservation efforts of museum curators and the military, especially the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit, known as the Monuments Men.

Eventually, 350 men and women from 13 countries served, but at the beginning, there were only a handful: as of D-Day, eight men to inspect every important monument between the English Channel and Berlin. They expected to do conservation triage—follow after the front-line soldiers, survey liberated towns for damaged sites, and organize emergency efforts to protect works from exposure or keep Roman ruins from being used as parking lots for tanks. They didn’t expect that so many masterpieces would be missing completely. As the war drew to an end, their mission morphed into a treasure hunt for artworks and other valuables stashed in hiding places throughout Europe.

Possibly the most bizarre of these was at Bernterode: underground, in a sealed room, a circle of regimental flags surrounding the coffins of Frederick the Great and former German President von Hindenburg. The most exciting cache was at Altaussee, where the paintings were a survey of Art History’s greatest hits, and the mine was packed with bombs.

Edsel’s account follows several of the Monuments Men, drawing on their writings and interviews with surviving officers. It was lonely work, each man improvising on his own without much support or even assigned transportation. The work of identifying and returning artworks continued until 1951, while questions of rightful ownership concern the courts to this day. (For a taste of postwar Monuments work, the National Archives has a fascinating article about the myriad political and logistical issues raised by those coffins alone.)

Check the WRL catalog for The Monuments Men.

The Monuments Men in Italy had a slightly different chain of command, and Edsel covers their exploits in a second book, Saving Italy.

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imageKate Westbrook is deeply in love… with a house. She can’t stop looking at the broad sweep of its double staircase, or keep her hands off the banisters. Sadly, the elegant home of her Mayfair relatives is not for the likes of her: Kate’s father has been ostracized by his wealthy family ever since he married (shudder) an actress. But Kate is not going to let family disgrace stand between her and her rightful place in “that glittering world of champagne and consequence.” She has ambition, studied manners, and stunningly good looks. Maybe a wealthy suitor will marry her before he notices how embarrassing her family is.

Nicholas Blackshear, longtime friend of the Westbrook family, is carrying a torch for Kate, but he knows it’s hopeless. She’s aiming for earls and above, and he’s just a barrister saddled with his own family secrets. Nick has deliberately reshaped his romantic aspirations into brotherly affection. When Kate has a brief opportunity to make her impression on London society, Nick intends to help her land the suitor of her dreams. But that lingering admiration just makes him the world’s least suitable matchmaker… or chaperone.

Language, for me, is what makes Regency novels such a pleasure to read, and Grant’s style hits just the right notes, never forced or artificial. Her sentences flow easily, whether in sharp dialogue or self-mocking interior monologues. The surrounding characters, especially Kate’s bluestocking sister Viola, add life and color to the story, rounded out with conversations about women’s rights and courtroom tactics and fannish discussions of Miss Austen’s commendable novel, Pride and Prejudice.

Grant’s A Lady Awakened was my first read of the new year; I’d meant to blog about its hilariously incompatible sex scenes, the trapped heroine who just wants to make a difference in her ridiculously circumscribed world, and lovers who warm towards one another not from any of their antics in the bedroom, but when they start discussing land management—but, it turns out Christine beat me to it. What she said!

Check the WRL catalog for A Woman Entangled.

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ChrisHadfield You forget, sometimes, that there are people living in space.

During his 146-day sojourn on the International Space Station in 2012-2013, astronaut Chris Hadfield reminded me, and many others, about life in space, as well as the natural beauty of life on earth. While his crew carried out a record number of science experiments, Hadfield was also spreading curiosity and enthusiasm about life on the ISS through savvy use of social media.

He traded tweets with fellow Canadian William Shatner (“Standard Orbit, Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface”). He posted YouTube videos about working without gravity (why you can’t wring out a washcloth in space, for instance). And he used his enviable perspective from the ISS cupola to share photos, including a Valentine’s Day heart for the planet.

Hadfield’s post-retirement memoir is loosely organized around three missions in space: from his first flight to Mir on the Atlantis, both now retired; through a spacewalk from Endeavor, installing a giant robotic arm on the ISS; to his last landing, after five months on the ISS, in the Russian Soyuz—”a wild 54-minute tumble to Earth that feels more or less like 15 explosions followed by a car crash.” Mission anecdotes are mixed with advice on how to think like an astronaut, much of which boils down to extreme, obsessive preparation and attention to detail. Canada didn’t even have a space agency when 9-year-old Hadfield decided that he wanted to be an astronaut, but he set himself to acquire the flight and engineering skills that he would need, spending years as a fighter pilot and test pilot until reality caught up with his dreams.

I am too hard-headed to benefit from most self-help books, but apparently I will listen to motivational pep talks from people who have been in space. And Hadfield does have a gift for presenting his career of extreme competence without coming across as a braggart. He’s easy to relate to and has a clear calling for sharing his passion for the space program and involving readers in the sheer “wwooooww” factor of a spacewalk.

If you enjoyed Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, you’ll appreciate Hadfield’s wry descriptions of peeing for science. Astronauts on the ISS perform scientific experiments, but also they are scientific experiments—in how the human body reacts to long sojourns without gravity.

Check the WRL catalog for An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

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SecretCrenellated towers, mysterious deaths, possible hauntings, coded letters, and a fifty-something mistress climbing drainpipes to burgle the house of hidden rubies… Within pages, I realized I was reading one of my favorite kinds of book: a nonfiction history that wants to be a gothic novel when it grows up.

Author Catherine Bailey was given permission to use the family archives at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, in order to examine World War I as it affected a single English community. These archives are in “the secret rooms,” where John, the 9th Duke of Rutland, died in 1940. With 356 rooms to choose from, he remained on a mangy sofa in the unheated servants’ quarters, barring doctors and servants alike as he raced to finish some mysterious project before succumbing to pneumonia. After his death, the rooms were sealed. Now, opening the files for the first time in decades, Bailey is stymied by missing letters and empty diary pages, very specific gaps from which every family member’s correspondence have been removed. Servants keep popping up behind her in passageways to say things like “these rooms are forbidden… because of the curse.” What secret, she wonders, was the duke trying to excise from the family records before he died?

After setting the scene for every possible horror—maybe the duke was hiding a murdered body in the floorboards under his sofa?—Bailey settles down, reluctantly admits that she doesn’t believe in ghosts, and gets into the meat of the story. There is no body under the floorboards, just a slice of dysfunctional aristocratic life from the turn of the century through WWI. Fortunately, I also love dysfunctional, aristocratic slice of life stories! Cross referencing letters and leatherbound account books, exploring the archives of other noble families, and enlisting the help of a cryptographer, Bailey pieces together a family history of childhood tragedies, rows over money, and misleading war memorials.

For all the letters exchanged, no one says what they mean, and the somewhat guilty pleasure of reading between the lines entertains author and readers alike. (The very best thing about the avalanche of correspondence is how often the authors repeat, “destroy this letter!”) Choose sides: is John, the young duke-to-be, a bookish lad fascinated with archaeology or a tortured soul with an unhealthy interest in exhuming bodies? Does he reluctantly assume the mantle of responsibility for an ancient estate or hide from the front lines while the other young men of Leicestershire are being gassed in Belgium? Lady Violet: loving mother, calling in every favor to protect her children, or, as one of her acquaintances described her, a “Burne-Jones Medusa,” a master manipulator who spends forty years sculpting an effigy of her deceased eldest son while ruining the life of her second son, the “spare” heir?

The back cover blurb recommends this story to fans of Downton Abbey, and the setting and time period make it a good match. Here are the grand, failing estates and the rebellious younger generation torn whether to marry for love or money. But the manor house that really comes to mind in the end is melancholy Brideshead. Is Belvoir Castle haunted? You bet! Not by ghosts, but with regrets and guilty consciences.

Check the WRL catalog for The Secret Rooms.

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Wool“People, it was suspected, had once lived aboveground.”

At the opening of this postapocalyptic novel, Sheriff Holston is walking up a spiral staircase to his death. For generations, his community has lived and died on the 144 levels of an underground silo, and Holston has just committed a capital crime—asking to go outside. Technically, it’s a suicide. Everyone knows the outside world is a toxic wasteland. Three years ago, on the big-screen monitors that show the surrounding desolation, Holston watched his wife die out there, and now he’s going to join her. Just like all the others who have been pushed out the airlock, he’s given a protective suit. It lasts just long enough for the condemned to do some silo cleaning and maintenance—for one thing, scrubbing the grimy outdoor camera lenses so that folks inside have a nice, unblurred view of your death. Now, why the condemned should care what’s shown on the big screens…that’s what Holston is about to find out.

My brother, who hasn’t read a book in dead-tree format since the invention of the smartphone, insisted that I read Wool, and read it immediately, sending it from his app to my app with a tap and a swipe. In a nutshell, that’s the success story of Wool. At the time author Howey first self-published the story direct to Kindle, Holston’s atmospheric, claustrophobic story was all there was to the Silo universe. But as word-of-mouth reviews drew more and more readers, Howey began to elaborate.

In later, serial-style installments, the search for a new sheriff takes the silo’s mayor and deputy down through the floors of the silo, through hydroponics and the nursery and IT to the mechanical levels. As they descend, readers learn more about how this society works, and doesn’t work, stratified both literally and by an inflexible class structure. With the appointment of a hardworking mechanic, Juliette, as the new sheriff, a longer story arc begins. An outsider from the bottom levels, Juliette shakes up the power struggles of the upper floors. She’s a character that readers rally behind, as she learns more about the factions governing the silo, especially on the IT level, which controls what’s left of the silo’s forgotten history on its closely-guarded servers.

The original, novella-length Kindle releases have been collected in omnibus print editions, starting with Wool and continuing with Shift and Dust. It’s a little bit old-school Twilight Zone, a little bit Shirley Jackson, a little bit Lost, without quite so many characters. With a compelling storyline and characters who you can root for, Wool should appeal to teens as well, and it fits right in with the current YA mania for dystopias. Plus you can get in on the ground floor—see what I did there?—before the inevitable movie.

Check the WRL catalog for Wool.

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HyperboleHumorist Allie Brosh has been blogging at Hyperbole and a Half since 2009. Her posts, a combination of written anecdote and quirky illustrations drawn in Paintbrush, chronicle the sort of everyday topics that only work in the hands of a really good storyteller: hijinks from when she was a hyperactive five-year-old, weird dogs, that time a goose got into the house. Brosh, of course, is a really good storyteller, and this book, which collects some of her classic posts along with new material, is a great opportunity to curl up in a chair and just giggle. And giggle some more. And snort in an unladylike manner.

Brosh has said that she thinks of her pieces as stand-up comedy, with the illustrations as punch lines. Her drawings may look like a preschooler’s, but they communicate a lot of raw emotion, whether she’s talking about being a procrastinating twenty-something stuck in a guilt spiral or a kid on a monomaniacal quest for forbidden cake.

My favorites are the stories about her pets, Simple Dog and Helper Dog. dogs21altaltWhether they are not understanding basic concepts, like moving, or snow, or “sit,” or whether they’re having an epic running-away adventure, I recognize the thought balloons that float over their heads. I can picture them floating over the head of my own Helper Dog.

Hyperbole and a Half isn’t all madcap humor, neurotic animals, and kindergarteners on a sugar high, though. Brosh’s blog went dark for a year and a half, during which she was both constructing this book and dealing with major depression (and my hat goes off to anyone who can do both of those things at the same time). The most painful pieces in the book—and yet still, somehow, funny—talk about what it feels like to feel nothing at all.

Check it out if you need to explain depression to someone, but with cartoons; if you worry that your dog is too stupid; or if you just need a good laugh.

Check the WRL catalog for Hyperbole and a Half.

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AncillaryShe used to be a ship.

Those six words were all it took to bump this science fiction debut to the top of my list. Also, although I try not to read detailed reviews of books until I’ve finished them myself, I couldn’t help but notice that the reviews I wasn’t reading had lots of ALL CAPS and exclamation marks.

So, One Esk—sometimes she calls herself Breq—used to be a ship. The narrator of this twisty space opera is an ancillary: one body, one segment, of a twenty-bodied corps of soldiers that share a single consciousness, tied into the artificial intelligence of an orbiting warship. Her life as a troop carrier, the Justice of Toren, unfolds in flashbacks to the military government of the latest planet annexed by the Radchaii empire and the events that provoke One Esk’s present-day mission of single-minded, and single-bodied, revenge. Who is she now, without her ship or a captain or the other 19 ancillaries, and what is she up to on a frozen backwater planet, following her own agenda?

The narrator’s unusual point of view(s), sometimes individual, sometimes corporate, is (are) the first cool thing about this book. Like a janissary, One Esk serves now in the military of the empire that conquered her people. Her body(ies) are human, but her awareness is not; she judges human emotions by temperature and heartbeat fluctuations and has a lot of trouble figuring out gender. The second cool thing about this book is trying to figure out who is actually male or female and who is referred to as “she” just because One Esk doesn’t feel like dealing with pronouns.

For all her dispassionate narration and history of shooting people, One Esk is a thoughtful and sympathetic character. Deliberately paced and well worth the attention you have to pay, her story reminded me strongly of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. Leckie creates a fascinating universe, layered with convincing details of different cultures, classes, and religions, and leaving plenty of big ideas to play with in the next books of what is planned to be a loose trilogy.

Check the WRL catalog for Ancillary Justice.

You can read the first chapter online at Orbit Books.

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FangirlIf I say that this young adult novel was on my radar because the cover was designed by Gingerhaze, who I follow on Tumblr, because someone linked me to her fanart for Avengers and Lord of the Rings… then I guess it’s safe to say I’m a fangirl. And I’m not alone!

Cath is a college freshman and an extreme introvert. Her first year at university is complicated by the fact that she’s generally more comfortable with her laptop, sitting up until the wee hours of the morning writing fanfiction, than with actual people. Online, she’s a BNF, a Big Name Fan, the author of an epic work-in-progress set in the World of Mages, a thinly-veiled homage to the Harry Potter-verse, if Draco Malfoy were a vampire, or maybe Loki went to Hogwarts. In “real” life, she’s worried about her dad’s mental health, increasingly estranged from her more outgoing, frat-partying twin, and she suspects her roommate hates her. And her fanfiction about mages Simon and Baz isn’t going to help her through writing class, where she’s supposed to find a narrative voice of her own.

Author Rainbow Rowell is having a good year: both Fangirl and her other 2013 novel, Eleanor and Park, are on “best of the year” lists for teens at Amazon and the New York Times. As in Eleanor and Park, Rowell writes with empathy for a wide range of characters. I particularly liked Cath’s roommate, who is abrasive and sarcastic and still a good friend. Hanger-about Levi is a welcome contrast to high-strung Cath, having perfected the art of being laid back. (“He looked like he was leaning on something even when he wasn’t. He made standing look like vertical lying down.”)

As a bonus, it cheered me to see the love for Harry Potter still percolating through pop culture a generation later. Reading about Cath’s fannish enthusiasms brought back fond memories of the midnight release for Book 8. This is a light, quick read with a sweet romance (a much sweeter and easier romance than in Eleanor and Park). Readers who enjoy books by John Green or Sarah Dessen should give it a try.

Check the WRL catalog for Fangirl.

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screaming“Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say little, in part to protect the identity of the victims, in part because of the gruesome nature of the incidents, but mainly because, in a variety of ingenious ways, we succeeded in messing them all up.”

Ever since the Problem began (in Kent), no one goes out at night, not unless they’re armed with iron and salt to guard against spirits. For the last fifty years, nighttime is when ghostly Visitors come out to lament or avenge their untimely deaths, terrorize the living, drive down real estate assessments, etc. Because the young are particularly sensitive to paranormal energies, children and teens with psychic talents are prized as field operatives for the best ghost-investigating agencies.

Lucy Carlyle, age 15, is the newest hire at a not-so-reputable agency, Lockwood and Co., a small-time outfit run without adult supervisors by “old enough and young enough” Anthony Lockwood and his colleague George. Lockwood, proprietor, can see the residual death-glows where someone has died; Lucy can hear their voices, if she gets close enough; and George does research and cooks.

When their latest case results in not only failing to rid the premises of a ghost, but also burning the house down, Lockwood’s only chance at keeping the agency afloat is to land a really lucrative client. Say, the CEO of Fairfax Iron, owner of the most haunted private house in England, epicenter of dozens of rumored hauntings along its Screaming Staircase and in its sinister library, the Red Room. All the agents have to do is spend one night in the manor… and live.

This first book in a new series from the author of the Bartimaeus books has well-paced action and good old-fashioned swashbuckling with silver-tipped rapiers. Lockwood is dashing and cheeky, a Sherlock Holmes with two Watsons who, while inspiring his cohorts to their best work, never lets them in on his thoughts or his plan. He and Lucy and George are a camaraderie-in-the-making, if only they didn’t get on one another’s nerves quite so often.

“I’m being ironic. Or is it sarcastic? I can never remember.”
“Irony’s cleverer, so you’re probably being sarcastic.”

Fast moving, witty, and nicely creepy, the series is written for a middle grade audience, but entertaining enough for any age that appreciates a good ghost story.

Check the WRL catalog for The Screaming Staircase.

You can read the first chapter online at the author’s Tumblr.

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MysticLambVan Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, painted to adorn the altar of a Belgian cathedral in the 1400s, is the most frequently stolen painting in the history of art. This is an especially neat trick considering it weighs around two tons.

Opened only on special occasions, the wood panels of the altarpiece portray a host of saints, martyrs, angels, and patrons, a showpiece for the kind of minute detail the layering of newfangled oil paints could achieve, and a transition from the art of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Its central panel, a cryptic, symbolic scene called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, furnishes the title of this fast-paced, entertaining art history read.

Art historian Noah Charney describes the painting’s 500-plus-year history to great effect, incorporating the little we know about Van Eyck along with art criticism, war stories, true crime, artists who may have been secret agents, and enough farfetched but entertaining conspiracy theories to fuel Dan Brown’s next novel. From Napoleon to the Treaty of Versailles to the salt mines of Alt Aussee, Charney describes how bits and pieces of the altarpiece have been looted, defaced, confiscated, stolen, ransomed, and coveted by Nazis. Is the painting also a coded map to lost Catholic treasures, studied by Hitler’s Ahnenerbe for its clues to finding supernatural weaponry? Cue the Raiders of the Lost Ark music…

If you’ve read Robert Edsel’s Monuments Men, the chapters detailing the painting’s WWII history will be quite familiar (actually, I think Charney tells the story a little better). Officers Posey and Kirstein, an unlikely duo from the Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit careen around the Austrian Alps in search of a treasure trove of paintings looted from throughout Europe, including the Altarpiece, while SS officers caught in the last days of a lost war are bringing in aircraft bombs to blow these same paintings to kingdom come…

And then there’s the mystery of the Righteous Judges, a long-missing panel that may have been replaced with a copy… or by a copy painted over the original in a diabolically byzantine plot to disguise the return of the panel without admitting to its theft in the first place. Unsolved to this day, this cold case comes complete with ransom notes and deathbed confessions: “armoire… key… [dies].”

Like Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spellthis is a fascinating read for folks who are interested in the intersection of art and war.

Check the WRL catalog for Stealing the Mystic Lamb.

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LastHank Palace is a cop investigating a suicide that he believes to be a murder. That’s the whole plot; this could be any crime fiction novel you’ve ever read.

Only, the earth is going to be struck by an asteroid in six months, and everything in his investigation is colored by that fact, beginning with the question “why bother?” Does it matter if a guy hanged himself or was murdered, if everyone is likely to be dead before the year is out? Well, if you’re Hank Palace, of the Concord, N.H. Police Department: Yes. Palace does the job because that’s his job.

He’s only been a detective for 3 ½ months, promoted young because all the seasoned detectives are retiring early or disappearing without notice. Ever since the projected impact of asteroid Maia became a certainty, everyone on the planet is confronting mortality at the same time and in their own ways. The market has collapsed; some folks run pirate black-market restaurants out of abandoned McDonald’s. Workers everywhere are abandoning their jobs to pursue lifelong “bucket lists,” or just hanging themselves. (The public library, of course, responds with a display of books to read before you die.)

But while the infrastructure collapses around him, Hank Palace is pursuing leads, in coat and tie, taking notes in actual blue books like the kind you used for college exams. The only person who can distract him from his singleminded investigation is his somewhat loony younger sister, whose boyfriend has vanished while trying to expose a government coverup.

I love characters like Palace: Philip Marlowe. Sam Vimes. “You’re a policeman through and through…” says one of his interviewees. “You’ll be standing there when the asteroid comes down, with one hand out, yelling, Stop! Police!”

The Last Policeman won a 2013 Edgar award for best paperback original mystery. Although there isn’t time left to carry Palace’s story much farther, there are two more books coming in the trilogy, starting with the sequel, Countdown City.

Check the WRL catalog for The Last Policeman.

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RUFThis hard-hitting historical novel is a “companion book” to the Edgar award-winning Code Name Veritywith which it shares a World War II setting and a handful of characters.

Rose Justice is an 18-year-old American pilot with England’s civilian Air Transport Auxiliary. Only recently arrived in England, she’s chirpy and excited about her work and a little naïve. She dismisses rumors of terrible things happening in German prison camps as propaganda. And one day, returning from a flight over France, she flies off course—while tipping a bomb out of the airmay I add—and suddenly two Luftwaffe jets are escorting her into Germany. Mis-classified with a group of French political prisoners, Rose is sent to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück.

She has entered a different world. In six months, from September 1944 to March 1945, Rose has any remaining naïveté starved and frozen and beaten out of her, until the appalling becomes ordinary. She is taken under the protection of the Rabbits (we would say “guinea pigs”): Polish prisoners, mostly students, on whom the camp doctors have run unconscionable medical experiments. The Rabbits know that they will all be executed eventually, but various means of evasion may keep them hidden away for another week, or day… in perpetual hope that the war will end and someone will survive to let the world know what happened in this place.

Rose’s narrative is written after she escapes Ravensbrück. A survivor in a sort of post-war limbo, Rose is also concerned with how to return to “real life.” Having sworn to herself and others to “tell the world” about the atrocities at the camp, she isn’t even able to describe the experience to her family. The Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg suggests one path to closure by way of judgment and retribution, but Rose is looking for other ways to redeem her experience.

A poet as well as a pilot, she creates a pilot’s metaphor—lift and weight, thrust and drag—to describe the forces that fueled her survival during and after the prison camp. Obviously, Rose Under Fire is a story carrying a lot of weight. It’s the strong relationships between very different women—women from the French resistance, Night and Fog agents, Girl Scout saboteurs and Soviet bomber pilots—that give the novel lift as well.

Check the WRL catalog for Rose Under Fire

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G8When I started this science fiction series two years ago, I had only one complaint. In the opening scenes of Leviathan Wakes, I was introduced to Juliette Mao, a jiu jitsu-trained racing pilot who had run away from her corporate pig parents and was now kicking her way out of a storage locker on her hijacked ship. “Great!” I thought, “I am so ready to read about this woman’s adventures!” And then she died.

I sighed and continued reading about protagonists Jim Holden (cowboy in space) and Joe Miller (hard-boiled detective in space), and I enjoyed their fast-paced fight against an out-of-control weaponized protomolecule that zombifies biological matter. There were female characters in the background. And there were horrible creatures of both genders, or at least as far as one can tell with zombies. But I missed Julie Mao.

So I am happy to report that as the series goes on, it delivers the one thing I was missing: female characters who are as much fun to read about as the men. As the consequences of the protomolecule destabilize the political and military situation among Mars, Earth, and the outer planets, Caliban’s War introduces exactly the sort of heroine I was jonesing for in a space opera: Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie (Roberta) Draper of the Martian Congressional Republic Navy and the augmented military armor that makes her a juggernaut-class force to be reckoned with. (“Seriously. Get me a gun, I’m a soldier. Get that suit for me, I’m a superhero.”) And the strong female characters don’t just go in with guns blazing. As much as I adored Bobbie (“I don’t use sex as a weapon… I use weapons as weapons”), I was also rooting for Chrisjen Avasarala, a consummate politician who fights her battles with words. Most of them four-letter words. These women are among characters of both gender who are introduced as narrators as the series unfolds, but they’re one of the reasons this series really stands out for me.

By the third installment, Abaddon’s Gate, the protomolecule is possibly the least of humanity’s problems as various entities jockey for power at every level, from planets to individual ships. Vessels from antagonistic governments are converging on an enigmatic structure that has recently assembled itself on the outskirts of the solar system… and if there is a mystery gate to who-knows-where, and traveling through it could have dire and far-reaching consequences, then you know that Jim Holden, interplanetary whistleblower and accidental instigator of wars, is going to fly into it.

Frequent switches between viewpoint characters give the story momentum, and screenplay-ready dialogue lends the series the “blockbuster movie” quality quoted on the cover blurb. The dialogue and the shipboard dynamic aboard Holden’s Rocinante frequently remind me of Firefly; I can hear Zoe and Mal saying these lines. The space battles and chases feel very real, and space isn’t just a painted backdrop to this story. It’s a whole, hostile set of environmental factors and spins and gravities that shape different human cultures and affect the action. All this wrapped up in gorgeous cover art makes for a great summer read. The Expanse series is intended to continue, but Abaddon’s Gate wraps up the story so far pretty neatly, so that the three books already released can stand as a trilogy.

Check the WRL catalog for Leviathan Wakes

Check the WRL catalog for Caliban’s War

Check the WRL catalog for Abaddon’s Gate

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Game“Most people like to take apart their problems, look at them in smaller, more manageable pieces. Trolls, he mused, simply take this to the extreme.”

Thirteen-year-old best friends, who describe themselves as “two lobes of the same brain,” visit an eccentric uncle at his Vermont mansion, and in the tradition of such vacations, end up in peril. Gregory, the smart-alecky one, warns his friend Brian that Uncle Max is eccentric, but it becomes obvious when they arrive and he has the butler burn all of their luggage. Uncle Max prefers that boys wear knickerbockers and speaks like a character out of Dickens.

Exploring the house, the boys discover a curious board game without any rules but with a layout that seems to correspond to the old, Victorian house and its grounds. As the boys solve puzzles, the board expands to reveal more pathways and tests. It’s no Candyland, though… more like Zork, with gruesome monsters lurking in the dark, trolls, and a mysterious stranger with a bladed yo-yo. Someone really should have taught these boys not to get involved in a magical game before they know the rules… or the stakes.

A bit like Narnia by way of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, this first book in a series has marvelously despicable villains and writing that combines a real sense of malice with a wicked, nutty sense of humor. Like Philip Reeve’s Larklight, it’s published for kids and younger teens, but there are jokes for the adults mixed in.

I liked the friendship in this book. The boys are very different, but they “get” each other; Gregory’s off-the-wall sense of humor is balanced by Brian’s quieter, deep-thinking approach to problems. They may get on each other’s nerves, but neither doubts that the other will be there when it counts.

The ending has some nifty twists and sets the story up to continue in three more books.

Check the WRL catalog for The Game of Sunken Places.

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MTA castle in Germany with an underground escape route into the forest… A reclusive, veiled woman known to her companion as “Your Grace,” and to the countryside as “the Dark Countess…” Rumors of a coffin containing no body, only a wax figurine…

Today’s book is a very detailed but quite readable biography of Marie-Thérèse, the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and the only member of her family to survive the French Revolution. But you might sometimes wonder whether you have stumbled into a Gothic novel instead. Poor Marie-Thérèse was a magnet not only for political schemers, but also for conspiracy theories that read like the most sensational fiction.

Marie-Thérèse was born at Versailles during the hot summer of 1778, amid rumors that visiting Benjamin Franklin had “electrified” the weather. The infant “Madame Royale” had a staff of nearly 100, including four assistant governesses, a royal hairdresser, dentist, cradle rocker, wet nurses, and servants to serve the servants. Her privileged childhood was a short one, though. By the age of ten she weighed every word she spoke, believing herself surrounded by enemies and spies. She was 13 when her family was imprisoned after trying to escape the country.

After three years in the Temple Prison, during which she was never told of the deaths of her mother, aunt, and brother, Marie-Thérèse was secretly traded to Austria, her mother’s birth country, in exchange for French prisoners of war. A political pawn from the moment of her release, she married for duty and for France, accepting the husband chosen for her by the French king-in-exile. Although the marriage remained childless, she worked for a Bourbon restoration until her death in 1851, a royalist to the end.

She spent much of her life in exile, returning to France whenever the monarchy was restored only to be chased out again. During Napoleon’s 100 days, when the king fled the country, it was Marie-Thérèse who remained to rally and berate the troops. (Napoleon called her “the only man in her family.”) She took to wearing diamonds sewn into the hem of her dress, as life had taught her that you never know when you might have to flee the country.

Pious, serious-minded, she made practically a cult of worship of her murdered parents. She prayed before a chest containing relics of their deaths, including her father’s bloodstained shirt, brought to her as a (somewhat questionable) gift. All her life she publicly insisted that her brother had died in the Temple Prison, while privately investigating every claim that he escaped. People claiming to be the Dauphin took up her time and caused her much pain. The saddest was the widow of Simon, the Dauphin’s execrable jailor, who later in life became convinced that she had helped smuggle the boy out of prison in a laundry basket.

Marie-Thérèse never met with any of the pretenders in person. Was she afraid that a real Dauphin would realize that she was not the real Marie-Thérèse? Was she raised—and, at some point, switched—with her father’s illegitimate daughter? Nagel explores some of the conspiracy theories, but isn’t convinced.

The back-and-forth of French politics is sometimes hard to follow, but the book is generous with timelines, illustrations, and genealogies to help keep it all straight. This is a great companion piece to Deborah Cadbury’s The Lost King of France, even down to the (thwarted) attempt at DNA analysis to lay rumors to rest.

Check the WRL catalog for Marie-Thérèse: Child of Terror.

Or try the CD audiobook.

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LastChanceLast week, Jan wrote about the kakapo, “the world’s largest, fattest, and least-able-to-fly parrot,” and reminded me of this collection of essays by British writer Douglas Adams. Best known for his sci-fi comedy cult classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams actually considered Last Chance to See, a nonfiction work blending ecology and travel writing, to be his favorite work.

In the 1980s, Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine, then working for the World Wildlife Fund, traveled to various places around the globe in search of species that hovered on the edge of extinction. Some, like the white rhinos of Zaire, were being hunted into oblivion or, like the blind river dolphins of China’s Yangtze, were struggling in habitats that changed more quickly than they could adapt. Others, like the Komodo dragon lizard and the kakapo, evolved in fragile island ecologies and were simply losing their fight with natural selection.

With a finely-tuned sense of irony and a Monty Pythonesque way with words, Adams describes not only some bizarre species but the eccentric scientists and volunteers committed to saving them. The subject matter is serious, but the storyteller is not. As the non-zoologist half of the project, Adams brings out the humor in everything, even when the humor is a sort of desperate sarcasm at how human beings have treated the planet. Much of the comedy comes from just getting to the out-of-the-way places where the animals might be found, and the travelers spend a lot of time wrangling with ticket agents and bureaucracies:

 

“Virtually everything we were told in Indonesia turned out not to be true, sometimes almost immediately. The only exception to this was when we were told that something would happen immediately, in which case it turned out not to be true over an extended period of time.”

 

Each chapter is a quick read covering one of the expeditions, so you can dip into the book at any point and learn something interesting. Say, about the mating rituals of the kakapo (“wonderfully bizarre, extraordinarily long drawn out, and almost totally ineffective.” Or the freelance kakapo tracker (“it was clear that if he was hidden in a crowd of a thousand random people, you would still know instantly that he was the freelance kakapo tracker”) and his kakapo-tracking dog (“there were major problems in training dogs to find kakapos because of the terrible shortage of kakapos to train them on. In the end, he said, it was more realistic to train the dogs not to track anything else.”)

If you enjoy Bill Bryson’s books, especially In a Sunburned Country, I think you’ll enjoy the combination of history, zoology, and travelogue.

Carwardine reprised the project twenty years later with actor Stephen Fry. Some species–like the kakapo–were doing better. The river dolphins were gone.

Check the WRL catalog for Last Chance to See

Or try the DVD with Stephen Fry.

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